Patience runs out for Marcelo Bielsa as Spurs batter Leeds United - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Boos and stunned silence at Elland Road for the first time this season as Tottenham Hotspur test Leeds United's patience with Marcelo Bielsa.

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 26th February 2022, 6:21 pm
Updated Saturday, 26th February 2022, 6:22 pm

Today was the day patience began to run out at Elland Road.

In recent weeks, before and after bitterly disappointing and damaging results, Marcelo Bielsa has made a point of talking about the Leeds United fans and their patience.

It's not something he feels he could ever demand, it's something supporters have shown more than he thinks they should have, but he understands it's finite.

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There had been no calls for Bielsa's head heard during games leading up to the 4-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur, and his name was belted out, as it always is, during his walk from the tunnel to the technical area.

Yet long after the final whistle, as club staff swept through the stadium filling bags full of litter, it felt very much like Leeds were staring hard at a decision: to bin the man who made a sold-out Premier League clash with Spurs a possibility, or give him more time to shake the dust off a badly battered and torn apart team.

The way Bielsa spoke at full-time gave no indication that he was in any way minded to walk away from the project he's stayed with longer than any other in his managerial career. 'Of course' he had confidence in his ability to turn it around, he said.

Yet the first boos of his tenure at Leeds - a smattering after the second goal and a much louder airing as the team walked off at half-time 3-0 down - and the team's alarming slide towards the drop zone, have undoubtedly added enough pressure to the situation that a departure feels, all of a sudden, at least possible.

TORRID WEEK - Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United are winless in six and have conceded 20 goals in five games after a 4-0 rout by Antonio Conte's Tottenham Hotspur. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

Simply put, it's not working for Bielsa. The very system that transformed Leeds from midtable also-rans to worthy Championship winners and Premier League top 10 finishers, is now failing him badly.

Taking on Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs in the space of seven days was always going to be a huge ask for a team suffering from inconsistency and lacking integral players and in all honesty a point haul was not expected. Nor should the beatings they sustained at Anfield and against Spurs have been, though.

Bielsa's team selection was a definite nod in the direction of a more defensive outlook, putting Stuart Dallas and Adam Forshaw ahead of Robin Koch in the midfield. They still shipped three goals inside 30 minutes. By full-time they had conceded 20 in five games, 60 for the season.

"No team can think of progressing within the competition if you have defensive weakness that is so manifested like ours," he admitted at full-time.

If desire was all that was required, Leeds and Bielsa would be just fine because no one wants to fix the problems more than he does, no one wants to fight for the points more than his players and no one wants a manager to succeed more than Whites fans do their saviour. Right now it's not enough, by far.

Maybe it would have been different had Pascal Struijk's early header not fallen just the wrong side of the post. This has been a season of sliding doors, though, and with 10 minutes played it was 1-0 to the visitors.

Ryan Sessegnon had already sought to exploit space up against Stuart Dallas and whipped in a dangerous cross that Illan Meslier had to gather, before another foray down the left allowed him to get away from his marker and deliver to Matt Doherty at the back post. It was so simple but as recent games have proved, it doesn't take the complex to undo Leeds.

A second went in by the 15 minute mark and that one wasn't difficult to obtain either, Dejan Kulusevski predictably cutting in from the right, allowing Diego Llorente to run by him without getting a touch and simply drilling it in at Meslier's near post.

There might have been an immediate way back for the hosts had Robin Koch's sidefoot effort hit the post and gone in, instead of bouncing out across the six-yard box to safety but that's how it goes for Leeds.

The acre of space that Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was in to gather a loose ball and clip it to the back post for Harry Kane to beat Llorente and volley the third across Meslier, is also how it goes right now.

That goal brought silence down upon Elland Road's home stands.

Leeds huffed and puffed, fed Raphinha and hoped, but hope couldn't take him past his markers.

Just before the break the Brazilian popped up on the left to cross for Luke Ayling and his header was woefully wide. It was something but it wasn't enough.

Elland Road did come back to life in the second half as Leeds began it by playing the game in the opposition half, albeit without creating chances, Mateusz Klich and Rodrigo on as the interval substitutes.

A loud rendition of Marching On Together was sung more in defiance of the circumstances, than patience with them.

Things on the pitch go no better. Spurs were home and hosed and always the more likely to score, Meslier saving from Doherty and Sessegnon hitting the sidenetting with Dallas in his wake once again.

If ever a moment summed up Leeds' present reality it was when Rodrigo sent a ball over the top and Hugo Lloris lost out in a challenge with Dallas, the Ulsterman running in on goal, with Raphinha in support, but failing to get a shot off until defensive cover blocked his route to goal.

Bielsa's final substitution of Jamie Shackleton, for Junior Firpo, had an air of Titanic deckchairs about it as Son Heung-Min ran onto a ball over the top, fired beyond Meslier and Leeds sank without a trace.

What now, then? The difficulties are clear. Bielsa is beloved and backed by a large section of the club's support. Many still believe. There are enormous risks in replacing him at such a critical point of the season and hoping a replacement will get a sufficiently melodious tune out of a punch-drunk team. There is simply no way Leeds could even consider parting company with the man who knows these players inside out, unless they were convinced they could bring in another, promptly, and just as convinced that a new man had the answers. Jesse Marsch has long been admired by Leeds and linked as a potential replacement for weeks now. His or any appointment would carry risk.

There's also a risk in letting things slide until it's too late. There are winnable games on the horizon, that also now happen to be must-win games, and relegation is more unthinkable than failing to get promoted was, in the 2019/20 season.

Bielsa's position has been weakened and no one knows that better than him.

If this is the end, it's a desperately sad one but this is football and when the chances to get vital results start running out, so too does patience.