It comes as no surprise that one of most bullet-proof teams in the Championship belongs to Aitor Karanka. Middlesbrough were tighter than a noose while Karanka was managing on Teesside and Nottingham Forest have his methods about them, hovering ominously inside the division’s play-off zone.
Money was thrown at Forest during the summer and Karanka is making it work in his own fashion, ploughing through 12 matches at the cost of only one defeat. In that respect there is nothing between his squad and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United: to date the most robust sides, and the most difficult to beat.
The perfectionist in Bielsa will find things to hammer out in this international break and there was a definite difference between the precision of his side’s attacking play during the first and second months of the season but with a quarter of the fixture list already gone, Leeds are sitting pretty. One loss in 12 matches and nine league goals conceded is, in a limited timeframe, something close to promotion form.
Attention has been drawn to Elland Road by the best of Bielsa’s football – the passing and the interplay which can cut teams apart from front to back in a matter of seconds – but his players are showing a talent for digging themselves out of a hole. Pablo Hernandez nabbed a 2-2 draw at Swansea City last month with a goal scored 10 minutes from the end.
Jack Harrison produced an equaliser at Millwall as the game edged towards injury-time. Pontus Jansson came up with the goods again on Saturday, nodding in an 88th-minute header as Brentford clung to a 1-0 advantage.
When Leeds have won under Bielsa they have generally won comfortably; no last-gasp goals or salvage jobs needed in the midst of comprehensive performances. It is in the moments when defeat comes calling that his side are finding a way to break the door down. Even against Birmingham City, the only club to beat Leeds in the Championship, Stuart Dallas went as close as he could have done to claim a point with a 95th-minute shot which goalkeeper Lee Camp tipped wide.
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Adam Forshaw, Bielsa’s experienced central midfielder, classed Saturday’s draw with Brentford as a disappointment when weighed against his pre-match confidence but it gave another demonstration of the attitude which could help Leeds hold their ground near the top of the table. Bielsa’s side sit third, behind West Brom and two behind Sheffield United. All three clubs will soon be past the point where people talk in terms of good starts.
“We’re a quarter of the way through the season and no-one wants to get carried away,” Forshaw said. “There’s so much football to be played but we’ve shown character in games which I’d probably say wasn’t quite there last season. It’s a big difference and that can carry us through.
“I’m slightly disappointed (with Saturday’s result) because with the quality we’ve got now we want to win every game, especially at home. But after going behind, we’ve shown our character again and we’ve not lost.”
Bielsa’s microscopic focus on the conditioning of his squad in pre-season – targeting the weight and body fat of players who believed they had little or none to lose – was aimed at shoring up their fitness to the point where they could cope with the expansive tactics he trusts in. A by-product of that work has been Leeds’ ability to think clearly and persist in the closing stages of games which are going wrong.
“He had the six weeks in pre-season and the long days were well documented,” Forshaw said. “We worked our socks off, got our body fat and weight down and there were big changes with a lot of the players.
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“You can see that it’s working. We’ve scored another late goal and the hard work’s paying off. It’s credit to the manager and his staff. They’ve really made the difference for us.”
Forshaw planned to have made a more tangible difference himself but the 27-year-old has been the victim of an unpredictable sequence of events: a broken foot bone in the summer, the emergence of Mateusz Klich as a high-calibre midfielder in place of him and consistent results which have satisfied a head coach who prefers not to rotate his starting line-up.
Forshaw is yet to start a competitive fixture but Bielsa gave him the final 27 minutes of Saturday’s draw and got a meaningful return from him, including a pass completion rate of 96 per cent. Klich has shone with four goals and a consistent influence but Forshaw – a promotion winner under Karanka at Middlesbrough – is a player who looks likely to come to the fore eventually.
“The manager wants his midfielders to play with really high intensity and that’s only going to come with games,” Forshaw said.
“I’m training as hard as I can and biding my time. Every player wants to play from the start and I’m raring to go. He’s a perfectionist and he wants everything done professionally and right but I think at times he doesn’t mind if the technical things aren’t quite there. The fundamentals – high intensity and controlled aggression – he looks for that in his team. Eventually he believes the technique comes through as well.
“We were organised at Boro (under Karanka) with slightly slower build-up play as a team. This manager wants his teams really at it and more often than not, it can be enough in this league.”