How Marcelo Bielsa reinvented Leeds United, part two: the art of perseverance

How Marcelo Bielsa reinvented Leeds United, part two: the art of perseverance

This feature is part two of two parts exploring Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds. Read Part One: The Beautiful Failure online now.

After days of negotiations and weeks of speculation, round two was on. On 28 May 2019, it was announced that Marcelo Bielsa had extended his contract at Leeds for the coming season, with jubilant owner Andrea Radrizzani declaring the coach had “unfinished business” at Elland Road.

Bielsa’s decision would be met with unanimous delight from all involved with the club. With fans and players still reeling from the agony of last season’s playoffs, this news went some way to softening the blow. Whereas previous near misses – like the club’s playoff final defeat in 2006 – had felt like fleeting, do or die opportunities, the foundations built from last season were there for all to see, and with their enigmatic leader back for another campaign, fans felt they were better placed than ever to end their 15 years of hurt in what would be the clubs centenary season.

Captain Liam Cooper would echo the supporter’s sentiment when he said: “Along with Andrea, Victor [Orta, the director of football] and Angus [Kinnear, the managing director] he is helping to create a new culture at Leeds. This news allows us to focus on the next year – we have continuity for the first time in my career at Leeds and we will all now be focused on returning to pre-season and working hard to achieve our ultimate goal together.”

If Bielsa and his players had felt under pressure in the previous campaign, they’d seen nothing yet. For much of the Argentine’s first year, fans were left swooning as Leeds unleashed their coach’s inimitable brand of attacking ferocity on the Championship, but the crushing conclusion to the season had brought a decade and a half of pain flooding back to the surface. 

In the aftermath of the playoff defeat, it was suggested by Leeds writer and podcaster Daniel ‘Moscowhite’ Chapman that Bielsa had been the perfect manager for the club to fail with. After years of heartache, however, fans had no more time for beautiful failures but were instead desperate for promotion in the coming season, no matter how ugly.

The sentiment amongst supporters was clearly shared by the club, with Kinnear bluntly stating”‘we’re not dicking around with the playoffs anymore”. How would the game’s greatest idealist fare in an environment where success was being measured entirely by cold, hard results?

If anyone expected the coach to abandon his philosophy in the wake of such relentless scrutiny, they were sorely mistaken. Bielsa’s eternal commitment to a front foot, possession-based style – a notion steeped equally in romance and dogma – would remain as unwavering as ever. 

Prior to the signing of his contract extension, Bielsa had delivered a presentation to Radrizzani, Orta and Kinnear loaded with statistics from the previous campaign. Given the dominance Leeds had wielded on the division in stats such as expected goals, chance creation and possession, the presentation emphasised the scale of the opportunity missed last season and identified three key areas for improvement: better finishing, higher-quality loan signings, and fewer injuries. Finally, after such extensive analysis, this most meticulous of coaches would add: “We need more luck. We cannot be this unlucky again.”

Read  |  How Marcelo Bielsa reinvented Leeds United, part one: the beautiful failure

Like last season, the club would have to operate under budget restraints, as well the Football League’s Financial Fair Play rules, when attempting to enhance their squad for the coming season and this would result in some bold decisions, both with signings and departures.

After initially protesting, Bielsa would accept the club’s intention to cash in on academy graduate Jack Clarke, with the winger joining Tottenham in a £9m deal that saw him remain at Elland Road on a season-long loan. Clarke would barely feature for Leeds during the first half of the season and the loan would be terminated in January. 

More surprising was the sale of defender and crowd favourite Pontus Jansson to Brentford for £5.5m. Despite having been a key player for the club over the last three seasons, Bielsa considered the passionate Swede’s argumentative demeanour to be simultaneously undermining his own authority while disrupting the harmony of the dressing room. With limited offers on the table, the club were reluctant to sell their star centre-back to a potential promotion rival, but the sale eventually went ahead amid insistence from Bielsa. 

With many fans upset by the sale of Jansson, eyebrows were raised further when his replacement was revealed to be a barely known prospect by the name of Ben White, the 21-year-old arriving on loan from Brighton after spending the previous campaign with third-tier Peterborough. While the £7m sale of last season’s top scorer Kemar Roofe to Anderlecht was naturally unpopular, fans were heartened by the fact that the club had loaned the highly touted Eddie Nketiah from Arsenal as a direct replacement.

Although they would extend the loan of Manchester City winger Jack Harrison for a further season, as well as loaning French goalkeeping prospect Illian Meslier from Lorient, the marquee summer signing undoubtedly came in the form of Hélder Costa. Having previously taken the division by storm with Wolves, the Portuguese winger was viewed by many fans as the perfect player to add a direct, clinical edge to the Whites’ attacking style. With the club committed to paying a £15m fee after an initial loan period, the deal sent an emphatic message to both fans and the rest of the division that Leeds were serious about automatic promotion.

