Heavy defeats can be purgative. In 1992, Marcelo Bielsa’s Newell’s Old Boys lost 6-0 to San Lorenzo in the group stage of the Copa Libertadores, sending him into despair. He was an ambitious and idealistic young coach who had clinched the apertura in 1990-91 but then seen his side win only nine games in the whole of 1991. Could it be his methods were ineffective? Was his whole vision of football flawed?
For two days he locked himself away in the Conquistador hotel in Santa Fe. He wept. He rang his wife, Laura, and admitted he thought his career might be over. In the end, he gathered the players together and asked them if they still believed in him. Change approach, or play the same pressing game but harder, better? They insisted they still had faith and so, emboldened, Bielsa ploughed on.
The next game brought a 0-0 draw against Unión de Santa Fe. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. They lost only one more league game as they won the clausura, and they reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, where they were beaten on penalties by the brilliant São Paulo, coached by Telê Santana and captained by Raí. The San Lorenzo humiliation became enshrined in the Bielsa myth as the moment of greatest doubt before a glorious dawn.
If the hope was that the 7-0 defeat at Manchester City on Tuesday might have a similarly galvanising effect, it was quickly dispelled. Arsenal had four shots within the first five minutes, were 2-0 up inside the opening half-hour (by which point they had had as many shots as Tottenham did in the whole of September), and 3-0 up by half-time. If there was any doubt before, there can be none now: Leeds are in a relegation battle and it’s one for which, at the moment, they looked hopelessly ill-equipped.
To speak of second-season syndrome, of Leeds somehow being found out, is oversimplistic, however keen the anti-intellectual fringes of English football culture may be to see Bielsa fail. That doesn’t mean there is no truth in the theory but the injuries are clearly a major factor, particularly at a club that has a relatively small squad and the second-lowest estimated wage bill in the division.
There’s something slightly uncomfortable in the fact that Leeds, with all their injury concerns, might have welcomed a postponement if a handful of players had been ruled out as close contacts of somebody who had tested positive for Covid. They, though, are understood to be one of the three clubs with the highest rate of vaccinations in the Premier League and it’s hard to avoid the sense that their efficiency in that regard has counted against them.
Even without any Covid-related absences Leeds were missing 11 players for Saturday’syesterday’s game, nine of them at least semi-regular first-teamers and seven of them primarily defensive. That meant Luke Ayling, who had been struggling with illness, had to be included, and forced Leeds to bring back Robin Koch earlier than they might have liked after surgery on his hip. Jack Harrison limped off in the first half to lengthen the injury list even further.
It’s been suggested that the intensity of the style Bielsa has imposed may be responsible for the proliferation of injuries. The demands he makes on his squad are no secret, but if his training is a significant contributory factor, why has there been no similar glut of injuries before?
Then again, this is the first time that Bielsa has ever entered a fourth season at a club, which means we are in uncharted territory in terms of the sustained impact of his methods.
The stereotypical criticism of Bielsa is that he is overattacking, his man-to-man pressing game leaving his side exposed at the back. Clearly, notably in the 5-1 defeat to Manchester United and the loss at Manchester City, that has at times been an issue this season.
But take out the games against last season’s top four, and Leeds’s defensive record had been reasonable: 14 goals conceded in 13 games before Saturday. The issue had rather been at the other end where, with Patrick Bamford missing most of the season, Leeds had managed just 17 goals in 17 games.
But the problem here, in as much as it was possible before half-time to define it more precisely than simply “everything”, was defensive. Again and again Leeds gave the ball away in their own half. Again and again the midfield disappeared. And again and again Arsenal strolled through. The Bielsa way is high risk-high reward; when it goes wrong it can go badly wrong and the second-half rally couldn’t offset that.
For the first time, perhaps, Bielsa is beginning to be questioned. Has his project run its course, or is it simply the case that no manager could cope without half his first-team squad?