Yesterday’s transfer deadline was of partial relevance for EFL clubs, all of them guarded by a longer window set aside for loan signings, and Leeds United passed through it quietly. The club are in possession of one of football’s most particular coaches but it did not take much in the summer market to keep Marcelo Bielsa sweet.
There are a couple of remaining requirements at Elland Road, gaps which Leeds have three weeks to address before the loan window closes but, as yesterday’s 5pm cut-off approached, Bielsa seemed satisfied with his lot. “I’m happy,” he said, speaking as a man who tends to let people know when he is not.
Leeds have limited financial strength, as their owner Andrea Radrizzani explained last weekend, but Bielsa’s outlook is less about pragmatism than it is about habit. He has taken Leeds into this season with slender resources, borne from his belief that the perfect squad amounts to 18 players of established first-team quality and four academy players in reserve. There is no fat on the bones and no waste in a dressing room where more than 30 professionals mingled last year.
Conventional wisdom in England says that a good Championship season needs a large squad; that 46 league games, combined with FA Cup and League Cup ties, require more bodies than Bielsa has available to him. Stoke City are flooded with senior pros, not that it made any difference against Leeds on Sunday, and tomorrow’s opponents Derby County have a greater amount of cover. On Wednesday Derby wrapped up the signing of Martyn Waghorn from Ipswich Town.
Bielsa, over the course of his long career, has always worked this way. To him, a smaller number of players equates to a higher level of motivation by virtue of the fact that all of them expect some involvement and he singled out Jamie Shackleton, Tyler Roberts, Conor Shaughnessy and Tom Pearce as youngsters who would be called to the fore at some stage. He is, though, attempting to nail a division which has ground Leeds down many times before.
Is it a risk to rely on a squad of this size? “The question makes me think,” Bielsa replied. “I think it won’t be a problem but some people could see a different perspective from mine. Experience and knowledge of the Championship has to be taken into consideration.
Of a group of 22 players, I like 18 players at the same level. I also like to have four youngsters who can improve to become players in the first team.Marcelo Bielsa
“I suppose you ask this question because you know the Championship competition. I think that 50 games in 10 months is not a figure that 18 or 20 players can’t reach. It’s doable. But I’d like to express this precise point.
“You know that physical performance also has to do with the mind. When you have many possibilities to play regularly, it gives you a better state of mind. When you have more than 20 players then in some positions you have more than two (options), sometimes three. Having three options for one position can diminish the enthusiasm.
“Of a group of 22 players, I like 18 players at the same level. I also like to have four youngsters who can improve and become players in the first team. You always have players missing because of injury or suspension so the youngsters go into the group of 18. To be young isn’t an obstacle to be a starter. You only have to show that you’re the best.”
Enthusiasm has been a drug at Thorp Arch all summer, or ever since Bielsa took the plunge and came to England. It was evident, too, at Elland Road last weekend as Leeds began the season with an exhilarating defeat of Stoke; exhilarating in terms of the result against the Championship’s promotion favourites but also in the way that Bielsa’s fabled tactics shone through. The pressing of Stoke was brutal. The conversion of chances was clinical. The understanding between Bielsa’s players defied the six-week period in which Bielsa crammed in so much coaching.
Leeds were so intense and relentless – to the point where Kemar Roofe was struggling to catch his breath in a post-match interview – that it posed an obvious question of Bielsa. Can a team play that way, and only that way, for 10 months? Bielsa touched on the subject of a plan B yesterday but insisted his side would play the same way at Derby tomorrow, and on any given day. “That is my goal,” he said. “If we can’t impose our model, it’s because the opponent prevents us not because we don’t try to impose it.
“This is a different game because it’s an away game. We will see if we can repeat what we did at home but our intentions are the same.
“Everyone knows that English football has a special characteristic of intensity. It’s an aspect that everyone recognises in English football, especially people who don’t live in England. I don’t think it should be difficult to do something English football does naturally. We can talk about styles but making many passes is not something very new. Trying to get the ball back is something very important during a game. I don’t think that what we propose is new.”
Derby have their own new broom in Frank Lampard, the former Chelsea midfielder and fledgling manager who Bielsa described as an English legend. He went further again by calling Derby one of the “six most important teams in the Championship”, praise which seemed to refer to County’s historical standing. More recently, Derby have consistently floated in or around the league’s play-off positions and were beaten in the semi-finals last season. “All the opponents deserve to be respected,” Bielsa said. “Derby County deserve a special respect.”
He may or may not know the history of Pride Park, where Leeds have won once in 16 years. In that timeframe, Bielsa would become only the second Leeds boss after Uwe Rosler to leave Derby with three points.
Some records hold no logic but Derby, a little like Millwall, have a record of hitting the right notes when United visit.
Even if an away win materialises, it is unlikely to alter Bielsa’s body language.
The Argentinian caused much amusement against Stoke by watching the game placidly from a bucket-shaped stool inside his technical area, though the fascination with his choice of seat left him nonplussed.
“I’m surprised that people talk about it,” he said. At no stage of the win over Stoke was there more than a slight clench of both fists when Liam Cooper’s header sealed a 3-1 win in the second half.
“What you celebrate is the victory rather than the goals you score,” Bielsa said. “But as head coach I think I should celebrate privately, not publicly. The ones who should celebrate publicly are the players and the fans.”