With Leeds active in the transfer market on both fronts, Bielsa would again stick to his guns by maintaining a small squad. Beginning the season with a core group of eighteen senior players, the Argentine would again opt to supplement any injuries with the use of an under-23 squad that had developed exponentially under the stewardship of Carlos Corberan. 

With most players now accustomed to their coach’s gruelling demands, the squad entered pre-season better prepared for the unforgiving training schedule they were inevitably faced with. After a pre-season tour of Australia, they prepared for the campaign opener away to Bristol City on 4 August, determined to erase the memory of last season’s heartbreaking finale.

With so many questions unanswered from the previous campaign, the fixture would monopolise the coverage of the opening weekend of Championship fixtures: how would Leeds rebound from the crushing disappointment of last season? Would the squad be able to cope physically with Bielsa’s unparalleled demands for a second year? And what effect would the high-profile playoff mistake from Kiko Casilla have on the goalkeeper’s mentality? The opening day at Ashton Gate would provide an emphatic answer to all of these questions.

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Within seconds of kickoff, Casilla had settled the latter debate with a display of frightening self-assurance. Receiving a back pass from Cooper just outside his six-yard box, the goalkeeper induced heart palpations around West Yorkshire by performing an outrageous turn past Bristol striker Famara Diédhiou before nonchalantly spraying a diagonal ball to Luke Ayling. The move served as a microcosm of last season: thrilling, dangerous, skilful and nerve-shredding all at once, and sent a clear message to Leeds fans that they were in for yet another year of white-knuckle drama.

From that moment on, away fans were treated to an exhibition of pure Bielsaball. With their bespectacled boss observing on his trademark blue bucket, Leeds overwhelmed the hosts from first minute to last with their relentless pressing and inexhaustible attacking intensity as they strolled to a 3-1 win. 

Like 2018/19, the team would come racing out of the blocks with 13 points from their opening five games placing them atop of the Championship.  With fans riding high heading into a home fixture against second-place Swansea, the return of a familiar Achilles heel would dampen the early season optimism. 

Having been in control for much of the match, Leeds were frustrated by Swansea’s disciplined backline and were made to pay for a slew of missed opportunities. With one-minute remaining of stoppage time, Swansea substitute Wayne Routledge prospered from some slack set-piece defending to snatch all three points for the Welsh club.

Although Leeds would remain in and around the top of the division, their chance conversion remained problematic with the team failing to record back-to-back victories in September and October. Despite dominating most matches, the team were struggling to kill off their opponents with poor finishing, allowing the likes of Derby and Preston to claim points from games that should’ve been out of sight. The lack of profligacy in front of goal would inspire a distracting debate between fans over who was best equipped to lead the line for the Whites. 

While first-choice striker Patrick Bamford had impressed with his performances, he’d drawn criticism from both fans and the media for his lack of consistency in front of goal. Contrastingly, Nketiah had yet to start a league game for the club but had contributed vital goals from the bench against Brentford, Barnsley and Preston, showing a ruthlessness that was sorely lacking from the rest of the side. With Bielsa reluctant to switch from his favoured 4-1-4-1 set up, the debate would dominate much of the first half of the season.

With the striker question still burning, Leeds would find a new gear as the winter approached. A 2-0 win over QPR would spark the beginning of a seven-game winning streak allowing Bielsa’s side – alongside Slaven Bilić’s in-form West Brom – to establish some daylight between themselves and the rest of the chasing pack. 

Although chance conversion remained a concern, the level of dominance Leeds were wielding meant they were still scoring enough to secure three points in most matches, with the excellent understanding generated by centre-halves Cooper and White resulting in the team conceding fewer than anyone else in the division. While the team drew plaudits for their attacking panache in a 4-0 home demolition of Middlesbrough, the surge in form was equally indebted to their coach’s militaristic training sessions, with last-ditch victories at Reading and Luton bearing testament to their unrivalled fitness.

Read  |  The gripping rise and crushing fall of Leeds United at the turn of the 21st century

Leeds prepared for the 19 December fixture at home to Cardiff knowing that victory could see them open-up a monumental 13-point gap on third-placed Fulham. Instead, the barnstorming match would be the catalyst for an alarming shift in momentum against Bielsa’s previously flourishing side.

For 60 minutes, the team were at their free-flowing, dominant best. In a contest which perfectly encapsulated the league’s contrasting philosophies, Leeds embarrassed their opponents with their intricate passing and breakneck counter-attacks en route to a 3-0 lead. On the hour mark, the game would turn on its head.

