Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Leeds United another notch on Marcelo Bielsa’s glorious near-misses

There has long been a theory around Elland Road that a manager who has not displayed longevity in any club job would leave if Leeds did not go up to the Premier League

Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa says he will listen to the club’s proposals before deciding on his future after missing out on promotion to the Premier League. Reuters
Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa says he will listen to the club’s proposals before deciding on his future after missing out on promotion to the Premier League. Reuters

“Only promotion can heal this wound,” Marcelo Bielsa had said. It was a few weeks ago. Leeds United had squandered a lead at home to 10-man Wigan Athletic to lose the game and the probability of automatic promotion. The wound is deeper now. History repeated itself in a way. Leeds went ahead and lost to a Derby County side who finished with 10 men. Their chances of elevation via the play-offs disappeared.

Perhaps Bielsa, one of football’s most influential, most intriguing managers, will also go. The Argentine said on Wednesday that he would listen to the club’s proposals, but there has long been a theory around Elland Road that a manager who has not displayed longevity in any club job would leave if Leeds did not go up. He had warned last month that next season would be worse than this in the Championship. “You won’t find a single player in our team who would be able to reproduce the same level of performance in another season,” he said.

If it was a way of saying Leeds overachieved, they did. Players improved under Bielsa. They went from 13th to third. Their best performances – the 4-0 evisceration of West Bromwich Albion, the league double over Derby – were masterclasses in movement, fluidity and intensity, football from a higher plane.

They beat Derby three times and, infamously, spied on them. And yet Bielsa, the manager who dissected Frank Lampard’s tactics in his explanation of his methods as "Spygate" became part of the football lexicon, was outwitted by the rookie on Wednesday. Lampard’s surprise switch to a midfield diamond and two strikers enabled his players to find space. They exploited it.

As against Wigan, albeit in different circumstances, Leeds struggled to react. Their fifth dose of play-off heartbreak brought a predictable chant: “Leeds are falling apart again.” Perhaps it was the culture of a club burdened with expectation, labouring under pressure, or perhaps a thread running through Bielsa’s teams: he has been a transformative coach with a legion of high-profile admirers but more prosaic figures have won more silverware. “I don’t know how to win titles,” he said in a self-deprecating joke in September. “Almost the opposite.”

One theory was that his teams run out of steam, given the physical demands on them. Leeds didn’t. Perhaps a small squad ran out of players, though, and they lacked resolve in key moments. Bielsa’s lack of interest in buying was part of an idiosyncratic code; he paid Leeds' £200,000 fine for Spygate himself.

A paradox of the Derby defeat was that an inadvertent architect was a rare Bielsa buy: Kiko Casilla, the goalkeeper who conceded four of five shots on target and was particularly culpable for Derby’s first goal. Leeds had twin liabilities at the back with Gaetano Berardi, whose arrival predated Bielsa’s, earning the red card that means he averages a sending off every 18 games in England.

Leeds were arguably the Championship’s best team between the two penalty boxes. They had 825 shots, 116 more than anyone else, but were outscored by four teams, with Norwich City getting 17 more goals. In another of his blunter admissions, Bielsa said Leeds would have won the Championship if only they had been more “efficient” in front of goal. They were the lone side in the top five without a 20-goal forward.

They were in the top two for 185 days in the season and outside the top three for only 13. Yet three clubs will go up and Leeds, 15 years and 700 games into their exile in the lower leagues, will not be one of them. Perhaps it counts as another of Bielsa’s glorious near-misses. Maybe, if it is now over, the same will apply to his whole reign.

Updated: May 16, 2019 02:46 PM

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