The irony of Saturday’s defeat to Blackburn Rovers was that some of what Marcelo Bielsa saw pleased him more than a 1-1 draw with Brentford two weeks earlier.
There were wobbles at the back and a dearth of chances up the field but Leeds United’s attacking play, in Bielsa’s eyes, rose above the standard set against Brentford. It was, nonetheless, a day when Bielsa was provoked into talking about “negative cycles” and a performance which suggested some freshening up might be called for against Ipswich Town tomorrow.
Bielsa has tasted defeat in the Championship before and avoided drastic action on that occasion – his line-up at Sheffield Wednesday six days later was unchanged in its entirety – but he is looking now for Leeds to shake their way out of a mediocre clutch of results.
Leeds’ only other loss in the league, at home to Birmingham City last month, was blamed by Bielsa on his own failure to set up with a three-man defence but Saturday’s trip to Blackburn was an occasion where his choice of individuals felt questionable. Bielsa was forced to swap his full-backs to opposite sides of the pitch just 15 minutes into the game and he shuffled Kemar Roofe from the right wing to a central role and back again without Roofe exerting influence. If not the wrong team, there were aspects of it which failed to work.
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Bielsa is not in the habit of dealing with poor form with a sledgehammer but, as he and Kalvin Phillips spoke in tandem about the importance of beating Ipswich, it was natural to wonder if changes might be afoot this week.
Bielsa has Luke Ayling back from suspension tomorrow and Barry Douglas and Jack Harrison are working to overcome the injuries which ruled them out on Saturday. The lively impact of Pablo Hernandez and Jack Clarke off the bench gave Bielsa something to think about.
The Leeds boss was asked at Ewood Park if he would consider making deeper tactical alterations against Ipswich, on the back of a 2-1 defeat. He implied that the meeting with Blackburn would not tempt him down that path.
“We have changed players (in the past),” Bielsa said, “but we only changed players because of injuries. We had some modifications (at Blackburn) because Douglas didn’t play, Ayling didn’t play, Roofe didn’t play for a long time and Pablo Hernandez the same. Harrison also didn’t play. But we found good solutions to the absences of the players. Dallas, Berardi and Alioski played well enough so we didn’t suffer from the absences of Douglas and Ayling.”
Leeds were guilty at Blackburn of conceding two headers from set-pieces but no less costly was their struggle to play through Rovers in all but a few instances. United’s goal, scored by Mateusz Klich, was beautifully crafted in trademark Bielsa fashion, with Leeds spreading the ball across their defence before breaking and loading players onto the left-hand side.
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The move created space for Gaetano Berardi to arrive quietly on the right and square a pass to Klich but too much pressure found dead-ends, despite Bielsa devoting time during the international break to honing his offensive tactics.
Only six of United’s 28 deliveries into Blackburn’s box, 16 of them from Gjanni Alioski, found a Leeds player and 20 shots on goal did not equate to a peppering of Blackburn’s goalkeeper, David Raya. Bielsa was partially satisfied. “The offensive play against Brentford was not as good as today,” he said. “I’m not talking about the number of chances we had but how we built the offensive play.”
Phillips also saw a weight of possession wasted by “the final bits”. “The goal that we scored was a great goal,” the midfielder said, “and in the second half we put them under a lot of pressure. The final bits just weren’t quite there but you can always work on that and that’s what we’ll work on for the game on Wednesday. Hopefully we can put it right.”
Rovers gave much thought to Leeds’ tactical ideas beforehand, wound up by a manager in Tony Mowbray who told his players to think of United as “super-human”. One ploy involved dragging Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson into wide areas of the box whenever Rovers swung corners into it and both of their goals came direct from set-pieces. With a 2-1 advantage 20 minutes from the end, Blackburn packed players in behind the ball, preventing Leeds from creating chances at close range.
“I think teams have realised how we play football and have set up to defend against us like that,” Phillips said.
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“Whether we underestimated Blackburn I don’t know because they defended very well. But you should never go into a game underestimating teams and that’s what happens when you do. Credit to Blackburn, they defended great and put pressure on us when we didn’t expect it. Wednesday is now massive for us.”
It would be an important fixture in any circumstances insofar as Ipswich are bottom of the table and scrambling to paddle out of the creek but there was more to Phillips’ comment than that: an admission, almost, that Leeds are being questioned by the division and challenged to re-assert themselves in the way they did in August.
“We need a win and hopefully we can get it,” Phillips said. “It never gets easier in the Championship and in every game you play, there’s always competition. Whenever you think you can take your foot off the gas, you’re wrong.”