“There is nothing positive to take away from our performance,” were the words of Marcelo Bielsa as he echoed the thoughts of thousands of Leeds United fans after the 7-0 win at the hands of Manchester City on matchday 17.
“I cannot find anything that can be valued. When there is nothing that is well done, it is not the people who fail, but the organization. I cannot offer any justification.”
He ended with a sobering comment. “We have never had a performance like today.” The Argentine is right: the beating at the Etihad Stadium is the worst Leeds has played with the veteran coach since he arrived in West Yorkshire in 2018; the result was the worst team, in terms of losing margin, in the club’s history.
4.8 – Man City’s seven goals tonight came from a 2.2 xG. Its positive difference of 4.8 is the second largest by either side on a single @premierleague game since Opta has full xG data available (2010-11), after Southampton v Sunderland in October 2014 (+5.0). Relentless. pic.twitter.com/WuEjdOaYce
– OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 14, 2021
Overall, there is no shame in losing to Manchester City on the road, but the way Leeds capitulated is a major cause for concern, particularly after a first half of the season in which they only won three games out of 17.
Leeds prepared for exactly this kind of match, according to Bielsa, and yet they couldn’t stop it.
“The game was exactly how we thought it would be,” he said. “We prepare to avoid everything that happened. We couldn’t get anything out. [Our usual style] is what we test the whole game. Surely if we had done the opposite, we would regret not trying anything to take possession from the opponent. What we tried created danger to our own goal. We didn’t do anything right. That was evident on the scoreboard. I insist, everything that happened was what we wanted to avoid. Since there is nothing to take away from him, it is inevitable that he will have to take responsibility for such a defeat. “
A campaign that started in hopes of a push for a position in Europe has turned into a relegation battle, and while there are mitigating factors to consider, there is no question that Bielsa must bear his fair share of blame for where he is. is the Leeds now. Bielsa often appeared as the loneliest man in the Etihad, crouching on the touchline and staring at the ground, seemingly to ponder what may have led to the disastrous events that were taking place.
The 66-year-old performed miracles during his first three seasons at Elland Road, leading a team that perennially finished in the middle of the table in the Championship to ninth place in the Premier League by playing football more exciting than many Leeds. followers can remember.
What happens to Leeds United?
The defining narrative of Leeds’s season thus far has been injuries, as Bielsa has not been able to select from a team in top form at any point. It felt like he was closing in on that possibility on December 5 against Brentford, when Luke Ayling and Patrick Bamford returned after long breaks, only for five key players to be ruled out for the foreseeable future just days later.
Any team that lost their best player (Kalvin Phillips), top scorer (Bamford), club captain (Liam Cooper) and record signing (Rodrigo Moreno) all at once would have problems, and certainly Leeds looked lacking in quality and leadership as the goals flew. on the Illan Meslier network on Tuesday. But the fact that there are no suitable substitutes for players in key positions comes from Bielsa’s insistence on keeping a small squad, which in turn led to a confusing summer when it came to transfer strategy.
Leeds’ website lists its first-team squad with just 19 players, by far the smallest in the English top flight. Although the club has a talented under-23 group who can help fill the gaps on game days, fans were clear last season that any prolonged absence from players like Phillips and Bamford could have disastrous effects, unless bring decent reinforcements. .
But instead of reviving a team that had been exceeding expectations for three years, Leeds stayed put. The organization replaced outgoing left-back Gjanni Alioski with Junior Firpo, before waiting until the final day of the transfer window to pay $ 34 million to sign Manchester United’s Dan James, a winger for a team that already had multiple players. able to play in wide areas.
No backup striker was found, and Rodrigo and Tyler Roberts were relied on to provide support for Bamford.
Most frustratingly, there was no new arrival in midfield, despite being the position where Leeds lacked the same talent as their top-flight rivals, particularly when Phillips was not on the field in 2020-21. With Phillips in the lineup last season, Leeds lost just eight of their 28 league games. Without him, they lost seven out of 10.
They made an attempt to reinforce the center of the park, and were turned away by Conor Gallagher, as he instead chose to join the Crystal Palace on loan from Chelsea, but otherwise seemed content to sit on his hands, believing that the current team could do it again. soar to new heights.
