Marcelo Bielsa’s reaction to Leeds United’s filleting at West Bromwich Albion was to go around the dressing room shaking each player’s hand. It is a habit of his come rain or shine, a way of restraining any emotional impulse while he waits for the dust to settle.
Training over the past two weeks might not have been so forgiving but Barry Douglas, the left-back whose annoyance at being substituted in Leeds’ 4-1 defeat characterised the whole evening at The Hawthorns, hoped the response to that grim result would be proportionate.
The last time Leeds lost by the same scoreline they sacked Thomas Christiansen. Bielsa, with a squad who are third in the Championship, was in no such peril.
That Leeds lost so heavily was as surprising as the fact that they lost at all. Consistency under Bielsa has been a feature of his tenure and results tomorrow, when his team host Bristol City at Elland Road, could take them back to the top of the league. Douglas’ attitude in the fortnight since their thrashing at The Hawthorns has been to keep a bad night in perspective.
“I think it’s about trying just make sure the boys don’t look into it too much,” Douglas said.
“At the end of the day, it’s one game. You’re going to get highs and lows and as long as we can rectify the mistakes we made and respond, that’s the main thing.
“You’re always going to get games like that. West Brom set up well, they countered the way that we play and it worked on the day perfectly for them. On another day if we’d got a few chances in the first half – which we did – and scored then it would have been a different game. That’s football and we won’t look into it too much. We’ve looked at the videos and spoken about the mistakes but hopefully we can rectify all that and move forward.”
Bielsa is often cast as the strictest of schoolmasters, a coach who prefers not to smile for the sake of it, but if there is a healthy sense of fear amongst the players working under him at Thorp Arch, he is not using the edge of his tongue to heighten it. At the end of Leeds’ defeat to West Brom, their last game before 2018’s final international break, he went through a familiar routine by blaming himself for the game they had lost, shielding all around him.
Bielsa has repeatedly refuted the suggestion that he uses self-criticism to protect his players, claiming any tactical errors lie at his door, and he was not inclined to read the riot act behind closed doors at The Hawthorns.
“It was mixed emotions for everyone,” Douglas said. “We were obviously disappointed but one of the manager’s characteristics is that he never acts on emotions. He processes everything and that’s probably the best way to deal with it because then you can look back on the game, reflect on it and make sure you right the wrongs.
“As a player, any defeat’s going to hurt but we put it to bed straight away and looked forward to the next game. It’s only one game. It’s not going to define a season.”
The main shortcoming at West Brom was apparent to Bielsa, his players and everyone watching: passing errors which opened the door for Albion to pour forward in numbers.
Leeds, despite a 72 per cent share of possession, conceded the ball 25 times and faced 20 shots on goal. They made hard work of reaching half-time goalless and were picked off by four second-half goals, the final two coming in a period of the game where their poise deserted them completely.
Individually there were wobbles too – Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s error for West Brom’s second strike and Stuart Dallas caught out of position at right-back – but Bielsa’s defensive resources are thinner than ever.
A broken leg suffered by Jamal Blackman last week leaves Peacock-Farrell as first choice until January but Peacock-Farrell has a knee injury and is likely to miss tomorrow’s match, the cause of a goalkeeping genuine crisis.
Bielsa’s only alternative to Dallas is young midfielder Jamie Shackleton but the Argentinian has more to worry about in his backline with Pontus Jansson struggling to be ready and the well of centre-backs virtually dry.
United’s players were given a few days off last week and Douglas got away to Dubai with his partner and five-month-old son. The itch to play again after a mauling at West Brom was countered by the chance to rest up and take stock.
“After a defeat like that, sometimes you want to get straight back out and play,” Douglas said. “But we can regroup, reassess, clear the heads mentally and look to go on a run now. There’s always going to be expectation after a defeat like that but again, it’s one game, the next game’s coming up and that’s the way we’ll be focusing on it.
“We work hard every single day we’re in and it’s been no different in the break.
“We’ll be confident going into Saturday and we’ll be prepared in the right way.”
Bristol City are in a rut, in more ways than one: on a run of three straight defeats and without a win at Elland Road for 39 years. A victory there was on a plate for them last season but having led 2-0 until the 70th minute, they clung on for a 2-2 draw in injury-time as Pierre-Michel Lasogga struck the bar.
“Ultimately it’s about what we do on the day,” Douglas said. “We’re good enough for anyone in the league.”
Tomorrow’s fixture is very much the start of the winter period, the first of nine games to be played by January 2.
“That’s why it was a good time to reassess and regroup,” Douglas said.
“It’s going to be an intense period and the winter can make or break a lot of people’s seasons. It’s important we be consistent and stay in amongst it.”