Leeds United were brilliant in 2018/19, and failing put them in a difficult position. Still in the Championship, still trying to get out of it, and still needing to improve. But how?
There wasn’t much sign of improvement in the summer. Signings were few and either too familiar or too speculative. Travelling halfway around the world to get spanked by the worst Manchester United team of recent, well, months, felt like a waste of valuable training time. Marcelo Bielsa didn’t even travel until the very last moment, intently watching a livestream of training on the flight. He improved every player in his squad to a degree nobody thought possible in his first season, but even in a sport that obsesses over marginal gains, it was hard to see what more he could get from his squad, and whether what little they had left would be enough.
The answer awaits us in May, but the evidence right now suggests he’s going and doing it again. Leeds started the season downbeat, continuing spring’s worst habits. Kiko Casilla was exploring Bristol like Banksy looking for an empty wall. Patrick Bamford was being kinder to cows than a banjo-wielding vegan with a song. Swansea and Derby left Elland Road with more points than a drunk driver fleeing the scene of an accident. Ben White looked okay at best and wasn’t helping us defend from corners. Bielsa had been given tools to solve his problems — Helder Costa, Eddie Nketiah, Jack Clarke — but true to form was ignoring them. The manager looked stubborn and the team looked uninspiring. Defeats at Charlton and Millwall were the sort of games that happened to Thomas Christiansen, not Marcelo Bielsa.
That was then. Now, at the end of November, every trend is upward. It’s an assessment that doesn’t need stats or analysis in particular; they were always good. It’s written in the form table that shows seven games, five wins, two draws; and heard in a vibration, not just from 2,000 fans telling Berkshire to pump it up, but the vibe the players are giving out. The celebrations of the late winners at Luton and Reading this week didn’t disguise their relief, but the circumstances underlined their valour.
Leeds are finding ways to win, and building virtuous momentum. The better they’re looking, the better they’re getting. The old cliche about a team being in line for a shoeing applies to the way Leeds are winding up ready for whoever’s arse they’re going to kick into the outer atmosphere. Speaking of which, hi Woody. Going alright at Middlesbrough, is it?
Marcelo Bielsa said this week that he’s backed off from training compared to last season. He’s taught the players everything they need to know, and his staff’s job is to make sure they don’t forget. That might be the most impressive thing about Leeds at the moment. They haven’t forgotten a thing.
Bielsa might not be drilling them daily but his influence is everywhere. The late goals have put the spotlight on the fitness of players like Jackie Harrison, who looked as if he could have run another 100 yards to score in the 87th minute at Reading if he had to. The tactical discipline required to absorb Bielsa’s ideas and apply them to his asymmetric formation changes is one thing that was largely achieved last season. The discipline required to stick with his fitness regimen is only now, after summer off, becoming clear.
Summer wasn’t really taken off, except by Pontus Jansson, and that was the first sign. Stuart Dallas and Bailey Peacock-Farrell were offered late returns but turned them down; Jackie Harrison followed a personal training programme to make sure he was prepared for more Bielsa. Phil Hay’s article at The Athletic about the players’ diet includes a tale of panic after a trip to Dubai left one a pound or two overweight; there’s an element of fear involved, because like a stern and silent Santa Bielsa sees them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake, but fear will only get you so far with a squad of footballers before it twists like a young striker’s testicle into dissent. It doesn’t look like fear motivating this team, but pride. And perhaps they are proud of their bollocks.
Luke Ayling does complain ruefully that the one thing he misses is “food”, and it doesn’t take much to get a Leeds player talking wistfully about chocolate cake. But there’s no sign of them trying to cut corners. Instead there are jokes. The players have nicknamed Bielsa’s infamous non-stop eleven-a-side sessions ‘murderball’, but Kalvin Phillips says with a smile that, Bielsa, “he calls it football.” They take the intensity with good humour and a touch of relish: “It’s carnage to be fair,” says Kalvin, “but it’s good”; and compared to the toxic dressing rooms that have afflicted Leeds in the past, there’s a refreshing unity about the way this lot seem willing to pitch in together during a time in their careers they will look back on as unique.
Perhaps there is something in Bielsa’s ideas about a small squad keeping players happy and involved. And nobody, you’ll notice, is saying anything this season about ‘burnout’.
It isn’t all easy; there’s a tension between Bielsa’s attack at all costs philosophy and the players’ preference, more noticeable this season, for seeing results out. And one treat of Krispy Kremes per season won’t keep Ezgjan Alioski from diving into a swimming pool of jelly forever.
But that Bielsa has been able to take a back seat might be his best achievement at Leeds so far. He’s earned the trust of the players to such an extent that everything they eat and the way they spend their free time is done with him in mind. In return, he’s trusting their instincts about how to get to the end of games in the Championship, not forcing them forward for a second goal when they’re confident with a 1-0 win. Bielsa once famously said that he’d always win with a team of robots. After reprogramming Leeds last season, he’s allowing them a degree of autonomy they’ve earned.
We forget, sometimes, that Bielsa arrived at Leeds after coaching just sixteen competitive games in three seasons, after broken promises prompted his resignation one game into 2015/16 season at Marseille, a false start next summer at Lazio, and three argumentative months at Lille. After success at Bilbao and one brilliant year at Marseille, he was wandering Europe, looking for a home.
At Leeds Bielsa has found a team he can trust for the first time since Bilbao or Marseille, players who believe in him the way Mauricio Pochettino and the gang did at Newell’s. Maybe that’s the marginal gain we needed from last season. Bielsa and the players might be further apart, but there’s more love and trust than ever. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)