Last Saturday’s defeat to relegation-threatened Wigan Athletic was a perfect microcosm of what life at Leeds United is like under Marcelo Bielsa.
Elland Road was as good as full with over 35,000 in attendance. For the majority of the game, the home side dominated with their free-flowing and possession-based football that has become synonymous with the iconic Argentine coach.
But the struggles that have become an unwanted hallmark of Leeds under Bielsa were evident throughout. Chance after chance went a-begging, before a scrappy winner from a corner-kick cost them victory.
Where the gap from third was once 11 points, it has now been slashed to just three and that eerily familiar feeling from last season is creeping into the Leeds fans’ heads once again.
There is a sense that the perfect storm of Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa has the club on the brink – but whether that’s of the promotion they crave or of another spectacular collapse is the defining question.
It’s been almost two years since I was last at Elland Road, April 7th 2018 for the visit of soon to be relegated Sunderland.
Paul Heckingbottom, who had recently arrived from Barnsley, was in charge as a 1-1 draw meant that Leeds stayed 14th in the Championship and another season of mediocrity edged ever closer to its endpoint.
Fast forward a couple of years and it’s easy to forget how far the club has come and how much they have Marcelo Bielsa to thank for that.
Last season may have ultimately ended in disaster, and this season there have been, and will likely continue to be, struggles but under ‘El Loco’ the club and the city itself have been revived from their 13th-15th place slumber they’d spent so many years in.
Leeds United is more of a religion than a football club in the city of Leeds. It is unique in the sense that, unlike Manchester or Birmingham, it is a one-club city.
You don’t have a red half or a blue half. It’s all one.
“The one-club city aspect of Leeds is key,” says former Leeds and Ireland midfielder Stephen McPhail.
“The eyes of the city are on the club every day. You feel it, you can’t go out for a meal or anything without someone talking to you about the club.
“It’s such a massive catchment area and all the history that goes with it. The Revie era is always spoken about. It can be difficult, there’s a lot of expectation.”
The club is engrained in the fabric of the city and although it has always been like this, Bielsa’s arrival has injected something it’s been missing for so long.
On the way to the city centre from the airport, there are advertising posts for a local business, plastered in the club’s iconic phrases “We are Leeds”, “Marching on Together,” with the last of the selection saying “In Bielsa we trust.”
Never in my lifetime has a manager been this revered by Leeds fans and depending on how the season ends, he will likely be spoken of in the same breath as club greats like Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson.
But there is pressure that comes with managing Leeds and suddenly now, where perhaps it had been lost before, there is expectation.
The city is better for having Bielsa a part of it, but there’s a distinct nervousness. This, after all, is Leeds United. If a club epitomised Murphy’s Law they would be it.
The fans still trust Bielsa, and considering the last decade, these are rare times indeed. But Saturday’s game again showed the Elland Road faithful are right to be concerned.
The game was close to a sell-out at Elland Road and perched in the John Charles Paddock, parallel to the penalty spot at the Kop end I, along with the whole section, stood for the majority of proceedings.
From the off, it was clear that regardless of the result this would be a game the home side would dominate, with Wigan’s out-ball to the towering Kieffer Moore, their preferred method of attack.
Striker Patrick Bamford and the ever-lively Helder Costa linked up well to test David Marshall in the first five minutes before winger Jack Harrison cracked a low strike off the post in what was a promising opening 10 for the home side.
Leeds looked to get their attacking trio as well as Pablo Hernandez on the ball with frequency and it was Bamford again in the first half who created an opening well, but saw Marshall beat the effort away.
Bamford is the one player who has arguably drawn the most ire from Leeds fans this season. Despite finding the net 12 times, his conversion rate has been poor and Saturday’s game will have done his confidence no favours.
The home crowd continually chanted his name in the early stages of the first half at Elland Road. However, it wasn’t long before they were collectively cursing it as the ball fell to him on the edge of the area only for the striker to scuff his strike and fail to hit the target.
After that, it was Harrison’s turn as he met a lovely ball from Bamford but was unable to convert the chance as the two sides went into the break scoreless.
The home fans as always were in tremendous voice, but there were rumblings of nerves during the break. Wigan had rarely threatened, yet this felt familiar. How many chances would Leeds need before they were punished?
The second half began in a similar fashion, Leeds with plenty of possession but creating chances that they simply couldn’t convert, Bamford again heading Costa’s cross off target.
As the game went on, the discontent began to build at Elland Road as the away fans found their voice, a chorus of ‘Wigan Wigan, Wigan’ echoing around the ground as Bielsa, and his plethora of assistants, bustled around the technical area.
It’s another unique aspect of Bielsa’s management style. At any one time, there could be four or five coaches clamouring around the Leeds dugout roaring instructions at players in a cacophony of languages.
The control though was abruptly loosened in the 59th minute when Joe Williams’ corner caused havoc in the air for Leeds and as keeper Kiko Casilla came for the ball, it nicked Hernandez and found the net.
Cue a silent Elland Road.
Leeds have now conceded 6.7 per cent of their goals from corner kicks, with the opposition scoring from 10 out of 134 – the second-worst in the whole division.
Conversely, they’ve only managed to score 4 goals from 231 corners this season, a conversion rate of just 1.73%, the lowest in the division.
A bizarre blind spot for a manager so regimented.
The goal, in truth, took the wind out of Leeds and where they thrived coming from behind against Millwall earlier in the week they lacked the intensity and guile required to break Wigan down.
Chances came and went as Bamford, Tyler Roberts and Hernandez failed to make Leeds’ pressure count. Wigan’s Cedric Kipre was playing like Paulo Maldini in his prime at times.
The home fans bemoaned the lack of cutting edge, while the away support revelled in a “Leeds, Leeds are falling apart again,” chant as the game grew further and further away from Leeds’ grasp.
They could’ve played for another 94 minutes. This wasn’t to be Leeds’ day. There were no boos at the final whistle, but the disappointment was palpable.
Another game, another loss, another missed chance, another goal from a corner. Here, again, comes the pressure for another week.
As we depart Elland Road to return to the city, the radio in the taxi plays a local radio station as they discuss the immediate reaction to the loss.
“Bielsa needs to go!” shouts a listener who rang in.
The taxi-man turns it up, ‘can you believe some people?’, he laughs.