The contractual cycle Marcelo Bielsa is trapped in as Leeds United face top flight struggle

As Leeds United prepare to host Tottenham Hotspur at Elland Road this lunchtime, YEP chief football writer Graham Smyth sees a cycle repeating for Marcelo Bielsa.

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 26th February 2022, 8:10 am

It’s going to be okay but it’s not going to be fun.

Marcelo Bielsa knows that nothing he says is going to change the mood, the discourse or the volume of criticism that’s coming his way, only his actions will and only if they bring results.

Leeds United’s problems are many but one of them is the cycle Bielsa finds himself trapped in, contractually chained and obliged to.

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By the time he sits down to address the media after today’s game against Tottenham Hotspur, Bielsa will have conducted six press conferences in eight days. That doesn’t include his pre and post-game broadcast duties, fulfilled at Elland Road and Anfield, which add at least another six interviews, all to give answers he doesn't believe will be accepted, to questions he's answered before.

“When you go through negative moments, any explanation that you give is rejected,” he said yesterday morning.

He knows this because he’s been here before. You don’t manage for over 30 years without spells of intense adversity, coming under heavy scrutiny and taking fire for your decisions.

“I insist that anything I say right now is going to be read as an excuse or it’s going to be criticised ferociously, with a ferociousness that the moment deserves,” he went on.

FED UP - Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa appears to have had enough of certain questions about his side during a tough run of Premier League results. Pic: Getty

“Anything that I say now I’m already imagining the responses that discredit what I say, because I’ve been doing this job for a long time and I’ve gone through this dialogue many times.”

There are no words really, not when the questions all revolve around issues that have cropped up before. Set-piece defending, squad size, man marking, being too open, the midfield issues, continued faith in out-of-form or under-performing players, stop me if you think that you’ve not heard these ones before.

The questions have to be asked, because supporters expect as much from the media and because there are column inches and airwaves to fill. They have to be asked because, fans have a right to hold their club to account when a project that held up so resolutely to the intense heat of the top flight last season appears so precariously poised and in danger of sliding backwards. But facing the questions so often in such a short space of time, knowing there are no words that will justify Leeds’ defensive record, recent results or proximity to the drop zone, would leave even the most patient of humans fed up.

At times over the past week Bielsa has given that impression, like he’s had enough. Not of the job or the responsibility to try and fix things, the parts of his role he clearly relishes and over which he obsesses, nor of Leeds and a relationship that has given both parties so much, but of the questions. Perhaps he’s had enough of the questioners, too, although when a section of the club’s support feel their local journalists have shied away from tough questions for which they want answers, there’s an inevitability that the messenger might have to take one in the neck from a spiky manager.

All the real pressure and the real unpleasantness is being suffered by Bielsa, however, not only because it’s his job to make all of this go away with better results but because he has had to answer publicly for the club on an almost daily basis for what has been a long and miserable week. Club owners and chief executives come in for their fair share of stick when things go wrong but there is no contractual obligation forcing them in front of a camera and a Zoom screen full of journalists’ faces before and after games. The questions are left entirely to Bielsa and his feelings are perhaps well summed up by what he said before the trip to Anfied.

“I know that there’s questions that I answer commonly, and I give empty responses, but there’s questions that are impossible to answer synthetically,” he began.

“Apart from that, I’ve been saying the same things for four years now. To think that certain questions could be avoided because you already know the answers.”

This unhappy place is where Leeds find themselves with 13 games to go in a season that has had more downs than ups.

Away from press conferences lie Bielsa’s biggest problems. According to him they don’t lie in the treatment room. The uncertainty over Patrick Bamford’s return and the apparent delay to Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper’s comebacks are troubling, to say the least, but he doesn’t see them riding back into action like the cavalry because he sees problems that exist with or without them.

Just like his pre-January approach to the transfer window, Bielsa is not crossing his fingers and hoping that an answer presents itself, he’s working to provide it himself.

“Of one thing I am convinced, that what we do I’m going to try to do it better,” he said.

His track record at Leeds is so good and he has so much credit in the bank, with supporters as much as the club hierarchy, that there’s just no question of giving that task to someone else.

He’s problem solved in the past and achieved things few can genuinely claim to have foreseen. Under his care, Leeds have been fun, lots of fun in fact. He’s right that aspects of his philosophy now coming in for stick were once lauded. Football is fickle like that. Just as you don’t become a bad player overnight, good managers, legendary ones even, do not suddenly lose all of their powers.

Leeds possess a head coach who will not rest until he turns it around and even then he’ll be working obsessively ahead of the next game. They possess quality players who care enough to put in the necessary effort and fight even when their quality isn’t showing. They’re still creating chances against the best sides. If he rediscovers form, Raphinha is a bona fide Premier League match winner and there’s no doubt Phillips, Cooper and Bamford will help massively.

Make no mistake, however, this is a struggle. It’s going to be a struggle. Shoring up the defensive system and breathing life back into out-of-sorts attackers will be no easy feat.

If there was a quick fix, it would have been applied by now. The solutions are not readily appearing to Bielsa and others below them are in better form and gaining ground. The questions will keep coming.

Leeds should be backed to stay up however on current evidence there might not be much in it and that will not be fun. But it will be okay.