hMassive defeats can be facilitating. In 1992, Newell’s Old Boys led by Marcelo Bielsa lost 6-0 to San Lorenzo in the group stage of the Copa Libertadores, which drove them to desperation. He was an ambitious and exemplary young coach who grabbed aHassle in 1990-91 but then saw his team win only nine games in the whole of 1991. Could his methods be ineffective? Was his entire vision of football flawed?
For two days, he locked himself away at the Hotel Conquistador in Santa Fe. He mourned. He called his wife Laura and confessed that he thought his career might be over. In the end, he gathered the players together and asked if they still believed in him. Change the approach, or play the same stress game but harder and better? They insisted they still had the faith, and so, Bielsa was encouraged.
The following match brought a goalless draw against Union de Santa Fe. It wasn’t much, but it was the beginning. They only lost one league match after winning the endingThey reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, where they were beaten on penalties by the brilliant São Paulo, coached by Tele Santana and captain Ray. The humiliation of San Lorenzo became enshrined in the Bielsa legend as the moment of greatest doubt before a glorious dawn.
If hope that Tuesday’s 7-0 defeat by Manchester City might have had a similar effect, it has quickly dissipated. Arsenal had four shots in the first five minutes, were 2-0 up during the opening half hour (and at that point had as many shots as Spurs did throughout September), and were 3-0 ahead at half time. . If there was any doubt before, there can be nothing now: Leeds are in a relegation battle and it is a fight that, for now, they seem hopelessly ill-equipped.
Talking about Season Two Syndrome, about discovering Leeds in one way or another, is an oversimplification, and yet the anti-intellectual sides of English football culture could lead to Bielsa’s failure. That’s not to say there is no truth to the theory, but it is clear that injuries are a major factor, especially at a club with a relatively small team and the second lowest estimated salary bill in the division.
There is something a little uncomfortable in the fact that Leeds, with all their infection fears, may welcome a postponement if a few players are excluded from being in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid. Despite this, they are understood to be one of the three clubs with the highest rate of vaccinations in the Premier League, and it is hard to avoid the feeling that their competence in this regard has taken their toll.
Even without any Covid-related absences, Leeds lost 11 players in Saturday’s game, at least nine of them semi-regular and seven of them primarily defensive. This meant that Luke Ayling, who had been ill, had to be joined, and forced the Leeds to bring Robin Koch back sooner than they would like after surgery on his hip. Jack Harrison limped out in the first half to extend the injury list even more.
It is thought that the severity of the technique imposed by Bielsa may be responsible for the proliferation of injuries. The demands he puts on his team aren’t secret, but if his training is such an important contributing factor, why haven’t there been similar injuries before?
Then again, this is the first time Bielsa has entered Season 4 in a club, which means we’re in uncharted territory in terms of the continuing impact of his methods.
The typical criticism of Bielsa is that he over-attacks, and his play of man-to-man pressure leaves his side exposed in the back. Obviously, especially in the 5-1 defeat to Manchester United and the loss to Manchester City, this has been a problem at times this season.
But having been knocked out against the top four last season, Leeds’ defensive record was reasonable: 14 goals were conceded in the 13 games before Saturday. The problem was at the other end as Patrick Bamford missed most of the season, with Leeds scoring just 17 goals in 17 games.
But the problem here, insofar as it was possible before the break to define it more precisely than just “everything”, was defensive. Time and again Leeds gave the ball away in their own half. Time and time again the midfield disappeared. And again and again Arsenal roams. The Bielsa method is high risk and high reward. When things go wrong, they can go badly and a second half run can’t make up for that.
Perhaps for the first time he began to interrogate Bielsa. Did his project run its course, or could no manager simply cope without his first half of his team?