There is risk inherent with bold predictions but Gjanni Alioski was not wrong when he said last week that Leeds United’s squad were “like a bomb ready to explode”. Cooped up for so long in Marcelo Bielsa’s boot camp, the release against Stoke City on Sunday was almost combustible.
Any amount of revision of Bielsa’s managerial career would have prepared Stoke for the onslaught that met them. He is famous for pushing his players to and beyond their physical limit, at times to the point where they all hit the wall. Pre-season matters so much to him that in 2012, when work on Athletic Bilbao’s training ground was dragging on and missing various deadlines, Bielsa wound up scuffling with one of the builders responsible.
Gary Rowett, Stoke’s manager, highlighted the organisation of United’s team on Sunday and also the variation in their movement up front after swallowing a 3-1 defeat. It was, he admitted, a lesson for his players – many of them carrying years of Premier League experience – about the reality of football in the Championship but with Frank Lampard and Derby County preparing for a visit from Leeds this weekend, it was as much a lesson for the division about what Bielsa likes to do: suffocate teams with a fierce, high press and move the ball with the speed which saw possession move from back to front in all of 10 seconds when Mateusz Klich opened the scoring against Stoke.
Some will ask if a squad as trimmed-down as Bielsa’s can play this way for 46 games, at such a high tempo and with the same levels of energy. Pablo Hernandez, who scored the second goal in Sunday’s victory, believes Leeds can.
“We’ve worked hard for these six weeks with Marcelo,” he said, “and I think this game was perfect for us, a really difficult game against Stoke City who are big team and a good team.
“I think this team will fight to go to the Premier League but it’s this kind of team we need to beat if we want to fight to get promoted. If that’s what we want then we need to beat teams like Stoke. We played very well, we had control of the game. It was a very good start for us.”
Hernandez is one of the few players at Leeds who might not need much schooling from Bielsa. Now 33, he has been a winger or an attacking outlet throughout his life and started against Stoke on the right side of midfield. Bielsa’s ideas of player rotation – the theory that footballers should be able to adapt to different positions as a game plays out – are embodied by Hernandez and Samuel Saiz, playmakers who always try to roam.
Hernandez signed a new two-year contract with Leeds last season, shortly before winning the club’s player-of-the-year award. The deal, which could extend by a further 12 months if United win promotion from the Championship, will take him to the age of 35 and almost certainly represents his last opportunity to play in the Premier League again.
Nonetheless, the Spaniard said he hoped Bielsa’s coaching would find some improvement in his game. Bielsa is another change of direction in a playing career which has seen Hernandez work under Unai Emery, Michael Laudrup, Garry Monk and, most recently, Paul Heckingbottom.
“It’s something different and I have to adjust,” Hernandez said. “But for me it’s a good experience to work with him and it’s a challenge for me to continue to improve.
It’s this kind of team we need to beat if we want to fight to get promoted. If that’s what we want then we need to beat teams like Stoke.Pablo Hernandez
“I’m 33 but I still think I can improve with him and learn from him every day.”
On Sunday, the changes under Bielsa were in tactics and mentality rather than personnel. Only one player, Barry Douglas, made a full debut and six of the starting line-up had started the final game of last season, at home to Queens Park Rangers. Bielsa has trimmed away much of the excess baggage at Elland Road but stopped short of cutting the existing squad to its core. Liam Cooper remains as club captain. Kemar Roofe was preferred to Patrick Bamford up front.
Amidst the delight with Leeds’ performance, there should be no risk of Bielsa’s squad allowing their expectation to get ahead of itself. A large portion of the squad were here last season when Leeds topped the Championship in mid September. They were here, too, when all that promise dissipated after Christmas.
“It’s only one game,” Hernandez said. “It’s good to be positive and it’s good to be ambitious but we need to continue with this hard work. I think it’s a mistake if we think every game will be like this.
“Some games we can play good and win when we play good but if we run like we did against Stoke then we will always have a chance to win even when we don’t play well.”
Bielsa, however, has resources in reserve. Bamford did not feature at all against Stoke and Jack Harrison and Lewis Baker, United’s loan signings from Manchester City and Chelsea respectively, came on for the last few minutes. Pontus Jansson was left on the bench having taken a three-week holiday after his appearances at the World Cup.
“This league is so long and we have a lot of games,” Hernandez said.
“Of course, everybody wants to play but I think it’s good if the manager has problems over who is going to start.
“This is positive. If he has to choose then it is positive for the side.”