Why Marcelo Bielsa won't budge from Leeds United's attacking principles despite Derby County cushion

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
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There is no scoreline, tight or otherwise, which would persuade Marcelo Bielsa to play safe against Derby County tomorrow.

Leeds United’s head coach has a goal to defend but 1-0 up might as well be 3-0 down for all the difference it will make to his attitude.

Stick or twist at the midway point of a delicately-balanced play-off semi-final?

“The difference is only one goal and the idea is to increase this difference,” Bielsa said.

He programmed himself to think like that from his earliest days as a coach and the monumental weight of the prize he is in for at Elland Road is not about to make him hedge his bets. Attack at will is Bielsa’s viewpoint, drip-fed to his players throughout the season.

“If we go into this thinking we've got to protect a lead we'll be our own worst enemy,” said his captain, Liam Cooper.

Leeds could be forgiven for doing so, in the face of so much history and so many years trapped in the four walls of the Championship.

They are two games from the Premier League - “a long path to our goal,” Bielsa insisted - and a goalless draw would do, enough to finish off Derby after a 1-0 win in the first leg at Pride Park on Saturday.

Tomorrow is the last chance for Frank Lampard to knock Leeds out of their stride by thinking again and revising his strategy. Derby’s boss can rest assured that Bielsa will not change his.

It might be that Bielsa understands Leeds properly and appreciates the fact that a packed, expectant crowd at Elland Road would not cope well with the sight of his team digging in and clinging on but the 63-year-old has been on the front foot since Newell’s Old Boys let him loose in management 30 years ago.

That was how his ‘El Loco’ nickname developed: always on the ball, always attacking and always willing to take risks in any circumstances.

To Bielsa his way is a matter of personal taste rather than a virtue.

“You could divide coaches in two categories - those who speculate (choose to adapt) and those who impose their style,” he said.

“The percentage of success that both trends have are very similar and it wouldn’t be fair to say one is better than the other.

“Every head coach does what he feels is best because the role of the coach is to convince people. It’s very difficult to convince people about ideas you don’t believe in.

"I would have less credibility with my players if I didn’t express things I believe in but I never give a negative opinion about ideas that are different from mine and it doesn’t mean other ideas need my approval. Results show it every weekend in games we see around the world.”

There is one coach, Diego Simeone, who played under Bielsa for Argentina and talks in reverent terms about his elder but has developed a markedly different style at Atletico Madrid, with telling and lasting results.

Simeone is content to concede possession and rely on quick transitional play to do damage with the wit and pace of players like Antoine Griezmann. Bielsa can spot the difference and sees Atletico’s methods as a healthy contrast to his own.

“I don’t think it’s about courage or nerves,” Bielsa said, “but I always thought that the shortest path to win is to play better and for me, there’s a link between possession and playing better.

“To be honest, there are many examples of big teams who do the opposite of me. You have head coaches like Diego Simeone who’ve built extraordinary teams with the exact opposite ideas of mine.

“I can’t imagine playing better if my team doesn’t have possession but teams like Simeone’s make recoveries of the ball an art and to recover the ball you need the opponent to have it. It’s not a theoretical matter. It’s not about one idea being superior to another one. It’s to do with the beliefs and the sensitivity of each head coach.

“When you see a team defending well, this has a value as an expression of football. I was always impressed by the NBA (US basketball) because when the opponent has the ball the fans ask their team to defend. They do it because they recognise that it’s a need of the team and they also give importance to it when it’s well done.

“To come back to Simeone’s team, I saw them defending well in many games and it was pleasing to watch.”

Lampard has no choice but to try and force the pace tomorrow or risk a fourth game in which Bielsa wipes the floor with him. Derby have failed to lay a glove on Leeds in three attempts this season and United played well enough at Pride Park to merit a wider lead and more breathing space after 90 minutes of their two-legged tie.

“We had options to increase the offensive production,” Bielsa said.

“I don’t know if that answers your question but if we’d scored a second goal it wouldn’t have been a weird thing.”

Elland Road lives for these occasions and has seen too few in the era when Bielsa’s ideas and philosophy have come to the fore in football as a whole: a night game with everything on it and the crowd whipped up by the certainty of what is coming if Leeds win and the certainty of what is coming if Leeds lose.

Bielsa has the upper hand but no sense of superiority ahead of the second leg. “It’s two games but you can actually say it’s one and we’ve played the first half,” he said.

“Usually you don’t make comments at half-time. Usually you work in order to build your superiority in the time we have still to play.

"The first game was not simple for us. We’re sure that the next game won’t be easy either.”