Rotherham United 1 Leeds United 2 - Phil Hay's verdict: Marcelo Bielsa's rare show of emotion shows importance of points over performance
Marcelo Bielsa turned at full-time to hug Pablo Quiroga, his loyal assistant, and many years on Bielsa’s payroll have taught Quiroga that displays of emotion like that are rare.
Other coaches would have punched the air but a lasting embrace was Bielsa’s equivalent after Rotherham United were put to bed. Is that what the victory meant to him? “It was a necessary win,” he replied.
It is always understated with him - never outlandish in his praise or savage in his criticism - but nicking results like Leeds United did on Saturday is what clubs who get out of a league as tight as the Championship do.
There was no theft involved after a second half in which Rotherham were crushed by the weight of Leeds’ attacks but the clock had reached the 86th minute when Mateusz Klich took a pass from Jack Harrison and held his nerve by dinking a finish around Rotherham goalkeeper Marek Rodak. The goal was coming but the final whistle was too.
“The game made us feel we could score another,” Bielsa said and Klich vindicated that confidence.
Klich’s strike was his second of the match and both were as much of a relief for him as they were for Leeds. The midfielder is scoring goals again and not before time. His last had come 15 matches earlier, away at Blackburn Rovers in October, and by the start of the second half at Rotherham he was in the twilight zone where an effort of any sort was needed to lift him out of an undeniable rut.
It came his way on 51 minutes when Rotherham made a mess of defending a Pablo Hernandez cross and Clark Robertson’s dithering allowed Klich to poke an equaliser under Rodak. One goal became two and from a perilous position at half-time, Leeds finished the weekend three points clear at the top of the Championship.
The season is at the point where live tables matter and the division ebbed and flowed on Saturday, showing Norwich two points ahead at 4pm but three behind when the dust settled on the afternoon’s fixtures.
They are next to Elland Road this weekend for a monumental skirmish between first and second and Bielsa, again, found a way to keep the initiative. For 45 minutes in South Yorkshire it seemed to be slipping away from him.
Leeds conceded in the 28th minute to Semi Ajayi’s strike, a missile of a shot from 25 yards which welcomed Kiko Casilla to England with a firm dig in the ribs. Casilla, a week on from signing from Real Madrid, was given his debut at Rotherham but had done nothing more than punch clear an inswinging corner when he was beaten by a strike which would have gone down well the Bernabeu. Rotherham’s manager, Paul Warne, has defended Bielsa throughout the bitter ‘Spygate’ dispute but could not resist a joke about the sixth league goal of Ajayi’s entire career.
“There’s no way Bielsa would have prepared for that,” Warne said, “because I haven’t even seen it in training.”
Warne is an honest, committed sort with a squad who mirror his attitude and Bielsa’s warning about second balls and Rotherham’s knack of playing to generate them and win them was prescient.
They were first to most of them before half-time and held their shape in a way which left Adam Forshaw and United’s defence staring at a wall of Rotherham shirts in front of them. Leeds’ second-phase passing was reduced to difficult, low-percentage passes over 30 yards or longer which tried to work the only available space out wide. By half-time Bielsa had seen nothing resembling a proper chance.
Without much possession, Rotherham found a way of dictating the flow of the contest. “I don’t think Rotherham dominated the first half,” Bielsa insisted, “but we had the ball and we didn’t create any danger. In the second half this changed. We attacked better and we had chances to score. The first goal had a positive impact on the team.”
A greater impact came from Bielsa’s decision to withdraw Jack Clarke before the second half started. Clarke, for many week, was Bielsa’s go-to impact sub, the wildcard played when a wildcard was called for, but Saturday brought a role reversal as Tyler Roberts took the winger’s place. It freed Pablo Hernandez to move to the left wing and find the space he needed to take the ball, pick passes and force Rotherham to chase shadows. Hernandez had been stuck in mud before the interval. Klich, after several weeks of diminishing influence, was lucky not to be hooked himself.
There is far more to the Pole that his vaguely supporting role either side of Christmas, as Bielsa saw in the first few months of season when so much of what Klich touched turned to gold. A spring in Klich’s step was evident after his equaliser rolled in and a smile stretched as wide as the Vistula when his winner beat Rodak, taken with a deft first touch and a delicate finish. Those 35 minutes alone might be enough to turn him on again.
“When it’s hard for the team to score goals, it’s important to have another player capable of scoring them,” Bielsa said. “That’s always something positive.”
Casilla had intervened brilliantly before Klich’s second, diving to tip wide an effort from Will Vaulks which Rotherham thought was in. The Spaniard’s confidence on the ball was counterbalanced by occasions where he rushed miles from his goalline for crosses he was never likely to claim but the reaction to Vaulks’ strike was what Leeds expected from a keeper who occupied the bench during Real Madrid’s recent Champions League trilogy.
As debuts go, it was a comfortable pass. “He didn’t have a lot of work to do,” Bielsa said, “but he saw (Rotherham) off aerially towards the end of the game.”
The second half left Rotherham treading water, as Warne was willing to admit. Their limits caught up with them as attempts to play their way out of trouble refused to stick up front and they were left with no outlet once Michael Smith, a tall and combative nuisance, hit the wall.
Leeds refused to panic or let the ticking clock stress them and when Jerry Yates lost possession in the build-up to Klich’s winner, Harrison reacted quickly by sliding the ball into Klich’s feet 12 yards out. Warne refused to be critical of Yates. “That’s the pressure Leeds put you under,” he said.
Bielsa has kept the Championship under it for most of the season, leading from the front for the past month and a half, and the league will be cut six points adrift if Leeds are at their inhospitable best when Norwich descend on Elland Road. “We can’t say the team is stable at the top,” Bielsa said but a deep hug with Quiroga told the world that he is starting to smell the finishing line.