Close-knit spirit dragging Leeds United through as Marcelo Bielsa prepares for one final Championship push

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
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Days off at Thorp Arch became a rarity after Leeds United acquired a new broom last summer and the club are well aware that Marcelo Bielsa would sleep in his office if he could but Bielsa was not blind to the value of some rest and recuperation this week.

His squad dug in for a victory over Swansea City on Wednesday and many of them were told to report back to training on Monday, ready to pick up where they left off.

The postponement of tomorrow’s game at Queens Park Rangers will come at the cost of a congested glut of three fixtures in seven days later this month but a free weekend gave Bielsa the opportunity to let many of his players go home and relax.

Leeds, like the other clubs around them in the Championship, are bracing themselves for the big push.

Bielsa pushes United hard and has seen in the space of five days two different aspects of his side’s resistance: the latest goal Leeds have ever scored, at Middlesbrough to bank a point in a 1-1 draw on Saturday, and a firm backbone when the concession of a late penalty by Luke Ayling put Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Swansea in doubt. The Championship has been trying to shift Leeds all season but through critical moments and fine margins, it finds them at the top of the table once more.

Jack Harrison, who scored United’s second goal against Swansea, said Bielsa’s squad felt the need for a “big performance” on the night.

The timing of Leeds’ equaliser against Middlesbrough – scored in the 11th added minute – made the result seem more precious than the average draw but Bielsa’s side were on a run of two wins in seven matches, a rough patch which allowed Norwich to replace them briefly as the division’s leaders.

“We knew this had to be a big performance,” Harrison said at the end of Wednesday’s victory. “Everyone had to be on their game. It’s a nice relief to go into this break with a win and the chance to build off that performance.

“Tough times like the end of the Swansea game are when we need to stick together and see it out. We’re able to do that because we’re so close knit as a team. It’s really important and we’ve been like that since the start of the season. We need to keep getting better and better as the season goes on.”

Results like those in the past week have kept United’s nose in front of their division, even in their poorest spell of results under Bielsa.

Leeds have been more vulnerable since beating Blackburn Rovers with two goals in stoppage-time on Boxing Day but their success in riding a dip in form set them up for a promising run of fixtures: Swansea at home on Wednesday followed by Bolton Wanderers next weekend and QPR away the following Tuesday.

Bolton’s win at Birmingham City on Tuesday was their first in seven matches and QPR’s current record shows five straight losses in the Championship.

Players always speak with reluctance about promotion but United’s squad have not been scared of the subject and Pontus Jansson admitted before the clash with Swansea that automatic promotion was there to be taken. Bielsa himself is more reticent and took the table with a pinch of salt on Wednesday night.

“The goal is always to have as many points as possible,” Bielsa said. “If that allows us to be first, it’s even better.”

Bielsa, according to Harrison, has avoided the subject of how to cope with the pressure of the run-in, at a club who have been yearning for a place in the Premier League for well over a decade.

“It’s important just to keep building momentum and taking it game by game,” the winger said.

“We can’t get too ahead of ourselves and start thinking about other people. Just control what we can control. He (Bielsa) hasn’t said anything specifically. As a team we’re aware of it and the manager expects us to have that maturity about the game.

“We knew it was important to start well against a good (Swansea) side who like to play. We knew it was important to come out strong and we did exactly that. We just had to close the game out a little better. It was definitely a bit close.”

Harrison is a footballer who embodies Bielsa’s loyalty to the players who work under him: a winger who the Argentinian has relied on continuously despite questions about Harrison’s form and a struggle to switch easily from Manchester City’s academy to the Championship.

Wednesday was another of his better games and Harrison took his goal with a clever run to the near-post, meeting Gjanni Alioski’s cross with a header which beat Swansea goalkeeper Erwin Mulder for pace.

“Marcelo’s worked a lot on how I can contribute going into the box, taking up the right positions,” Harrison said. “That’s one of the movements we worked on. Gjanni put a great ball in and I glanced it on.

“I try not to let any of that go to my head. I like to stay level-headed and, again, I’ll review this performance and see what I can improve on. I get video from Marcelo’s staff and there’s also a team at Manchester City who watch the loan players. I get video and advice from them as well. I try to take in as much as I can from both sides, to learn as much as I can.

“I’ve got a lot of respect (for Bielsa), his opinion on my game and what I can improve on. It’s hard at times but I’m willing to put the work in to get better.”