Firstly, Cardiff midfielder Lee Tomalin punished a Casilla error with a brilliant half-volley to give the visitors a glimmer of hope. From here, the entire dynamic of the match changed as Neil Harris’ team began to impose their route one style on a nervy Leeds who seemed incapable of dealing with their opponent’s speculative long balls into the box. Despite going down to ten men, Cardiff would complete the most improbable of comebacks with two goals in the last ten minutes from Sean Morrison and Robert Glatzel.

Despite remaining 11 points clear of third, the collapse against Cardiff changed much. Having grown accustomed to watching their team fall at the final hurdle, fans were engulfed by a sense of panic and this hysteria seemed to transfer to the players whose form capitulated over the next two months. 

Having lost just three league games in their first 22, Leeds would fall in five of their following nine fixtures after Cardiff, winning only twice. If defeats to Sheffield Wednesday, QPR and Wigan weren’t alarming enough, the individual performances of many players had altered beyond recognition. 

With midfield control having been a hallmark of Bielsa’s team for 18 months, the usually formidable central trio of Phillips, Klich and Hernández were suddenly finding themselves overran as their once pinpoint passing became wayward and inconsistent. This, in turn, left the defence more exposed who, after conceding only ten goals before Cardiff, shipped 20 in the next 11 games.

With Nkeitah having been recalled by Arsenal in January and his replacement Jean-Kévin Augustin struggling for fitness, fans were left cursing the lack of attacking options in a squad who would fail to score in four out of five fixtures between January and February.

Most concerning of all was the form of Casilla who, with a racism charge pending – the goalkeeper would eventually be suspended for nine games after being found guilty of abusing Charlton striker Jonathan Leko – made costly errors in a string of matches. Even rare victories, like the pulsating wins against Birmingham (5-4) and Millwall (3-2), were crazy slugfests that suggested El Loco had been replaced in the dugout by a prime Kevin Keegan.

Read  |  Marcelo Bielsa: the Mexico diaries

The nadir of the campaign would occur at the City Ground on 8 February. In a toothless performance, Leeds were bested 2-0 by a clinical Nottingham Forest side who punished wastefulness in possession. By the end of the evening, the once 11-point lead over third was down to mere goal difference. Leeds were falling apart again and the decline was even steeper than the previous season. If the atmosphere around the club had become toxic, then Luke Ayling’s forlorn post-match interview suggested that the negativity had seeped into the dressing room.

With confidence faltering, Bielsa took a change in tack. Following the defeat at Forest, the coach eschewed his usual data-driven post-match analysis in favour of an emotive speech he hoped would instil belief into his battle-scarred squad. The impact would be phenomenal.

Three days later, Leeds took to Griffin Park to face Brentford knowing that defeat would see their opponents overtake them in the table. With the rest of the Championship smelling blood, Leeds outplayed their in-form opponents in a 1-1 draw that flattered the home side. From there, they reeled off five consecutive wins without shipping a goal. 

After looking crestfallen following the Forest defeat, it was fitting that Ayling’s inspired performances were at the heart of the turnaround, with the defender scoring three vital goals as Leeds re-established their lead over the chasing pack. Having previously looked bereft of attacking options, they were now benefitting not only from Bamford’s surge in form, but the return of Tyler Roberts from injury, with the versatile attacker scoring two in the 4-0 rout of Hull. At the back, the presence of Meslier in place of Casilla between the sticks provided Leeds with greater resolve from set-pieces.

With a seven-point lead on third place and the team brimming with confidence, it was tempting to ask the question: what could possibly stop Leeds now? Ultimately, it would take something far more important than the beautiful game, as the ramifications of COVID-19 left the footballing world at a standstill.

As a club, Leeds felt the effects from this period more than most with three legends in the form of Norman Hunter, Trevor Cherry and Jack Charlton passing away in quick succession. Hunter’s death was down to the virus itself, with Elland Road’s South Stand promptly renamed in his honour. 

With everything from points-per-game average to voiding the season altogether discussed as a means of ending the campaign, the club firmly maintained their desire to finish their promotion charge on the pitch. Ultimately, it was decided that the season would be played out behind closed doors with the team’s final nine fixtures taking place over an intense six-week period.

On 21 June, Leeds resumed their quest for glory nearly four months after their last game at an empty Cardiff City Stadium. In a stifled performance, they looked void of creative spark without the injured Hernández as they fell to a turgid 2-0 defeat. Having already endured one post-Cardiff slump this season, the fans were desperate for their team to make a statement in the crunch match against third-placed Fulham the following Saturday.

With tens of thousands of crowdies occupying the vacant seats at Elland Road, Leeds got off to the perfect start when Costa’s cutback found Bamford who finished coolly in the tenth minute. For the rest of the half, however, Leeds were run ragged by a Fulham side desperate to bridge the seven-point gap between themselves and the hosts. 

