Historic clubs acquired a new prefix last season.
Mentions of ‘Frank Lampard’s Derby’ quickly proceeded from witticism to unfunny witticism. The more enduring, potentially more transformative tag is ‘Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds’. Perhaps no manager – not even the title winner Howard Wilkinson or the Champions League semi-finalist David O’Leary – since Don Revie has imposed his identity on Leeds as much as Bielsa.
Eighteen months after his Leeds bow, their strengths are his strengths, their weaknesses are his idiosyncratic shortcomings. If Leeds do go up, it will be because of Bielsa. But if they don’t, it will also be because of him.
If Leeds reach the Premier League, it will not be just another promotion. The size of the club, the tragicomic, traumatic past, the pressure, the weight of expectation and the 16-year exile all dictate otherwise. If Bielsa ends Leeds’ exile, it will be a genuinely transformative feat. If he does it, he will have done it his way, reinventing a mid-table Championship side with his own ambitious blueprint and without a host of signings.
Bielsa has altered players and careers with his coaching prowess. Kalvin Phillips has become not just the division’s foremost defensive midfielder but a player who is bound for the Premier League, whether or not Leeds are, and tipped to figure in the England squad. Stuart Dallas has become a multi-discipline Bielsista, whether as a full-back, a No. 8 or a holding midfielder. Mateusz Klich was a loanee who became a relentless runner in midfield. Jack Harrison has acquired an end product. Ben White’s improvement under Bielsa has captured the attention of a host of elite clubs.
When Leeds are at their best, they overrun and overwhelm opponents. Think of the second half against Millwall last week, or the opening-weekend demolition of Bristol City, or the 4-0 rout of Middlesbrough. Think of last season’s 4-0 demolition of West Bromwich Albion, the opening-weekend evisceration of Stoke or the home-and-away displays against, well, Lampard’s Derby.
Leeds top the league for possession and shots. They have conceded the second-fewest shots on goal at the other end and, even though they often have the ball, are so committed to regaining it that their pressing means they rank fourth for tackles. If they have an undeniable aesthetic appeal, they are statistically outstanding.
And yet the numbers underline the potential problems and the reasons why, much as Bielsa is feted, altogether less celebrated figures have rather more medals. Leeds had an 11-point lead on the play-off pack. That has shrunk to three. Their season risks being a repeat of last year in a way that would suggest Bielsa has learnt little.
Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Wigan showed similar psychological frailties to April’s meltdown against the Latics, a team with one win in their last 35 away league games anywhere outside Elland Road, and the play-off defeat to Derby. Bielsa’s teams have a tendency to fade towards the end of seasons and yet his reluctance to rotate or even make substitutions feels still more pronounced. A repeat is risked with White, plus goalkeeper Kiko Casilla, on the maximum 2700 league minutes, Dallas on 2644, Klich 2550, Harrison 2514, Phillips 2407 (but for a red card at QPR, it could have been 2589) and Patrick Bamford on 2276. Each relies on running and risks running on empty.
Meanwhile Eddie Nketiah got only 500 minutes and Jack Clarke a mere 19 in aborted loan spells. Bielsa has a slender squad and shows a reluctance to sign. When he did get the France Under-21 striker Jean-Kevin Augustin, he omitted him from the matchday squad for the next two games, an inimitable choice that left Leeds without a striker on the bench when they trailed to Wigan.
Bielsa’s reign threatens to be defined by Bamford, the byword for missing who he preferred to Nketiah. Bamford has the most shots off target (53) and most big chances (20) missed in the division. Profligacy has become part of Leeds’ identity. So far in 2020, they have had 106 shots and scored four goals. They can be the masters of dominating without scoring.
Meanwhile, a seeming disdain for the basics sees Leeds miss penalties. No Championship side has scored fewer goals from set-pieces, but Leeds have a capacity to concede from them; perhaps that was not helped by the decision to sell their best defensive header, Pontus Jansson. The Swede was scarcely a Bielsa disciple. Now he has a squad forged still more in his image. Obstinacy has created a side purists can salivate over, one which can excel in open play, but lacks the finishing touch. If Leeds are promoted, they will have done it Bielsa’s way. But it will be a Bielsa-esque near miss, and ultimately a failure, if they lose a lead in the promotion race again.
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