TThe temptation after a team, particularly a promoted team, has lost consecutive games 4-1 is to suggest that they should go back to basics, control their exuberance, and keep things tight. But Marcelo Bielsa will not do that. Leeds have lost three of their last four games and slipped through the table, although they came into the weekend with a four-point advantage over the last five, but have never committed before and are not about to start at home against him. Arsenal on Sunday afternoon.
That is Bielsa’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. His style is high-stakes and that means that his sides are never in full control and that in turn makes his football, even more so than most, open to multiple interpretations.
The 4-3 win over Fulham on the second weekend of the season was a good example: there was the first hour of the game, when Leeds took a 4-1 lead, the next quarter of an hour when they conceded two goals and then the last quarter of an hour when they reasserted themselves and protected their lead in relative comfort. With equal validity, Leeds fans could be excited about the start, deeply concerned about the middle and reassured by the end.
That only adds an additional layer of complexity to the fact that Bielsa has become one of those topics discussed so frequently that it tends to occlude the discussion itself. It has become part of the culture wars that tediously dominate modern discourse. Bielsa came to Leeds as the coach of the coaches, the uncompromising attacker whose magnitude was not measured in trophies, but in influence and something even less tangible, a sense of integrity and beauty. In a world that values only the simple coin of the medals, that distrusts everything that goes beyond concrete, there were those who went out to catch it, to expose the favorite of hipsters as a seller of smoke.
That’s why there was such a furor when he committed the grave offense of having someone look over a fence in Derby practice. And that’s why this season there has been ridicule that if he’s that smart, he should speak English by now, as if anyone would benefit from reducing his post-game interviews from his current thoughtful circumlocution (voiced via a translator) to an election. ‘mixture of cliches in an unknown language.
But there is also guilt in the other sense. There were many lined up with raised palm fronds to welcome Bielsa to the Premier League. For them, those early matches were taken as incontrovertible proof of their eccentric greatness.
It was heartwarming to see Liverpool’s midfield structure unravel by the use of Pablo Hernández and Mateusz Klich so high that Leeds sometimes played a forward five. Parts of the second-half performance in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa were extraordinary. In terms of overall quality, the 1-1 draw against Manchester City was probably the best match played in the Premier League this season. But as Bielsa has acknowledged, there have been defensive problems, while his past should raise questions about whether Patrick Bamford can sustain today’s remarkable hitting rate.
Beyond the show, there must have been concerns even before the recent losses to Leicester and Crystal Palace. In eight games this season, no team has conceded more than Leeds’ 17. In the Championship, despite their attacking intention, Leeds managed to keep the expected goals against at 0.78 per game; this season it has risen to 2.07. No team can bear to have to score twice a game just to get a point.
Just as revealing is the pattern of struggle against the sides that are deeply against them. Even admitting that Leeds were unlucky against Crystal Palace, with a Bamford goal ruled out for VAR’s most ridiculous offside yet and conceding an own goal off a deflected cross, their worst three performances have come against Wolves, who had 32.2% possession, Leicester who had 32.5% and Palace who had 35.2%.
Other teams will have taken note (and Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have shown an aptitude for sitting deep before launching Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the fast break): Leeds are at their best forward when they have room to attack in transition. Even more troubling is the way in which Bielsa’s preference for a man-to-man approach has been exposed, as opposed to the zonal system preferred by most hard-lobbying managers, particularly Luke Ayling-Hélder Costa’s partner in Leeds’ right, which Palace and Leicester seemed to target (and is likely particularly relevant against Aubameyang).
The shoulder injury that has kept Kalvin Phillips out for the past three league games clearly hasn’t helped. He is probably Leeds’ most important player, not only for his positional sense, but also for his role as a de facto playmaker, comfortable receiving the ball in deep areas and, if possible, initiating the forward movements that characterize the players. Bielsa teams at their best. Klich assumed his role against Leicester, Pascal Struijk against Palace; none were tremendously effective. Phillips’ likely return on Sunday is very positive.
It may seem almost in bad taste to talk about the worldliness of the shoulder ligaments in relation to Bielsa, that talking around her should be about philosophies and evolution and moments of transcendence. But as visionary as Bielsa is, he is still a soccer coach. Just because his methods can lift players to unforeseen heights doesn’t mean his team isn’t subject to the same bumps and strains as anyone else.
It started this season amid expectation but also skepticism and so far there has been enough to make both seem justified. That is its nature. But the bottom line is that this is a limited team that came up with the seventh highest salary in the Championship. There are restrictions that no genius can overcome. There will be losses and the nature of Bielsa’s style is that some of them will be heavy.
As the discussion progresses, it may be worth remembering that, given the resources, even a result in the lower half of the table would be an achievement.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.