The Square Ball Week: Hiding The Horizon

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

It’s an interesting move, on the eve of the season, when you’ve sold your best defender, and your first eleven haven’t played together (unless they have, we just didn’t realise), and your striker won’t score goals, to sell a goalkeeper, but sure, why not? And why stop there? How about that other striker, the injured one. No passengers on this bus. Sell him too!

Neither Bailey Peacock-Farrell or Kemar Roofe would have started against Bristol City, so to say Leeds have been weakened for the start of the new season is not strictly true. Also, Roofe hasn’t gone yet; he’s not expected to follow Duncan McKenzie’s Mini Cooper leap across the North Sea to Benelux until Monday. And, importantly, the transfer window hasn’t closed.

The Yorkshire Evening Post headline announcing Peacock-Farrell’s sale began, ‘Leeds United hunt new keeper…’, and that must be a line from the club; we’re selling him, but we’re replacing him. Roofe will have to be replaced too; whatever you feel about them, you can rationalise most decisions made at Elland Road these days, and not replacing Roofe would be untypically reckless.

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The test of this situation is not Roofe’s sale, although that is angering a lot of fans, even though twelve months ago, a lot of fans would probably have driven him to Brussels themselves at the first hint of replacing him with, as it turned out, Benny Igiehon from LUTV. The timing of the transfer is aggravating, prompted by sales and injuries at Anderlecht rather than by our own squad’s needs, but that Roofe could be tempted away by Vincent Kompany, the Europa League and a top division title race, not to mention more money, should not have surprised anyone at Leeds after he wasn’t tempted by their offer of a new contract.

They test is who Leeds will buy. This could — optimistically — be an opportunity. The club is proud of its scouting and analysis these days; despite the unhappy ending, identifying Daniel James so early put a feather in the cap of the database software suppliers, according to their own publicity, anyway. When Marcelo Bielsa and Victor Orta met on the Hilton bar’s balcony back in May, the paperwork on the table must have included the names of potential new strikers; armed with Peacock-Farrell’s fee and wages, plus Roofe’s fee and the wages he refused, now is the time for Leeds to go and get one of them.

Getting a good one is not impossible. Roofe was not chosen by Bielsa or Orta, although ironically he fit Bielsa’s style much better than Patrick Bamford, who Bielsa approved. Leeds might have doubted the wisdom of giving Roofe the parity he wanted with Bamford’s wages, but there might be more leeway for a striker they rate higher but couldn’t sign unless a gap opened up in Bielsa’s small squad. As I said, this is the optimist’s view, because if they actually haven’t got contingency plans for a replacement and can’t afford one either then it doesn’t bear thinking about.

For all the angst about this summer’s transfer business, I don’t expect to have to bear that sort of thinking. Bielsa, like an Armitage Shanks stamp on porcelain, is a guarantee of solidity and precision. The squad’s plumbing has had a narrow overhaul: players down the pecking order have been moved out en masse, and the season’s buzzword, continuity, has been ensured by bringing back the two Jacks, Harrison and Clarke, plus £10m. Helder Costa is the Daniel James Manchester United will wish they had, probably; Bielsa didn’t like Pontus Jansson but he loves Ben White. Everything else is the same, whether we like it or not, apart from the late opportunist bid for our reserve keeper — an offer anyone would take — and now Roofe’s move.

It’s been a deliberate and at times frustrating mission intended to keep everything as near to how it was last year as possible; Izzy Brown apart, every player who was on the pitch against Derby County at Elland Road in May is still in the squad. I’ll let your PTSD be the judge of that wisdom, but it looks like a plan, and it looks like the plan has been carried out.

That doesn’t mean we’re any wiser about the plan for playing Bristol City in the opening match, and that uncertainty, combined with May’s bad memories, explains the anxiety among Leeds’ supporters. But we’ve been here before; one year ago, in fact, when Bielsa named Paul Heckingbottom’s team plus Barry Douglas to play Stoke City, and for an hour before kick-off the Peacocks’ followers were in despair. We knew those players — those bastards — better than Bielsa. We knew what problems he was about to have.

It turns out that where the rest of us see problems at Leeds United, Marcelo Bielsa sees solutions. And the solutions he sees are among the reasons why people call him El Loco; to anyone else they’d be mad. Throw out Heckingbottom’s squad? No, they just needed more practice. A small squad? Fewer fringe players upset, more happy teens. A lack of height to defend corners? Not a problem if we don’t concede any corners. A striker that won’t score? He just needs better chances. That’s also a solution if there’s a flaw in the plan not to concede corners — we can just score more goals — so really, Costa and Harrison count double as defensive players, along with everybody else Bielsa believes can switch positions and give him all the benefits of a 33-player squad when there’s only 22. I look forward to the FA charges in May when its revealed that we won the Championship by playing with six attackers and a back-four of mirrors.

“When you are talking about Marching On Together, and everybody hates you, it’s a sentence that is very clear and connects everyone,” Bielsa said in his press conference on Friday, turning one problem — being hated — into a virtue that fans can understand and agree with. “There are a lot of clubs that could be better than Leeds United, but they don’t have this feeling that unites everyone, this passion and this culture about the club,” he went on, at which point the BBC’s Adam Pope had to remind him that the question was about Kalvin Phillips. It was unusual to hear Bielsa veering off course into club-culture rhetoric, but reassuring, too.

Bielsa is reassurance embodied. As the cycle of press conference, pre-match nerves, line-up announcement and kick-off begins, we’re leaving the pre-season fog of war, although I’m not sure you’re supposed to enshroud and confuse your own side so much, as well as the enemy. But here we are, wherever we are. I’ve watched all the pre-season games I can, analysed our transfers in and out, tracked the progress of our young players to the first team, or to Barnsley. And I haven’t got the faintest idea what team Bielsa will name at 3.30pm on Sunday, or how they’ll play an hour later. All I know is that Bielsa knows, and last season, we saw that was enough. Almost. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)