Football is filled with alternative realities; shots that go one side of the post rather than the other, decisions given or not given, players in the wrong shirts, playing for the wrong clubs.
Oli McBurnie is one of the latter. A Leeds born Leeds United fan, Paul Heckingbottom wanted to sign him for Leeds United this summer, so we could have felt the benefit of his tireless charges at defenders and referees, his pink and bearded head contorted with rage like a screaming ham joint fringed with mouldy rings of pineapple. He could have scored his two goals for us instead of Swansea, getting between what passes for our centre-halves to shoot past Bailey Peacock-Farrell, then getting away from the centre-back imposters to loop a header over him, and he’d have been very welcome.
But if we followed this alternative history to the post-match press conference, would we like what we heard? ‘That effort, work rate and commitment is why I brought Oli to this club,’ quoth the Heckingbottom of our alt-reality. ‘100 per cent. It’s just a shame it wasn’t matched by the players around him. I thought we were lucky to get in at half-time one down, and I told them what I wanted in the second half. Their goal were a blow, though, and their third and fourth. Oli took his chances well but they were a consolation by then. We need to be much better, with and without the ball, 100 per cent.’
And so on. McBurnie might have been nice to have, but if it meant keeping Heckingbottom, the price would have been too high; we would have got nothing from this trip to Swansea, for one thing. That’s arguably true of a lot of our recent head coaches, so let us say yet another prayer for this living reality, even if watching Marcelo Bielsa managing Leeds United still feels like being lost in a dream world.
In his own ways Bielsa is as inflexible as Heckingbottom often was, but rather than standing on the sidelines looking dumbfounded, his mind empty of ideas for changes, Bielsa sits, crouches or prowls, eyes on the action, with one aim in mind that inspires countless thoughts and strategies: get this plan working. Bielsa has one way to play. His flexibility comes from the extraordinary lengths he’ll stretch to so that he doesn’t have to change a thing.
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Drawing in Swansea has already raised the doubts that afflicted and ultimately toppled Thomas Christiansen; does Bielsa have a plan B? Couldn’t we play two up front, or adjust the defence to cover for lacking centre-halves, or sign a new one to cover the injured ones? The answer to all those questions is likely to be no; there’s no plan B, there are no alternatives, and all Bielsa’s efforts will be concentrated on making plan A work to perfection, even in imperfect circumstances.
Hence Kalvin Phillips, the pin holding Bielsa’s defence and midfield together, substituted within half an hour of his 100th appearance for Leeds United. It’s wasn’t that Phillips was playing conspicuously badly compared to the players around him; Ezgjan Alioski, by that point, had played one single pass. But, as Bielsa explained later, Bersant Celina was having his way with Phillips, who was booked for an early challenge on him; Celina then got the assist for the first goal, although it was Leroy Fer stealing the ball from Phillips in attack that started all that. The system was correct — Bielsa’s system is always correct — but there was a personnel problem, that would not be solved by respecting the game’s conventions and giving Phillips until half-time. Mateusz Klich took over Phillips’ job, Lewis Baker took over from Klich, and Leeds coped better in midfield, where Fer was threatening to dominate.
And they equalised. Kemar Roofe was fouled near halfway, and Leeds, more confident since the change, didn’t delay; I’m not even sure Klich stopped the ball from rolling before passing to Pablo Hernandez, who moved it square to Baker, who turned and bypassed Samu Saiz to Jamie Shackleton on the right wing; he made a promising situation dangerous, driving straight into the penalty area where Martin Olsson couldn’t touch him, then swerving outside him and crossing low to Roofe, whose movement between Swansea’s centre-backs should not be underrated. A tap in, sure, but he was on his knees on halfway a moment before.
Jack Harrison replaced Alioski at half-time, but Olsson turned tables on Shackleton, sending over an unexpected cross for McBurnie to head in from too far out, too unmarked. Pontus Jansson was missing with a back injury and Liam Cooper was lost to injury in the warm up, so Leeds had a defence of three right-backs, a left-back and Klich; one couldn’t stop the cross, the others couldn’t read the run.
Bielsa’s stubborn refusal to sign more centre-halves — he underlined it after the game — is a point where his principles override what most of us regard as common sense. First, his ideal squad size doesn’t allow for another centre-half who will be left doing nothing if both Jansson and Cooper are fit. Second, if the team is playing as it should, the defenders should only be occupied as they were in the second half against Rotherham United on Saturday; standing on the halfway line, cutting out Rotherham’s clearances, while the midfield and forwards dominated possession.
Bielsa is right that the players he has can do that; but the players he had up front in Swansea couldn’t dominate Leroy Fer, a battering column of physicality who would fit wonderfully into Bielsa’s team, or Jay Fulton, who kept Saiz so quiet his only outlet was his mouth — he was booked for dissent. Small deficiencies going forward became glaring problems as the effect rippled backwards towards Ayling and Berardi.
The solution in Swansea was not a centre-half, but a new centre-forward. It’s impossible to separate Roofe and Patrick Bamford on form, but you can on style, and Bamford’s introduction gave Swansea new problems and Leeds an equaliser. His presence on the left wing was typical of Bamford but not of Roofe, and he outfoxed two Swans, spinning away from Mike van der Hoorn down the left touchline, then crossing between the legs of Joe Rodon. Hernandez started miles behind Olsson but reached the cross miles ahead of him, finishing firmly and keeping his celebrations at his old club cool, standing like the Fonz next to a jukebox as his teammates went wild around him.
It helped Leeds that Fer had been taken off, and it helped the entertainment that both teams wanted a winner in the last ten minutes. Celina split United’s defence again but shot straight at Peacock-Farrell, who did the right things in the right place; at the other end, Baker played his best pass yet in a Leeds shirt, a smart through ball to the penalty spot, where Harrison was as frustrating as in all his appearances so far, setting himself up to dribble around three players when he should have just whacked the ball.
A point away from home satisfied United’s needs, if not our desires. We’re unbeaten, but haven’t won five in a row; it took us top of the league, but only on goal difference; to fight back twice was impressive, even if conceding twice was doubtful. The talk now will be of changes; new formations, new options, loan signings. I doubt there will be any such flexibility in Bielsa’s thoughts. The strategy, in the end, worked; swapping parts improved the system. The strategy is also fresh; players are still being stress tested against the machine, meaning inevitable faults in our style until Bielsa achieves perfection with his imperfect pieces.
Which he’ll never do, of course. But of all the realities Leeds could exist in right now, I’ll take this single-minded world. Remembering all the different ways we used to find to fail, I’m content we have one way to succeed. ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)
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