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As Andrea Radrizzani reveals negotiations with Marcelo Bielsa to stay on as Leeds United manager have reached a ‘decisive stage’ the vast majority of Leeds fans will hope that whatever his demands the club accept them. He has been a godsend and performed a minor miracle with the squad he inherited and there is a hope that if he stays we can make a real go at automatic promotion next season. But given the way the season ended, given the way we faded, playing devils advocate, perhaps it is time to reflect and ask if he is really the right man for the job.
Up until the new year we were flying high, top of the league at Christmas, dead certs for automatic promotion but 2019 was not so kind to Leeds United. Knocked off the top by Norwich, displaced from the automatic promotion places by Sheffield before humiliation against Wigan. To top it all off came the loss against “Frank Lampard’s” Derby in the play-offs thanks to 20 minutes of madness. 20 minutes of madness which Bielsa admitted he had no answer to.
The first issue is the rigidity to the system. Some say there is no plan B with Bielsa’s philosophy, the answer is just to do plan A better. We were unplayable at the start of the season, putting teams to the sword with ease, lighting up the Championship. But did teams work us out? Teams started to condense the space, stay narrow, rigid, tight, drop deep and try and frustrate and look for breaks. This forced us to do one of few things try and move the defence around and try quick passing moves to exploit any space or create an overload out wide and cross the ball in. We still created chances but they weren’t as good quality and we missed the clinical finishing to make the most of them.
Then there is burnout. Bielsa ball is high tempo, high work rate, high risk. Playing the ball out from the back, constantly moving, creating space and maintaining the high press is not just physically demanding but mentally demanding too. There was much talk of the “Bielsa Burnout” with his teams said to have faded in the second half of the season. This was taken as physical burnout but this has proved false with the players working harder, running further in Leeds United’s final games of the season.
Perhaps the burnout is more of a mental issue? Is it possible to maintain that performance for the entire season. It would be fair to say we cost ourselves promotion with silly mistakes and poor defensive choices and with the high-risk nature of the style of play if you get caught out or make a mistake it can be costly. Even when we had said goodbye to the chance of automatic promotion we still had the chance to make the play-off final. Taking a lead into the second leg against Derby we scored early on but then lost the lead and our composure. In the first half of the season Beilsa had all the answers, against QPR, Wigan and Derby he looked like he had run out.
But I’m being unfair, of course I am, every one of the questions raised has an answer and Beilsa still being at the club next season is part of them all. The reality is that Bielsa worked a miracle this season with the squad available to him, but it’s only right having come so close we question the reasons we failed. Perhaps given the miracle Bielsa had performed the board took him for granted, they didn’t think there was the need to splash the cash in January given the improvement in the players we already had. If we had dipped further into the transfer market there is a strong possibility promotion would have been secured.
The board will need to back Bielsa in the transfer market this summer. These will be the assurances that he now seeks before signing up for another season at the helm of Leeds United. He has proven himself in the past to be able to identify quality players and we need to improve the quality and quality in depth of the squad to compete for a whole, rigorous Championship season. Injuries up front and in defence hit us hard and without Pablo firing on all cylinders the creative spark that could create a clinical chance out of nothing was lost.
Pep Guardiola is famously a student of Marcelo Bielsa and the comparison between Bielsa in his first season at Leeds and Guardiola in his first season at Manchester City is a hugely valid one. Guardiola inherited a squad that had finished fourth and didn't make too many changes - one big transfer was John Stones a 'ball-playing' centre back and also Claudio Bravo in goal as a sweeper keeper. City finished that season third, a slight improvement.
The main criticisms of Manchester City were that they passed it around too much, especially at the back, made too many defensive errors, conceded too many goals in relation to shots against them, and they didn't take enough of their chances. Sound familiar? Now Guardiola had changed the style of play in his first season the players had adapted but it was nowhere near the finished article. Fast forward two years and the system is second nature to and they carve teams open at will.
The improvement in our players after just one summer with Bielsa was amazing, imagine what can be achieved after a whole season adapting to his style. The defensive mistakes that were so rife during this season will decrease, players will learn and make the correct decisions, learn to trust their keeper and his willingness to come out of his area. For too long Leeds have chopped and changed manager with no consistency, no underpinning philosophy and style. Now is our chance to build on the great work Bielsa has already done.