Daniel Chapman: Leeds United and the Harlem Globetrotters - how Marcelo Bielsa's subtle approach is paying off

YEP columnist Daniel Chapman pens his weekly thoughts

Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 6:00 am
Leeds United celebrate at Luton Town.

“Where’s the football gods when you need them?” cried Luton Town manager Graeme Jones, after Leeds United’s late winner at Kenilworth Road.

I can help him there.

The ‘Football God’ – there is only one – sits on a blue bucket most weeks and manages Leeds United. The ‘Football Jesus’ can be found cutting in from the right wing with no19 on the back of his sky blue shirt.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The ‘Football Virgin Mary’? Ben White’s assist on Saturday was the closest thing to immaculate conception I’ve seen on a football pitch, so maybe it’s him, riding into town upon a donkey named Pontus.

Leeds fans have been waiting for a six- or seven-nil win to descend from the heavens, but it didn’t come the way some hoped at Luton. Instead of thrashing the Hatters to within an inch of their brim, Leeds demoralised them, which is just as good.

Graeme Jones pointed to a penalty appeal, a disallowed goal and a tackle by Kalvin Phillips in the build-up to United’s first goal, all before our last-minute winner.

“Football is cruel,” he said. That’s Leeds United’s calling card.

In 1972, commentator Barry Davies said the way Leeds were toying with Southampton at Elland Road, with a 7-0 lead on their side, was “almost cruel”. But he didn’t look away. He and his Match of the Day colleagues kept their cameras zoomed in, and people still watch clips of that torture now, like a late-night repeat of a classic horror film.

That sort of Harlem Globetrotters’ stuff is not beyond Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United although, after last season’s play-offs, I don’t think I’ll feel comfortable defending even a 7-0 lead ever again.

Sometimes we need to step back and away, like Jack Clarke taunting a full-back, and listen to everybody else purring about Leeds this season. The obvious scoring problem is obviously obvious but, in every other category, Leeds look good, smell good and feel good.

Perhaps it’s characteristic West Yorkshire miserablism that keeps us from joining in with the applause.

Back when Leeds were marching on to glory in the early 1970s, even 7-0 wins weren’t enough to fill Elland Road, while anything less than a cricket score would be jeered by Leeds fans demanding more entertainment from the best team in the world.

In the 1950s, when John Charles was the best player in the world for the Peacocks in Division Two, attendances suffered.

The theory then was that Charles was so far above the level that he made all the other players on the pitch look bad, and Leeds people wouldn’t pay their hard-earned to watch a game with only one good player in it.

Imagine refusing to watch Lionel Messi play for Leeds in the Championship because his strike partner is Steve Morison and, well, maybe they had a point. But Leeds are good right now without huge scorelines or outstanding players.

Luton’s affable manager didn’t praise United’s style or point to statistical dominance on Saturday, but spoke instead about psychological fear.

“They are the best team in the league. I see them cutting through teams, and I mean at will,” he said, shivering like a terrified bystander reporting on an indiscriminate zombie attack.

“Some clips, I didn’t show the lads. I think I would have frightened the life out of them.”

The implication is that everyone should run away.

To Luton’s credit, they chose fight over flight, and that’s what Leeds are facing most weeks; it’s as if the Harlem Globetrotters have booked a mistaken tour against teams that haven’t got the memo.

United’s solution is patience – never a popular option in football – waiting until Pablo Hernandez or, at Luton, Ben White does something so extreme nothing in their path can stop them.

White ran the short length of Kenilworth Road before sliding the ball into Pat Bamford’s path, and Bielsa said, “It’s not normal that a centre-back gives these kinds of passes.”

The goal was a rehearsed trick shot as spectacular in its way as any Leeds have scored this season, and Bielsa said it “describes how football is going”.

It will be a test of the EFL’s sophistication to see if it’s nominated for any goal of the month awards. Perhaps it was too subtle.

That’s not the word we expected for Marcelo Bielsa’s all-or-nothing assault on promotion this season, but it’s accurate. Leeds are second in the table now, not dominant, but quiet and cruel. Don’t get on their wrong side.