This to date has been the year of the underdog in the Championship and Marcelo Bielsa’s defence of his players at Brentford on Monday – “this team has hidden many limits with huge effort and personality” – applied as much to the squads at Norwich City and Sheffield United as it did his own.
Neither they nor Leeds United were seen as candidates for the title in August, clubs with modest budgets and no significant running start, but perception changes with time and Bielsa’s view that Leeds have punched above their weight was melancholy, if valid, praise with automatic promotion slipping away.
There are some in the league with spending power far beyond United’s and the club are about to mix with a few of them in the play-offs unless the last week of the season contains some hidden drama but Norwich and Sheffield United were teams who Leeds could have reasonably expected to outrun. Two wins over the Easter weekend would have given Bielsa a share of first place in the table. As it stands, he is preparing himself for a first taste of the EFL’s infamous knockouts.
The other clubs who currently stand to qualify – West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Derby County – have wage bills far in excess of his own and the depression about Leeds losing the plot against Wigan Athletic and Brentford does not diminish Bielsa’s achievement in making so much of the squad he inherited.
The club have the option to retain him next season if they fail to win promotion and, on the basis of his impact, would look to do so if Bielsa feels he has another Championship year in him. Both sides are still hoping that promotion to the Premier League locks the Argentinian in for another 12 months automatically.
There are flaws in Bielsa’s team which even he admits to, the most telling the imbalance between the possession Leeds dominate and the number of goals they score, but flaws in his squad too: the absence of pace and an unpredictable streak out wide and no particularly reliable goalscorer in a league where nine players have scored 20 times or more. Neal Maupay’s opener at Griffin Park on Monday was his 24th of the season though he, unlike Kemar Roofe and Patrick Bamford, has had a season uninterrupted by injury.
This, all the same, is largely a team built from the players Bielsa inherited last summer, a group who finished a distant 13th in the Championship 12 months ago. Leeds’ recruitment has been of limited use to him and the club’s attempt to tap into the Premier League via the loan market is best summed up by the fact that Izzy Brown has touched the ball once in a first-team game this season. Bielsa can justifiably claim that the sum of his team is higher than its individual parts but the same is true of both of the sides above him, and Sheffield United most of all. Leeds have lost nine games since Boxing Day to Sheffield United’s two.
Easter has routinely been a fraught juncture for Leeds and not for the first time there was a sense of a squad tensing up and losing their conviction with the finishing line in front of them, lacking their usual clarity of thought. Bielsa, however, denied that pressure had played a part or that the stress of competing for the top two positions had revealed itself in his team’s football.
“The level of the team has always been the same,” Bielsa insisted. “The effort has always been the same and the willingness to receive the ball has always been complete.
“This team has hidden many limits with huge effort and personality, and by being demanding. Each player has played very close to his maximum during many games. What I’m describing is something very clear to me. I deeply believe what I’m saying otherwise I wouldn’t tell you this. If we have to explain the circumstances we’re in, what we can say is that this team deserves to have 10 or 12 points more. We don’t have that because we need too many chances to score. I can I make this kind of analysis because I have the vision of the whole season.”
Leeds continue to retain the highest average rate of possession in the Championship and Brentford, who are second in that list, saw only 37 per cent of it on Monday, far below their usual figure of 56 per cent. Despite that, their two goals were clinical and the second, scored by Sergi Canos, came at the end of a sharp passing move which Leeds were unable to replicate. Equally crucial was the failure of a defence which has fallen to pieces over Easter to read it or react to it.
Bielsa has problems to rectify, in the days before Aston Villa come to Elland Road this weekend with 10 straight wins behind them and in the three weeks before the play-offs begin, if United’s season is to be gambled there. He has shown that he can coach players and elevate the raw materials he is given to a level where Leeds had automatic promotion in their hands with four games to go. The question now is whether he can raise a squad who were on the verge of tears on Monday and on their knees, crushed by the thought that automatic promotion was gone.