Marcelo Bielsa helpless as Leeds United plan is smashed to smithereens by Pep Guardiola's Manchester City - Graham Smyth's Verdict

The pre-game routine is a familiar one for Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa and Manchester City supremo Pep Guardiola - they analyse everything, put a plan into place, drill the details into their players and swap compliments in the media.

By Graham Smyth
Wednesday, 15th December 2021, 4:40 am

“They have a special manager who organises his team brilliantly,” said Guardiola ahead of the latest meeting at the Etihad.

Bielsa responded in kind: “At City I always see a constant evolution in the offensive variables.”

As kick-off looms they greet each other and their staff on the touchline and then, when the whistle blows, they live and die with every kick, a pair of animated but largely powerless hostages to the events unfolding before them.

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Their work is mostly done in the days and hours before the game and while the managers can affect change with tactical tweaks and fresh legs, they can’t score goals or make tackles or complete the required number of sprints to outwork a marker.

All they can do for the most part is trust that the work they’ve done in training is enough, that the preparations were adequate, that the plan is a superior one to that of their opponent and that the players perform to the best of their abilities.

It’s simplistic to suggest Guardiola has it easier in that regard because the players in whom he must trust are world class, the cream of the crop and capable of consistently playing brilliantly. As Leeds proved at this ground last season, with 10 men no less, Manchester City’s players are human.

But the team sheet circulated at 7pm on Tuesday night wasn’t just a list of names, it was a declaration of war from Guardiola and a sign of the respect he holds for Bielsa.

WORST DISPLAY - Marcelo Bielsa said Leeds United's performance was their worst in four years, after a 7-0 beating by Manchester City. Pic: Getty

He failed to get the better of the newly-promoted Whites on two occasions last season and was evidently hellbent on ensuring that was not the case at the third time of asking, in front of his club’s supporters. What transpired was something much more akin to what should really happen when Manchester City take on Leeds. Bielsa was the man left to watch in a state of complete helplessness as his plan failed, blown to smithereens by aggressive pressing, sheer blinding talent and elite firepower. The scoreline was 7-0 but it could easily have been an outright club record defeat. Double figures were not off the table, at one stage.

As early as the second minute the hosts’ dominance and a gulf in class began to be established, Jack Grealish bringing a smart stop from Illan Meslier. Bielsa would later admit that from the start the game took on a sensation that it was only going to go one way no matter what he tried.

Leeds, as is always the case against the very best, couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong and had already been let off the hook by a woeful Bernardo Silva finish, when disaster struck.

A pair of failed tackles from Tyler Roberts and Luke Ayling, Meslier’s inability to gather at Rodri’s feet and Stuart Dallas’ fruitless attempt to clear Phil Foden’s shot off the goalline saw Leeds a goal down on eight minutes.

It wasn’t the ideal start but Leeds couldn’t afford to let it get any worse, they had to settle. So when, just five minutes later, Riyad Mahrez’ cross was headed home by a completely free Grealish, the potential for a serious doing was crystal clear.

When they found themselves in possession they couldn’t keep it and then they couldn’t get it off the hosts, resorting to fouls to stop light blue shirts from racing past them.

Junior Firpo was the first in the book, earning a suspension for the Arsenal game, but it was difficult to see any other option as Mahrez threatened to burst into space.

If Leeds did manage to take play into the opposition half, it soon came roaring back with too much pace, precision and power for them to handle.

There was a brief glimmer of hope when Raphinha put pressure on Oleksandr Zinchenko and the ball made enough contact with the defender’s arm to warrant a VAR check. But there was no penalty. Nor was there a free-kick when Raphinha went down in possession in his own half, Manchester City taking control to cut through Leeds once more for Kevin De Bruyne to beat Meslier, who was sluggish to get out to the midfielder.

Both managers made a half-time change, Joe Gelhardt replacing Daniel James for Leeds and Ilkay Gundogan taking Silva’s place.

The visitors started the second period brightly enough, a nice front-to-back attack ending with Jack Harrison picking the wrong option in the box, but the difference between the sides was soon painfully evident again, Mahrez finishing an attack with a shot that deflected in off Firpo.

A Harrison cross flashed just in front of Roberts, Dallas clipped the post with a curling shot and Harrison came close via a deflection as Leeds gamely and with some style sought a consolation.

Then De Bruyne sent a 25-yard rocket straight into the roof of Meslier’s net.

Gelhardt showed some excellent touches, Dallas kept trying to attack and there was some attractive link-up play from Leeds.

Then John Stones hammered in the sixth from an acute angle. Then Nathan Ake headed in the seventh from a corner.

No matter what Leeds tried, it didn't seem to work, while Manchester City did what they do, did it well and Leeds could not stop them.

The final 12 minutes brought more shooting practice for the home side, but more and more it was two teams going through the motions of a battle long decided, to a soundtrack of a defiant visiting support. They never stopped singing, understanding full well the scale of the challenge their team had faced and that their war is to be fought elsewhere and with foes much less daunting than Manchester City.

At full-time Bielsa's routine was an unfamiliar one. He greeted Guardiola, as per usual, and then positioned himself on the touchline, staring into the middle distance as his players made their way off having shown appreciation to their fans. One by one they trooped past their boss, without exchanging a word or even eye contact, until every player had left the pitch. Only then did Bielsa turn on his heel and disappear down the tunnel.

His post-game analysis was bleak. It was, he said, the team's worst performance in four years. It was not, he said, because Manchester City played so well but because Leeds played so badly. Looking at the errors, at the light blue shirts gliding past dark blue shirts into pockets of space and at the constant giveaways, he had a point. There is a case to be made, though, that Manchester City made Leeds play even worse, not only by playing well but by playing on the Whites' weaknessess. Ball carriers with as much ability as Foden or Grealish or Mahrez are a nightmare for a man-to-man marking outfit. Missing key players, of course, did not help Leeds' cause but such a failure to come up with a solution with the tools at hand is only ever going to feed the growing belief that Leeds must go shopping in January.

The exploration of why it happened over the next few days will be important, so Bielsa can ensure it doesn't happen again. That much at least is in his power.