Tactics, recruitment, fitness, squad size: There are so many ways Leeds went wrong
Marcelo Bielsa, despite all his conviction, was never a man of pride. He locked himself in his ideas and he believed in them until his last breath at Leeds United – but his conviction never strayed into overconfidence. On the contrary, the long hours of training and the rabbit holes of analysis were the mark of a trainer who was always wary of thinking he had cracked him.
Paul Warne, the manager of Yorkshire’s third-tier neighbors Rotherham United, used to watch Bielsa on his stool by the dugout and equate his serene poise with complete confidence in the outcome of a match, but the Argentine used hard work to suppress his own doubts. . His impact could seem as simple as a snap of his fingers until you got up close and watched him crack the whip, allowing people to cut corners on his corpse.
There was no vacation for him last summer, and when the postmortem is written for this season, post-survival or relegation depending on how the next few weeks of hell play out, the silliest conclusion would be to say Bielsa assumed Leeds would walk 2021-22. He didn’t even assume he would walk, so he enlisted the club staff to put him on a personal fitness program and improve his physique for another year of austere life, as hard as it gets. any other.
But here Leeds are with Bielsa gone, their backs against the wall and no better chance of avoiding the Championship than the draw. Face to face, you face the music and in any case, no one will thank the club in the last nine months.
Those of us who thought Leeds would have had enough this season are counting on four games to beat that argument by a hair. Those who thought Leeds were bringing knives to a shootout have, quite honestly, already been right. The second season syndrome is not alike from club to club, but Leeds have suffered their version of it – blown out of the water they were calmly floating in a year ago.
It would be convenient to hang regression around a person’s neck or blame a factor, but there have been many failures. There are so many ways Leeds got it wrong: tactically; in the caliber of their recruitment; to keep their players fit; to carry a squad of adequate size and to project the image of a club where life is under control. Put it all together and the bones of a crisis stick out, a buildup of pressure that can easily bury you.
Maybe people other than Bielsa felt a touch of pride after last season’s ease, their first return to the top flight at last, or started to think the march was unstoppable. Perhaps Leeds’ faith in the process has gotten too close to complacency, although at board level they spoke regularly about the fact that, statistically, relegation in the second year of a club after promotion was as much of a threat as it was when first. Nobody in the halls of Elland Road thought it was going to happen, their fate betting on the last four games.
Faith is probably the best place to start. When Leeds started signing players in their first transfer window after promotion, they were deliberately embarking on a two-year project, creating a team they believed would see them through last season and this one. . It was a vote of confidence not only for these newcomers but also for the existing group of players, those who had started the Bielsa project and found a way to master the championship.
Leeds were not only backing their judgment in the market, but also the sustainability of the promotion squad and the ability of existing faces to improve as the standard improved. Bielsa was happy to stand by their side and built his plan around them. The first year back in the Premier League was incredibly comfortable, but the second year pushed the boundaries too far, exposing the boundaries and making Leeds look like a team stuck in a slow transition.
Investment is where criticism often focuses, but the root of the club’s deceleration is not investment per se. Leeds have spent on transfers since the promotion – more than enough, Bielsa would always say – and they haven’t used outgoing deals to support their spending. The problem has been the impact of that investment, especially for a club that likes to think it knows the transfer market well. The money paid since the promotion has not resulted in a permanent elevation.
Robin Koch, at £13million, still feels like an unknown quantity at centre-back, rarely seen in his best position. Diego Llorente is a known quantity in the sense that you can expect him to be unpredictable. No arguments at all with the deal for Raphinha but Rodrigo, even now, is trying to find himself and neither Junior Firpo nor Dan James have made a material difference in the transformation of the squad. It’s saying something that for all expenses last season’s Player of the Year was Stuart Dallas. And that when this season ends, Dallas’ claim to the same price for 2021-22 will be stronger than most.
From the end of last season, recruitment into the first team began to choke. There was no new central midfielder in the summer window – no option to turn to or satisfying for Bielsa once Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher picked Crystal Palace as their next loan destination and Lewis O’Brien from Huddersfield Town was deemed too expensive – and nothing at all in January after Red Bull Salzburg rejected two offers for Brenden Aaronson.
There was internal frustration over Bielsa’s refusal to take on alternative midfielders, such as Manchester United’s Donny van de Beek or Tottenham’s Harry Winks, but January was a gamble, an inactive month that took the chance that Leeds would have enough to get by, despite an injury list that meant, week after week, they barely had enough bodies to fill their bench. Injuries and a small squad, hot oil and water, loss of continuity and game winners and no sign of rapid improvement. This window more than any other is where inaction was most dangerous.
Who is to blame for this? It is undisputed that Bielsa approved the signings made by Leeds and set strict parameters for the type of players he wanted. He was never forced to accept signings he didn’t want or didn’t value. The club have been indifferent in this regard, in the same way that they have refused to dictate or interfere with Bielsa’s training routine. Autonomy was what underpinned Bielsa’s peak years and the relationship wouldn’t have worked if Leeds hadn’t been willing to let him manage as he saw fit.
So much has been wrong this season, however, and it’s not a great defense for the board to say that when the results started to cause concern and the locker room looked bare, they let the tail wag the dog. Leeds figured he would be fine in January and said so publicly, only to fire Bielsa a month later. For too long there has been inertia on all sides, an unwillingness to bite the bullet, do what needed to be done and consider positive change, on or off the pitch. Hindsight reveals so many times when the club and Bielsa could have helped themselves.
The change manifested itself in the dismissal of Bielsa, making way for the appointment of Jesse Marsch. The short-term wisdom of this decision still depended on the results. Survival will make Leeds feel vindicated, convinced as they were that the team had physically hit the wall and that form would not improve without a new manager. Relegation will fuel the view that they might as well have allowed Bielsa to see through the remaining games, although it was true that Leeds had never been more tactically vulnerable under him than this season.
In the meantime, the Under-23s have been collateral damage, still not safe from relegation from the Premier League’s top flight 2 after finishing long parts of the year with their best players detached in a weakened first team. Leeds’ senior players displayed exceptionally high physical stats in pre-season, data that held out much promise, but everyone misjudged the strength of the side. It’s also doubtful that anyone has timed the extreme effect losing key players to injury would have on form. Due to the departures of Pablo Hernandez, Gaetano Berardi and Gjanni Alioski, Leeds were down from the start.
The result is this four-game shootout, starting at Arsenal on Sunday, in which Leeds turn it on or go down. Either way, recognizing the causes of tightrope walking will be necessary from the top. Whatever role he played in the decline, Bielsa paid with his labor and Leeds won’t go far in making the narrative solely about him – not least because his first three seasons gave them the platform to which they felt like it when Andrea Radrizzani, Victor Orta and Angus Kinnear first contacted him in Argentina.
To do so would be to ignore where the ultimate liability of a football club lies and to ignore the reality of where liability ends.
The lessons are many and, unfortunately, quite glaring.
All that remains is the anxious hope that Leeds, as a Premier League entity, will live to fight another day.
(Top photo: Lewis Storey/Getty Images)