huhlight defeats can have a purifying effect. In 1992, Marcelo Bielsa’s Newell’s Old Boys lost 6-0 to San Lorenzo in the group stage of the Copa Libertadores, driving him to despair. He was an ambitious and idealistic young coach who had won the titledisturbance in 1990-91, but then saw his side win just nine games in all of 1991. Could it be that his methods were ineffective? Was his whole vision of football flawed?
For two days he locked himself in the Conquistador hotel in Santa Fe. He cried. He called his wife, Laura, and admitted that he thought his career might be over. Finally, he gathered the players together and asked them if they still believed in him. Change your approach, or play the same urgent game, but harder, better? They insisted they still had faith, so, encouraged, Bielsa plowed on.
The next match resulted in 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 when they won the . won closure, and they reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, where they were defeated on penalties by the brilliant São Paulo, coached by Telê Santana and captained by Raí. The humiliation of San Lorenzo was enshrined in the Bielsa myth as the moment of greatest doubt before a glorious dawn.
If hopes were that the 7-0 defeat at Manchester City on Tuesday would have a similar stimulating effect, they were quickly brushed aside. Arsenal had four shots in the first five minutes, led 2-0 in the opening half hour (at which point they had as many shots as Tottenham had in all of September), and 3-0 before half-time. If there was any doubt before, there can’t be now: Leeds are in a relegation battle and it’s one for which they look hopelessly ill-equipped at the moment.
Speaking of the second-season syndrome, which is somehow being discovered in Leeds, is too simplistic, as much as the anti-intellectual margins of English football culture are eager to see Bielsa fail. That’s not to say there’s no truth to the theory, but injuries are clearly a major factor, especially for a club with a relatively small squad and the second-lowest estimated wage bill in the division.
There is something inconvenient about the fact that Leeds, with all their concerns about injury, would have welcomed a reprieve if a handful of players had been ruled out as close contacts of someone who had tested positive for Covid. However, they are seen as one of the three clubs with the highest vaccination rate in the Premier League and it’s hard to avoid feeling that their efficiency has counted against them in that regard.
Even without Covid-related absences, Leeds missed 11 players for Saturday’s game, nine of whom were at least semi-regular first-teamers and seven of them mainly defensively. That meant that Luke Ayling, who had struggled with illness, had to be admitted and Leeds forced to bring Robin Koch back earlier than they might have wanted after having surgery on his hip. Jack Harrison limped in the first half to make the injury list even longer.
It has been suggested that the intensity of the style imposed by Bielsa may be responsible for the increase in injuries. The demands he places on his team are no secret, but if his training is a major factor, why hasn’t there been a similar plethora of injuries before?
But again, this is the first time Bielsa has ever started a fourth season with a club, meaning we are in uncharted territory as far as the continued impact of his methods.
The stereotypical criticism of Bielsa is that he attacks too much, with his man-to-man pressure play leaving his side exposed at the back. Obviously, especially in the 5-1 defeat to Manchester United and the loss to Manchester City, that has been a problem at times this season.
But knock out games against the top four last season, and Leeds’ defensive record had been decent, conceding 14 goals in 13 games before Saturday. The problem was rather on the other side where, with Patrick Bamford missing most of the season, Leeds had only scored 17 goals in 17 games.
But the problem here, insofar as it was possible before halftime to define it more accurately than simply “everything”, was defensive. Time and again, Leeds gave the ball away in their own half. Again and again the midfield disappeared. And again and again Arsenal meandered on. The Bielsa way is high risk high reward; if it goes wrong, it can go very wrong and the rally in the second half couldn’t make up for that.
Perhaps Bielsa is starting to be questioned for the first time. Is his project coming to an end, or will no manager survive without half of his first team?