What next for Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa? An honest reflection rather than a post-mortem

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
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Leeds United have the monopoly on annual post-mortems but it is evident to anyone with an eye on the club that they have had more difficult summer reviews than the one in front of them.

Defeat is defeat and Marcelo Bielsa said himself that this season would be worth no more than the result at the end of it but 35,000 scarves were laid out at Elland Road on Wednesday and most were taken home, a city let down in a way it can almost live with.

It does Bielsa a disservice to dissect his year as head coach without talking first about the many aspects in his favour: Leeds’ second-highest points tally ever in the Championship, a play-off position made good with a month to spare, players dragged away from the mediocrity which denied them any kudos last season and a service to the academy which is worth a chunk of his sizeable salary alone.

There is a temptation on nights as savage as Wednesday to look for sacrificial lambs, and a few might be singled out this summer, but the truth of Bielsa’s tenure is that he has taken the flock with him.

Not perfect, not flawless but heavily in credit as Leeds tot up the price of defeat in the play-offs.

It will cost the club, as missing promotion always costs a Championship club, and there is no hiding the fact that the dream of untold wealth in the Premier League will be replaced, once again, with the perpetual nightmare of soaking up liabilities beneath it.

Leeds made an operating loss of £20m in their most recently published accounts and will take another substantial hit in this financial year.

As Mel Morris, Derby County’s owner, mixed joyously with the club’s away crowd after full-time at Elland Road, it was hard not to think that his broad smile was in part related to the possibility that the pressure on Derby’s own accounts will soon be removed.

A progressive season at Leeds, riddled with disappointment in the end, is something to work with and rarely in 20 years have the club been able to say that.

What they do with it and where they travel next depends on convincing Bielsa that one stab at promotion leaves his work unfinished and reacting to the factors which left Leeds short, if only by the smallest of margins.

“This team deserved to finish first or second,” Bielsa said and any board with a healthy amount of self-awareness would not be slow to ask themselves how those positions got away.

In the simplest of terms, Leeds felt the enormity of what was ahead of them when the prize of promotion was at its clearest; sapped of confidence and composure over Easter and again when Derby began making them think too much on Wednesday night.

The psychology of sport was at play, freezing footballers who gave the impression that the close proximity of a place in the Premier League was a hindrance rather than a help.

In that there was a question of experience and the realisation that only two players in Bielsa’s entire squad, Adam Forshaw and Barry Douglas, know how it feels to attack the line in the Championship and get over it successfully.

But neither Sheffield United nor Norwich City are blessed in that department and Derby’s elder statesmen, like Richard Keogh, have been trying and failing to master the play-offs for years.

Leeds were on for a top-two finish and they know it. After that, the risk of an evening like Wednesday was always there.

In spite of the form as it was for many months, some realism is needed about the effectiveness of the club’s recruitment and Bielsa’s insistence on running with a squad which, regardless of a staggering injury list at Thorp Arch, is smaller than many Championship coaches would like.

Bielsa chose that way, saying that any gaps would be filled by Leeds Under-23s players; there are prospects in the academy who have grown more in one season than some grow in 10.

But when the crunch came against Derby, Leeds had no attacking bankers on their bench; only two juniors who have never kicked a ball for the club’s first team, a winger in Jack Clarke who is still to re-emerge from his illness at Middlesbrough and a loanee in Izzy Brown who must wonder what the last eight months were all about.

Bielsa does not hold much sway in the value of individuals over the sum of his collective parts but there have been moments where Leeds needed a stroke of magic to raise them from a collective slump.

It is possible that Bielsa felt that too when time began ticking away on Wednesday and he found himself turning to Brown, a player who is evidently not his type.

Brown touched the ball four times on the night. In the whole of his time at Leeds, his touches totalled five.

There is a stubborn streak in some of Bielsa’s management but his history told the club to expect that. He will not change now at 63 and very little in this season suggests he should.

Brown is symptomatic of a loan policy which failed to pay off, to such an extent that it is hard to see Leeds and Chelsea engaging in any more temporary trades for a while.

Jack Harrison played in 37 league games but too often it felt like a transfer benefiting him rather than the club, providing first-team exposure for sporadic moments of quality in return.

Barry Douglas was a good signing but found form and fitness against him. Patrick Bamford, at £7m, has more against him than that.

There was the winter too, when Samuel Saiz quit for Getafe and went unreplaced, in no small part because Brown was teed up to be his stand-in. The signing of Daniel James went begging at the end of January and Leeds will rue the fact that some astute scouting of the Swansea City winger will result in him joining someone else.

Bielsa seems nonplussed about the public’s obsession with transfers and rarely seems to ask for much but Leeds should be minded to push the boat out for him now, regardless of what he demands.

It is clear what the Argentinian can do with a squad given to him. It stands to reason that a better squad would go further under Bielsa again.

“It would be very difficult to see these players play at the same level in another season,” he admitted after the defeat to Derby and it is not the first time he has said as much.

Which is not the same as saying that a large core of these players do not have it in them to go again. This should be less of a post mortem for Leeds than an honest look at how far Bielsa has carried them and how far he could take them yet.

Any other path takes the club back to the start, which all too often is where Leeds end up.