Marcelo Bielsa’s fixation with analysis runs so deep that before Leeds United’s pre-season friendly at Forest Green Rovers, their first with Bielsa as head coach, he asked for permission to film three warm-up games between Forest Green and non-league clubs. His request was granted by an amused Mark Cooper who, at that stage of the summer, was not expecting to a learn a great deal about Forest Green himself.
The first of those matches against Brimscombe and Thrupp, a Hellenic League team based in Gloucestershire, came three weeks after Bielsa’s appointment by Leeds and straight away the obsessional way that he treats opposition analysis – the “anxiety” he blamed for the events behind ‘Spygate’ – revealed itself. Cooper, Forest Green’s manager and the son of former Leeds defender Terry, said it himself: “I’ve never had anyone ask to do that.”
Set against such an extreme level of preparation, the minimalist attitude which Bielsa shows in constructing a squad – the numbers he wants, the signings he demands, his willingness to push players up from the academy – is an undeniable contradiction: a coach who lets nothing lie when it comes to scouting rival clubs but feels none of the same tension about the head count in his dressing room. Leeds were geared up to sign an emergency goalkeeper in November after Jamal Blackman and Bailey Peacock-Farrell went down with injuries within days of each other. Bielsa put his trust in Will Huffer and told them not to bother.
No-one argued with him then and no-one would tell him now that with Leeds three points clear at the top of the Championship, his idea of the perfect squad is putting the season at risk. Bielsa intimated in early December that barring a new keeper – a considered recruit as opposed to an emergency deal done in 24 hours – Leeds would probably sign no-one in January.
Samuel Saiz’s unforeseen loan to Getafe changed that but even with Saiz on the plane to Spain, Bielsa’s appeal for transfer investment was restrained.
A keeper was his main concern and Leeds cleared a very high bar by tempting Kiko Casilla to leave Real Madrid for the Championship. Casilla said this week that when he first met Bielsa, United’s head coach joked with him that he was “crazy” for dropping down from La Liga. United paid no fee for the 32-year-old but inherited a wage which made him a top earner at Elland Road. It was agreed all round that Casilla, a Spain international, was patently worth the money.
Bielsa’s other target was a winger with different attributes to Gjanni Alioski and Jack Harrison, the wide players used most often by him this season. Saiz’s exit left a hole at number 10 and the board at Leeds said before the window opened that they would make money available to cover that area but Bielsa’s plan was to give Pablo Hernandez the reins in a central role and sign someone else for the flanks. From the point of Saiz’s departure onwards, that someone else was Daniel James.
James is understood to have been picked out first by Craig Dean, a scout who once worked for Oxford United and is Leeds’ head of emerging talent for players between the age of 17 and 21 (James turned 21 in November). The video clips shown to Bielsa appealed to him. James was quick, direct and minded to go past full-backs, providing crosses for players arriving in the box as Kemar Roofe and Mateusz Klich like to do. Swansea City’s FA Cup win over Gillingham last weekend provided one example: James cutting down the right to the byline and presenting Barrie McKay with a tap-in from three yards.
Other players were considered too, amongst them Bristol City’s Callum O’Dowda and Hoffenheim’s Steven Zuber, the Switzerland midfielder who featured in last summer’s World Cup. Zuber was ruled out by Bielsa at any early stage, moving on loan to Stuttgart instead, and Leeds made no move on O’Dowda having decided early on – with Bielsa’s instruction – that James was the target to chase. The chase became so protracted that yesterday it entered the final 24 hours of the window.
Swansea have been in two minds about James: deeply resistant to selling a Wales international with undoubted potential but conscious too of the need to counter financial pressure caused by their relegation from the Premier League. High earners like Wilfried Bony and Leroy Fer were targeted for transfers elsewhere but Leeds made it clear to Swansea last week that they would pay hard cash for James. United see a fee of around £5m as James’ top value but were happy to draw up an agreement which included future add-ons.
As discussions went on, James started and scored for Swansea in a 3-3 draw with Birmingham City on Tuesday night, an outing which cast the prospect of a transfer to Elland Road in doubt. Leeds persisted with further negotiations yesterday, aware that time was running short for a deal to be reached and James to undergo a medical, but were reluctant to let his price go above their own limit. Bielsa is said to be in agreement that the youngster is only worth so much.
Tonight’s deadline passes at 11pm and Leeds appear to have their eggs in one basket. Bielsa is due to hold his weekly press conference, looking ahead to Saturday’s crucial league game against Norwich City, shortly after 1pm. A deal for James is needed to fill the boxes he wanted ticking this month, and the club’s failure to pull it off would leave one of them empty, but it is a mark of Bielsa’s attitude towards recruitment and squad size that he did not bang the drum for a serious splurge in January. Twenty-nine games have supported his less-is-more policy. The final 17 will pass a definitive verdict on it.