Owner Andrea Radrizzani even angered fans when he claimed on Twitter that Adam Forshaw, a player who had been out of action for two years with a hip injury, would be the new ‘signing’ they needed to cover any absence from Phillips. And while Forshaw’s form since his return has been one of the few bright spots of Leeds’s season, the former Middlesbrough midfielder works far better in tandem with the England international than without him.
Although Leeds have a behind-the-scenes team, led by sporting director Victor Orta, who work on transfer goals throughout the calendar year, the final decision rests with Bielsa, and he has too often been reluctant to turn things around. , trusting the small but tough. working group that you have at your disposal.
That loyalty, of course, builds strong morale within the team, but it also leads to a situation like the one we saw at Etihad, where your team will face the Premier League champions and current league leaders featured a right back in the center back (Ayling), a central midfielder on the right back (Jamie Shackleton) and wingers in both central midfield (Stuart Dallas) and up front (James). The mess was evident as Dallas was required to change positions twice during the game while substitutions were being made.
Is it any wonder things seemed so disjointed against City?
“I think the club has put enough human resources at my disposal so that the results are different,” Bielsa said in November, refuting the claim that he needs a bigger squad. “I cannot attribute the position in the table, nor the injuries, to an insufficient number of players.”
Whether he admits it or not, the number of senior players on Bielsa’s roster is small, but there are more issues at stake when it comes to how he’s setting up his squad. Bielsa’s loyalty not only prevents him from hiring players to challenge the status quo, but also from giving some of the club’s talented youngsters a chance to prove themselves when positions are open to fill.
Although both Joe Gelhardt and Charlie Cresswell have made their full Premier League debuts this season, the 19-year-old couple have only started one game each, even though there have been gaps in the squad that they could have helped fill.
A natural forward like Gelhardt, who scored his first goal in Leeds against Chelsea on Saturday, is much more used to leading the line in the absence of Bamford and Rodrigo than a player like James. Meanwhile, central defender Cresswell has the maturity and physical attributes to take on the Premier League, and the selection of England’s Under-21 international would allow Ayling to return to his natural position as a right-back.
Instead, Bielsa appears to have a hierarchical system within his team, and will only fall back on his younger positions if any other possible combination of older players has been tried first. Launching them against Manchester City might not have seemed prudent on the surface, of course, but clearly the strategy deployed at the Etihad proved to be a disaster on its own.
Meanwhile, stylistically, Bielsa continues to use a men’s scoring system that can get his team in trouble against teams with confident dribblers like City. However, it is fair to point out that while it might have been the safest option to close the shop on Etihad and play for a point, the quality difference between the two teams may have led to a similar result regardless.
It remains to be seen if he is willing to change the way he sets up his team against lesser rivals, but it would be a brave person to bet against Bielsa sticking to his tried and trusted process of the past few years.
Under normal circumstances, these problems would signal a stubborn manager who needs to be relieved of his duties before it is too late to rectify the situation. But you’ll do well to find a lot of Leeds fans who really want Bielsa fired.
While Leeds’ current woes are largely caused by the manager, there is no other manager the club can realistically hire who has the ability to make this group of players point in the right direction once again. . Bielsa’s methods have been shown to work at both the Championship and Premier League levels, and if the curse of injuries hanging over the club’s Thorp Arch training ground can recede in the coming months, then there is at least a first XI in Leeds that is capable. to go up to the table.
Sure, a clever January addition or two would help too, even if it only allows players to return to their preferred positions while others are back in top form.
However, things can get worse before they get better. Arsenal will visit Elland Road on December 18 before Bielsa prepares to side with them at Anfield to face Liverpool on Boxing Day, ending a four-game streak against “Big Six” teams.
However, home games against the current last three teams, Burnley and Newcastle, follow shortly thereafter, offering Leeds a chance to get out of trouble if the aftermath of City’s defeat can be shaken quickly.
Bielsa has a responsibility to lead his team through the current situation, and while there may be some questioning about the decisions he has made to bring them here, there is no one they would rather have on the bench to move them forward.