“I wouldn’t be able to tell you things about this team which are not already known,” Marcelo Bielsa said, largely because there is nothing about Derby County he has still to find out.
The club were the subject of his hour-long tactical debrief in January, picked apart from top to bottom to such an extent that it was hard to be sure if Frank Lampard knew more about Derby than him.
He will put that analysis to work this week, in anticipation of outwitting Lampard for a third and fourth time this season, but the ins and outs of Derby’s team are less pressing for Bielsa than the issues lying closer to home at Leeds United.
He took Sunday’s defeat at Ipswich Town on the chin, trying as best he could to categorise it as a freak and an “accident”, but Leeds are walking into the play-offs in their worst form of the season.
The club’s target before their crisis on Good Friday was 10 points from four games for automatic promotion.
In the end, they took one and were reliant on Derby beating West Bromwich Albion to keep them in third place on the final day.
Ipswich was a deeply unflattering result – a 3-2 defeat to a team who finished eight points above the Championship’s lowest-ever points total – but it mattered less than the repetitive strain which leaves Leeds looking stale at a juncture where vibrancy is essential.
Bielsa called the result “impossible” and to take the game in isolation, he was right.
Leeds had their usual heavy share of possession, 27 efforts to Ipswich’s six and sold three goals to Town’s only shots on target, all of them the consequence of individual misjudgements or absent defending.
Bielsa has been here before, with possession stats and chances in his favour but a poor result staring him in the face, and United’s head coach is at a loss to drastically alter the imbalance of dominance versus goals scored.
It was a problem at Wigan Athletic on Good Friday and again at Brentford on Easter Monday, the two games which sucked Leeds out of the Championship’s top two.
The club’s game at Portman Road followed the same theme, comparable in the first half with a pre-season fixture in which players were tentatively attempting to get their passing and moving to take hold.
Mateusz Klich said last week that Leeds “deserve to be in the first two” in the division but the statistic the club cannot avoid is a tally of defeats as high as their tally of wins since Boxing Day; 10 of each and too many of the former to keep up the pace of the first half of the term.
There is an imbalance in Bielsa’s line-up which the Argentinian has struggled to change: 12 goals and 12 assists from Pablo Hernandez on the right, albeit helped by the midfielder’s knack of roaming and rotating positions, but far less productivity on the left and, to date, only two assists from Jack Harrison.
It was there that Leeds’ imagined Dan James, with the turn of pace they generally lack.
Kalvin Phillips has exceeded Harrison’s tally of assists from the deepest of deep-lying midfield positions and the form of the usually-reliable Hernandez dropped off after a blinding display against Millwall.
Leeds invariably thrive when Hernandez thrives, as he did in both games against Derby earlier in the season, and Bielsa’s hat hangs on him, the one player in his squad with a level of craft above the standard of the division.
Bielsa was honest enough to say on Sunday that if the league was based solely on Leeds’ attacking play and cutting edge, the club would have finished further down the table.
“One of the reasons we finished third and not lower is because of the quality of our defence and the collective effort to defend,” he said. “We have to put defensive efficiency as a strong point of the team.”
That, too, has been questionable since Easter – the point at which Leeds’ reserves of resilience ran dry – and the comparison either side of Christmas shows a definite creep in frailty at the back: 18 goals conceded in the first 22 fixtures of the term, 32 conceded in the last 24.
Injuries are forcing Bielsa to fend without a recognised left-back and amid a strong return to form from Luke Ayling, the other side of his defence is less settled.
Uncertainty strayed to Bielsa’s goalkeeper, Kiko Casilla, at Ipswich, resulting in the critical mistake which gifted Collin Quaner his 90th-minute winner.
Time is short for Bielsa before the first leg of Saturday’s play-off semi-final against Derby and his challenges are numerous.
He will try to pull his backline together again, make the best of a midfield which has looked one-paced with the combination of Phillips, Klich and Adam Forshaw, and eke goals out of a striker in Kemar Roofe who is out of the habit of putting them in the back of the opposition net.
Roofe missed a penalty at Portman Road but Bielsa predicted that he would be “close to his peak” for this weekend’s first leg at Pride Park.
Pride Park is where Leeds delivered one of their most devastating performances under Bielsa, crushing Derby with exhausting counter-attacking, unmanageable movement and deadly finishing.
Lampard’s players were given similar treatment at Elland Road in January, beaten in a way which offered Lampard no defence, even after the fury over ‘Spygate’.
“We’re underdogs,” Lampard said as he looked ahead to the semi-finals and the clubs’ previous meetings suggest that they are, if only Bielsa can find a way to take Leeds back to those unplayable days.