Read  |  How Marcelo Bielsa turned Athletic Club into one of Europe’s most exciting machines

Sensing an equaliser was imminent, Bielsa took decisive action at half time, replacing the architects of the goal in Bamford and Costa with Roberts and a returning Hernández. The substitutions proved to be a masterstroke as the latter changed the complexion of the match with a vintage display of control and creativity en route to a 3-0 win.

With Hernández struggling for fitness, Bielsa would continue to use the Spaniard as a substitute to devastating effect for the rest of the season, with the playmaker producing vital goals and match-winning performances in a string of decisive games.

Any notions that Leeds were home and dry following their emphatic win over the Cottagers were tossed aside three days later, however, when they limped to a 1-1 draw against bottom-placed Luton. With third-placed Brentford in the form of their lives, Leeds could scarcely afford to drop any more points with the gap down to six points and the Bees holding a superior goal difference.

While a win away at Blackburn offered some temporary respite, Brentford continued to pile on the pressure as they extended their winning streak to six in a row with victory over Charlton. With the pressure at boiling point, Leeds produced their finest display under their coach to date in a 5-0 demolition against Stoke. Leading by one at half time thanks to a Klich penalty, the second half was a pure crystallisation of the Bielsa ethos as Leeds relentlessly carved through their opponents at will, Hernández finishing the forth after an outrageous 30-pass move.

If victory at Stoke had provided a resounding answer on the team’s ability to handle pressure, it did little to stop Brentford asking questions as they recorded further wins against Derby and Preston. With Leeds needing a maximum of seven points from their final four games to secure promotion, the next two fixtures would bring 16 years of frustration and anxiety to the surface in a torturous finale.

Firstly, Leeds travelled to Swansea in what would quickly become a game of unbearable tension. With both teams having engaged in a dour stalemate for 89 minutes, Leeds fans watched from home cringing at memories of the Swans’ stoppage-time winner at Elland Road earlier in the season. Instead, the league leaders returned the favour. 

With less than a minute remaining, Hernández made the most of Ayling’s low cross with a deft side-footed finish to put his former club to the sword. The absence of fans allowed for the full volume of Orta’s manic reaction to be heard from the directors’ box, while the cathartic celebrations of both substitutes and staff echoed the magnitude of the goal. With a game at home to bottom-placed Barnsley up next, surely fans would get the straightforward promotion conclusion their fragile hearts craved?

They wouldn’t. A back and forth opening phase saw Leeds take the lead thanks to an own goal from defender Michael Soulbauer, but what followed was pure torture. For over an hour Leeds were peppered with attack after attack by a Barnsley side fighting for their lives. All of the hallmark Bielsa traits – from the dominance in possession to the control in midfield – were nowhere to be seen as the visitors attacked with a verve and swagger scarcely believable for a team at the foot of the table.

It was far from a vintage display, but they got over the line. A combination of resolute defending and poor finishing saw the team cling on to this most hard-fought of victories.

Leeds were now both five points ahead of second-place West Brom and six ahead of Brentford, meaning a single point from their final two games was all that was required for promotion. The mood in West Yorkshire was one of relief, not joy, however, and after last year’s heartache, neither fans nor were players prepared to start the party until promotion was 100 percent certain.

They needn’t have worried. On 17 July, two days before Leeds’ next match and 194 months since the club were relegated from the Premier League, promotion was confirmed. Emile Smith Rowe’s 86th-minute strike at the John Smith Stadium secured a 2-1 win for Huddersfield over West Brom that sent their West Yorkshire neighbours to the Premier League.

Having fantasised about this moment for over a decade, fans would experience promotion not on the Elland Road pitch but in the confines of their own living room, yet the joy around the city was palpable.

Any notions that the empty stadiums might dampen the celebrations were debunked by three days of hedonism that began outside Elland Road with players, staff and even the traditionally stoic Bielsa basking in the glory alongside the tens of thousands of ecstatic fans. Even the title would be confirmed without Leeds kicking a ball with Brentford’s winning run finally coming to a halt at Stoke the following afternoon. 

In a poetic conclusion, Leeds’ first game as champions would see them face Derby, 14 months after last season’s playoff agony. This time, the team would be met not with despair, but the sight of a guard of honour from the Derby players as they took to the pitch.

After a 3-1 win at Pride Park, Leeds would end the campaign with sublime 4-0 home victory over Charlton before being presented with Championship trophy on the Elland Road turf. After what had been the craziest year, Bielsa and his players could finally celebrate, their legacies secure as the men who returned Leeds to the Premier League.

The story of Bielsa at Leeds is a lesson in principle and perseverance. After years of being the bridesmaid, the manager had at once silenced the critics and validated his unique coaching methods with the sweetest of victories. Having endured a generation in the wilderness, Leeds were no longer falling apart but were back in the big time. Back with Marcelo Bielsa, the perfect manager to succeed with.

By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92

This feature is part two of two parts exploring Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds. Read Part One: The Beautiful Failure online now.

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