Phil Hay - Inside Elland Road column: Promotion is Marcelo Bielsa's step to greatness at Leeds United. But either way, they will remember him

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
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“As long as the maths say something then we’ll be following them,” Marcelo Bielsa said but the little things gave it away.

Bielsa did what he never does at Brentford by consoling each of his players individually over a right and royal Easter crucifixion. Pablo Hernandez did what he never does by shedding a few tears, unable to hold them in.

Leeds United were in danger of making themselves look like a team who were done, play-offs or no play-offs, but perhaps it was only natural.

They are the same in some ways, Bielsa and Hernandez: one a coach who is too old and too attached to his homeland to promise Leeds many years of his life, a coach who will probably never manage another English club, and the other a midfielder who, at 34, has only a limited shelf-life before age and retirement takes him back to Spain.

The bigger the stakes the bigger the drive, and the bigger the feeling of emptiness.

Monday, and a 2-0 defeat at Griffin Park, found Bielsa at his most empty and sombre.

There were small flashes of anger in him after a Good Friday loss to Wigan Athletic, the sort of mess which cannot be countenanced in so tight a promotion year, but Bielsa’s tone in London was softer: apologetic, regretful and without bitterness.

He was pushed to comment on the penalty which wasn’t after a trip on Patrick Bamford in the first half but was consistent in his answer, even in the circumstances.

“I don’t like to put the responsibility on someone else,” he said. “I have to say the most difficult task in football is the referee’s job.”

Consistency has defined Bielsa more than anything else in England, his complete refusal to blow with the wind or to contradict what he was saying when the going was good weeks or months ago.

There is a stoic loyalty to systems and players, the continuous selection of players who are lucky to keep places but do so anyway because Bielsa believes in the whole much more than the individual parts.

Kalvin Phillips’ omission at Brentford was a surprise because tactical tweaks on Bielsa’s part so rarely stretch to the players themselves.

Samuel Saiz was one example and Bailey Peacock-Farrell another but deep down you sense in Bielsa a wish that football and fitness would allow him to play the same XI every week.

Somewhere in there is the reason why he always, without fail, blames himself for costly results.

Bielsa concocts the tactics and schools his squad to fit into them.

It helps if the man on the right flank happens to be Pablo Hernandez but quite honestly, it could be anyone who Bielsa believes is up to it.

He has never craved superstars because in theory, his process should be savvy enough and sharp enough to override the flashes of brilliance which dig a team out of trouble or win a game regardless.

He could have done with that calibre of footballer over Easter but telling him that is like telling Michaelangelo that spray paint covers a ceiling in a fraction of the time.

They might not feel it so much in this of all weeks but the club have been privileged to see him work and to see him work for them.

There are idiosyncrasies in Bielsa which could be classed as flaws – the one-track mind, the punishing way his squad are trained day-to-day, the near absence of any time off for them this season – but those were telegraphed when Leeds appointed Bielsa and they will be there until the day he packs up.

What Leeds purchased was progress and progress brings jeopardy; the risk of losing prizes as opposed to not competing for them at all.

There is a certain safety about mediocrity at Elland Road, the assurance that nobody will let the club down because nobody is promising the club anything in the first place.

The difference in the Championship table between this season and last is vast, improved in every sense to the extent that Bielsa’s squad will finish at least 22 points better off.

Yet this season, and defeat at Brentford, is what leaves Hernandez in tears.

Automatic promotion is most likely gone and Leeds would be well advised to get their heads around that fact; not to throw the towel in if Sheffield United buckle this weekend but to prepare for an extension to the season which nobody, inside the dressing room or out of it, has spent time contemplating since Christmas.

Sheffield United were in trouble 10 days ago, ambushed by Millwall in injury-time and deprived of three key players, but Chris Wilder found a way to flick a switch and plug their campaign back in quickly.

Wilder, amongst other things, is good at that, like the scenario in 2016-17 when he asked his squad to win League One with 100 points and Sheffield United did the trick by finishing off with seven straight wins.

Bielsa and Wilder have nothing like the same personality.

Christophe Dugarry, the former France international, described Bielsa as “a bit autistic” in a French podcast earlier this season and as crass and derogatory as that comment was, the Argentinian’s reticent manner is there to be seen.

But he will feel it intensely if it doesn’t happen for Leeds; feel it for the city, the people and the club more than himself. They in turn will feel it for him.

“If we don’t get promoted it won’t be a season to remember,” Bielsa said last week.

On the contrary it will, for the chapter he has written in a book of largely unheroic failures at Elland Road. And for all the tears at Brentford, it is not finished yet.