There are few things left for Marcelo Bielsa to discover in management but Christmas football is one of them. A very British tradition is about to greet him, a world away from the winter breaks which empty the calendar in Europe and Argentina.
The Premier League has long been tempted to impose a winter break of its own and next season it will introduce a 10-day interlude in February. The EFL has more games to accommodate and no way of doing the same but at every level the Christmas schedule is here to stay in England.
The mayhem caused by December’s fixtures came up in a conversation between Bielsa and Tony Pulis, who told the Leeds United head coach that this month was as crucial as any in the season. Simple mathematics will tell Bielsa that it could be the most valuable - seven games, including a New Year’s Day visit to Nottingham Forest, and 21 points to pick up or drop - but this is a time when impetus matters. It was a month last year when Wolverhampton Wanderers avoided defeat and never looked back.
Leeds are halfway towards doing the same after reeling off successive wins over Bristol City, Reading, Sheffield United and Queens Park Rangers. The advice from Pulis was useful and well-intentioned but Bielsa has been in this line of work for 30 years and Pulis’ Middlesbrough are struggling to keep up with Leeds, six points back and without a victory since the last weekend of November.
From Newell’s Old Boys and Athletic Bilbao to Marseille and Lille, these weeks of the year were generally downtime for Bielsa, if downtime is a concept Bielsa understands. Between United’s trip to Bolton Wanderers tomorrow and their game at Forest on January 1, his side will play once every four days; once every two or three days from December 23 onwards.
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“It’s something new for me because it’s the first time I’ve worked in England,” Bielsa said. “As you say, other leagues actually have a break and my only goal is to adapt to the situation.
“I have no opinion on (whether Christmas football is a good thing) because that’s not my job. I can’t make any comment because I’ve no experience of games on Boxing Day. Others do.
“Of course everybody knows about this tradition and many people see it as a favour because it means they can still watch football during the Christmas period. But to talk about history you need to know about history and have experience of it. I don't know about the history of this and I don’t have the experience.”
Squad rotation, or squad rotation as a matter of habit, is something Bielsa has long been sceptical about. He has made occasional changes on the basis of form this season - Samuel Saiz a notable casualty after his influence and body language sagged in October - but Bielsa is resistant to tinkering unless injuries force his hand. Fatigue is rarely a consideration. “When a team regularly wins nobody is tired,” Bielsa said earlier in the season. “They all want to play.”
The passage of matches ahead is one where more caution might be necessary. Bielsa normally has his line-up fixed in his head in advance of a game but he admitted yesterday that he was still to settle on a starting side for Leeds’ trip to Bolton tomorrow. Saiz’s inclusion is a doubt after the revelation last night that he has asked to leave Elland Road and go home to Spain.
“Regarding possible rotations, we have to see how the players cope with number of the games they play in this short time,” Bielsa said. “We have to see if it affects their physical and footballing performance.
“We also have to take into account the possibility of injuries because when you play so many games in a short space of time, it increases the risk. The head coach of Middlesbrough Tony Pulis a man with a lot of experience, told me December was a crucial month in the Championship. So we're trying to adapt to find solutions for this moment of the competition.”
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Pitching his line-ups successfully during the next three weeks could take Leeds beyond 50 points by early January. His players are already driving forward at a pace of two points a match, enough historically to earn a top-two finish in a typical season, and the message from Pulis - a promotion-winner with Stoke City in 2007 - is that this is a good time to start turning the screw.
Tomorrow’s opponents, Bolton, are comparable to a number of the sides Leeds have been knocking over recently, if not worse; a team in relegation places whose financial issues forced the Professional Footballers’ Association to step in with an offer to pay the players’ wages for November. They last won a game in September, 12 matches ago, and manager Phil Parkinson lost Sammy Ameobi to a red card during a defeat to Norwich City last weekend. Bielsa said simply that tomorrow’s fixture would not be the same as Leeds’ League Cup win over Bolton in August.
The Argentinian would prefer to deal with each game in isolation and admitted that he saw no point in thinking about the impact Christmas could have on a squad who are already second in the table.
“We have the same problems as every other team,” Bielsa said. “Usually you don’t play every three days in a period of two-and-a-half weeks but we’ll adapt to what happens and take one game after the other. It’s not convenient to draw any conclusions beforehand.
“We’ll see if fatigue generates any injuries. We also have to see if the succession of games affects the performance of the players. We’ll link these things with the results we get. Then we’ll take decisions.”