Phil Hay's Column: A team set up to score goals. Can Marcelo Bielsa make Leeds United cut loose down the home straight?

Watching Rotherham United away from home in the Championship is, as someone once said about Leeds United, like watching Jurassic Park and cheering for the goat. Their last win on the road in this league? April 2016. Their wider record as a nicely packaged sum? Three wins in 51 games. A lot of travelling and a lot of money for some very bare bones.

Wednesday, 23rd January 2019, 2:34 pm
Updated Wednesday, 23rd January 2019, 2:38 pm
Luke Ayling produces Leeds United's best chance of the game - a header saved brilliantly by Jack Butland - during their 2-1 defeat to Stoke City last weekend.

Rotherham live and die by their record at home – death was what came of it at the end of the 2016-17 season – and it is rare to see a team turn up at their stadium and coast like West Bromwich Albion did last month. What Marcelo Bielsa, in this of all weeks, would give for the same casual affair on Saturday: four goals inside an hour and game over before the corporate seats were filled again after half-time.

A win so simple at a time when Bielsa’s off-field public relations skirmish has become so complex is exactly what Leeds need this weekend but their head coach is never allowed to sit comfortably on his bucket and something Paul Warne said at the end of Rotherham’s hammering with West Brom would chime with Bielsa: “I don’t think we could have played any better. They took their chances and we didn’t take ours.”

Football is no longer allowed to be seen in such basic terms, even if basic terms are all the explanation a result needs. Even the concept of chances has been broadened in the past decade into clear definitions between the bad and the good, the expected goals calculations which clubs trust as a guide of how creative their play actually is. Shots on goal and traditional statistics are too vague to measure the potency of a team’s attack, which is why Brentford began employing what they called the “table of justice”: a performance indicator which gauged whether tables or scorelines were telling the truth. That, for any progressive coach, is the crux of analysis.

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Bielsa mapped out his pre-match analysis in all its glory last week, shooting to number one in the list of unique press conferences staged by Leeds, but there was another intelligent look at his management on Monday in an article published online by Ellis Riley, a football coach based in Nebraska. Bielsa granted a request from Riley to observe one of his training sessions before Leeds played Queens Park Rangers in the FA Cup, an invitation which Riley was not expecting to receive. Initial communications told him he’d be lucky. Bielsa read his letter and welcomed him in.

Riley’s breakdown of the session detailed much of what Bielsa is known for: precise work and huge amounts of repetition in changes of shape, transitional play and manipulating the ball from the back under pressure. The article talked about specific focus on body position, on the accuracy of passing and the players’ understanding of tactical plans which sound like an NFL playbook. Riley noted one particular bug-bear of Bielsa’s: “Are you moving when you receive (the ball)? You better be or you’re going to get hammered by Bielsa personally.”

The piece was timely insofar as Bielsa has spent the past two weeks trying to explain why spying on opposition training sessions is, from his point of view, a small and inconsiderable part of schooling a squad but in the midst of Leeds’ clutch of league results (three defeats in four) it reminded those who read it of Bielsa's aspirations. The precision, the repetition and the clarity of thought is borne out by the success of it all, from the most shots on goal in the Championship to the most from open play and the third highest number on target. Leeds have earned their head coach some breathing space, and more than he has. It is strange to talk of a team holding themselves back when the Championship table is in their favour but the key margin for Bielsa, and the factor which has caught up with Leeds, is what he always calls “efficiency”; the art of taking chances and exploiting dangerous possession.

“In spite of the fact we are top of the league, we have the same level of efficiency as the teams who occupy the last five ranks,” Bielsa said earlier this month. It was not strictly true (and not remotely true in the case of a club like Ipswich Town) but the facts support the basis of his argument. Leeds are putting one of every 10 efforts on goal away. Amongst the rest of the top four, Sheffield United need eight and Norwich City and West Brom seven. Stoke City require closer to 14 and that was not the only anomaly in United’s 2-1 defeat there last Saturday. Leeds pressed and probed with almost three quarters of possession but contrived to lose to a team in which only two players maintained a pass completion rate of over 70 per cent. One of those days, in that respect.

It was, Bielsa said, an afternoon of constant dead ends and the fact that Samuel Saiz’s defection to Spain made space for a signing like Daniel James does not mean that Leeds could not have done with a new winger anyway. Twenty-six crosses came at Stoke’s defence. Four of them found a Leeds player. It tallies with a ratio of one accurate delivery in five this season and gives one example of why Bielsa has never been drawn into claiming his players are a ‘cut above’.

Goals are what United’s head coach lives and dies by, with a team set up to score them and with the capacity to score more. The quality of Leeds’ productivity and finishing has been discussed more than once on his watch, raised more often than not by him, and Bielsa - the architect of a training routine aimed at practising “14 different ways to score” - is due a day when the trigger is pulled, the goals fly and someone is savaged like the goat. He will need some of that down the home straight.