Leeds United’s squad might feel that they have proven their durability already this season. A narrow escape at Swansea City last month was followed by an easy rout of Norwich City. An even tighter escape at Millwall two weeks ago preceded a mauling of Preston North End.
Off days have been few on Marcelo Bielsa’s watch but tonight Leeds will show how a first league defeat has registered with them. The club looked unmovable in Bielsa’s first month as head coach but Gjanni Alioski is one of several players who felt the impact of a sudden wobble last year. Unbeaten until the middle of September a year ago, one loss at Millwall spawned seven in the space of nine games.
The consistent message coming from Elland Road is that this is different; that the thin hide under Thomas Christiansen has been replaced by thick skin and deeper vein of confidence under Bielsa. The Argentinian himself barely flinched after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Birmingham City, saying openly that it would not stop him naming an unchanged line-up at Sheffield Wednesday this evening.
From Alioski’s perspective, he sees a higher level of performance this season and a higher calibre of results. “I see a real difference,” he said. “Last year when we won games, we won maybe 1-0 or 2-1 and we were a little lucky. This year we win 2-0, 4-1, 3-0 and you think ‘that really was a good performance.’
Ezgjan Alioski reveals what Marcelo Bielsa hates most and believes Leeds United will bounce back after defeat
“This year I’m sure it can’t happen that we’ll lose two, three, four games in a row. I’m 100 per cent sure it will never happen. This coach has prepared us to show a reaction and when we don’t play very well we get a good reaction in the next game. At Swansea we had some players who didn’t give a good performance. The next game at Norwich was unbelievable. Each player is focused to react. That’s why I’m sure.”
Bielsa won the manager-of-the-month award for August but was never drawn into counting chickens about Leeds’ earliest results. Too old, too clever and too aware of how the game works, it was Bielsa who said before the loss to Birmingham that he was not yet ready to class his side as a “strong team”, despite their position at the top of the Championship.
In that spirit he has hammered away at the fitness and attitude of his players, forcing them to shed weight and teaching them to trust his tactics. It is at this juncture, in what Alioski’s described as a period of “harder games”, where Bielsa will look for that coaching to take hold.
“The coach gives us the mentality to think strong,” Alioski said. “The mentality before wasn’t like what we have now. It’s changed with all players.
“I’m fitter now. I lost kilos and fat that I didn’t have so much of. At the first you think it’s not so important but then you see after how much we run, what we do on the pitch, how fit we are. All of the players see a difference, not just me.”
Marcelo Bielsa gives insight into Leeds United's tactical breakdown ahead of Sheffield Wednesday clash
It surprised Alioski to hear Bielsa blamed himself for the Birmingham defeat. It was, according to United’s head coach, a failure which began with his own decision to play a back four instead of the back three he usually fields against a two-man attack. There was no finger-pointing or individual criticism, no players singled out for the errors they made.
“Nobody thinks the coach would say this,” Alioski said. “It’s positive for the players that the coach says he’s responsible for us losing but the players know also that we weren’t so good. What the coach said, he’s behind us, he trusts us and he did something he thinks was his fault. But maybe it’s not like this.
“The pressing we wanted to do, the aggression we normally have in a game, it wasn’t there from the beginning. Birmingham scored two goals and in the first half we didn’t have it. But we know which mistakes we made and we’re prepared for the next time.”
Alioski’s 85-minute reply, a clean volley after the winger controlled a crossfield pass from Samuel Saiz, ultimately counted for nothing but it was his third league goal of the season on top of two assists. His influence can be inconsistent, hampered by a running battle with offside flags, but Bielsa has started him in every Championship game and is making the traditionally right-sided Alioski a fixture on the left flank.
Mateusz Klich opens up over 'military' life at Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa
“Personally I’m happy,” Alioski said, “but I can always be better and I learn every day something new.
“I can improve in attack, to be more aggressive. Automatically I always help the team with defence but I can maybe do better in attack. There are some better decisions I can do.
“It’s not the first time I’ve played left. It’s not my side but it’s not a big difference. It’s new that this year I play always on the left but it doesn’t change anything for me.”
Alioski trudged through a 3-0 defeat at Hillsborough this time last year, part of the first implosion under Christiansen. There is underlying conviction at Leeds that the squad Bielsa has worked into shape will show more backbone and quality at moments like this; that class will tell when questions are asked.
Leeds sold a full allocation of 4,600 tickets for the away end at Hillsborough. For Bielsa, tonight is his first major Yorkshire derby. “It’s a derby, yes, but we go there for a victory,” Alioski said. “Now it’s Sheffield Wednesday, next time it’s Hull City.
“It’s not easy for us because teams think we are a big team now and it’s not only (important) because it’s a derby. We want to show a good performance there. Not like Saturday.”