Marcelo Bielsa admitted that he would class Leeds United’s season as a failure if they fell short of promotion after a damaging 2-1 defeat to Wigan Athletic placed a top-two finish in fresh doubt.
Wigan won away from home for only the second time this season despite losing Cedric Kipre to a first-half red card as Leeds dropped down to third place in the table on a tense afternoon at Elland Road.
United led against 10 men through a 17th-minute goal from Patrick Bamford, scored moments after Pablo Hernandez missed a penalty given after Kipre was sent off for handball, but Wigan rallied impressively in the face of draining Leeds confidence to win the game with two finishes from Gavin Massey.
Bielsa has repeatedly criticised himself after United’s poorer results this season and did the same again, refusing to point the finger at his squad at the end of a match which he said Leeds “had to win”.
A point would have been enough to raise Leeds above Sheffield United, who won at home to Nottingham Forest earlier in the day, but Bielsa’s side are out of the top two on goal difference ahead of a difficult trip to Brentford on Monday, one of three remaining matches.
A despondent Bielsa said: “Any explanation I can give would be meaningless. It's not a game you can analyse because you have games like today's which you don't deserve to win but you have to win.
“There's no point in me giving any explanation because the result tells a lot about me and seriously condemns my work. You have no explanation which could justify a loss like this.
“I don’t think the players are responsible for us not winning. What criticism could I make? What could I point my finger at?
“The players have the duty to give everything and be ambitious. When you have these ingredients - ambition, effort and commitment - and you don’t get what you’re looking for, it’s not the responsibility of the players. It’s the responsibility of the head coach.”
Bielsa has been a revelation since his arrival in England in June, reviving a club and a squad who finished 15th last season, but the defeat to Wigan was a huge blow to United’s prospects of ending a 15-year wait to rejoin the Premier League.
“This is a very serious result in the worst moment,” Bielsa said.
“The only relief we can get is to get promoted. What we've done so far is not enough. It's clear that it’s not enough. We need to have more strength. It’s a moment of weakness that was not expected.
“If we don’t get promoted, if we can’t get promoted, it won’t be a season to be remembered. That’s not because we have the obligation to get promotion but it’s because we arrived at this moment with all the conditions to get promoted.
“Everything was in our favour. Destiny gave us a hand - a red card for the opponent, a penalty we missed, 15 chances to score. There’s no doubt that I bear the responsibility for this moment. I’m very sad but I’m very motivated.”
Wigan, who had taken just seven points away from home before their visit to Elland Road, defended brilliantly to repel Bielsa’s side and seal a deserved win, enhancing their chances of avoiding relegation.
Massey struck a minute before half-time to level Bamford’s finish and scored again on 62 minutes to silence a packed ground.
Manager Paul Cook said: “With the lad (Kipre) being sent off, the first thought in everyone's mine - no different to myself - was ‘how many can we keep it down to?’
“The goal before half-time gave us a massive lift. It let us stick to a game plan.”