It was obvious by the end of a 15-minute answer that Marcelo Bielsa had expected the question. He said his piece before sitting back and joking that his press conference should end there and then. “If you have a second question you’ll hurt my pride,” he quipped.
So what is the problem with Leeds United’s football? Or what is the problem as Bielsa sees it? Because viewed from the outside, and certainly from a distance, Leeds are a picture of good health: durable, well placed in the Championship and capable of scoring goals as dreamy as Mateusz Klich’s at Ewood Park on Saturday.
Bielsa was the man who told Eduardo Berizzo, one of his proteges who now manages Athletic Bilbao, that “everything is still out there to be discovered” and the perfectionist in him seems to be classing the better aspects of this season as window dressing. He presented himself yesterday as a coach with plenty to correct and work on his hands, whatever the league table is trying to tell him.
Bielsa has taken to rating his players on each of their performances. Up to 15 members of staff to do the same; scores by committee because, in Bielsa’s words, “every day I trust my opinion less.”
In August, when Leeds were blazing a trail in his image, their squad were achieving an average of seven out of 10. Presently, in the midst of a run of two wins from eight games, they are scoring closer to six. “There is not a big difference,” Bielsa admitted, yet even he must notice the contrast between the way he spoke about the his team at the start and the way he is talking now.
At the top of his list of necessary fixes is something Bielsa has been stewing on all month: efficiency. Leeds’ creation of chances sits comfortably with him, allowing for the fact that at Blackburn Rovers the accuracy of their final ball was wanting, but too many opportunities are going begging. From a rate of three goals a game in August, his team have not scored twice in one fixture for five straight matches.
“We’re the second team (in the Championship) on goals scored,” Bielsa said. “And we’re the first team regarding chances. But the next team after us missed only 50 per cent of the chances we missed. This leads us to the following conclusion: we’re less efficient and we could improve the offensive profile of the team.
“We have to find out the real reason for us not winning games and for me, the main reason is we need more chances to score than we did. At the beginning we needed two or three chances. Now we need five or six. This is very important.”
Other things are niggling Bielsa too, not least the number of players who have been absent at some stage. Jack Harrison is back from a minor calf strain for tonight’s game against Ipswich Town but Pontus Jansson is serving an unexpected one-match ban and Barry Douglas has not shaken off his calf strain. Bielsa laughed when he asked if there were any more problems to report. “You think we don’t have enough injuries?”
Even so, he was reluctant to use the impact of footballers dropping like flies as an excuse for Leeds’ results. “When a player is not injured it doesn’t mean he has the (match fitness) we need,” he said. “To get that fitness takes longer than recovering from injury but actually, we found good solutions for the absence of some players. I don’t think it’s a justification. Maybe the make-up of the substitutes is a level lower but I don’t think this is the main problem.”
It has also become apparent to Bielsa - as his tactics were always likely to mean - that Leeds are better suited to games which allow them to play than they are to matches, like Blackburn Rovers away over the weekend, which ask them to stick a foot in, although Bielsa’s initial impression that Rovers had out-fought his side in period was contradicted by subsequent analysis of a 2-1 defeat.
“It was not hard for us to build from the back and reach the final third but curiously we had few chances to score,” Bielsa said. “When the lines were close and tighter we played worse, I thought, but it wasn’t true. The problem was our final passes didn’t reach the destination.”
The point about combative football still stands and Bielsa has seen more than once that his philosophy will not be allowed to reign without obstruction. Leeds’ worst performances, he said, had come against clubs who purposely set out to smother United with a high press and deny them scope to pass out from the back.
“It’s very difficult to prepare a group for two different things,” Bielsa said. “It’s difficult to play with the ball, with a style, and then also to play a friction (aggressive) game. Of course, we need to be prepared for both moments but the main feature of our team is a creative one, not a combative one.”
With Bielsa - “a top coach,” as Tony Mowbray remarked over the weekend - in such reflective and critical mood, a penny could be offered for the thoughts of Paul Hurst, his opposite number at Elland Road this evening. Hurst is grappling with his first job in the Championship and looking up from 24th place with nine points from 13 matches. The division might be tough at the top but it is nothing short of murderous at the bottom and Bielsa giving himself a kicking told a story about his perfectionism.
For good measure he laid out his priorities once more: “To know how to play when the game becomes disputed, when we have to run more and run less, the style, the possession, the creation of danger for the rival and the efficiency when we have to score a goal.
“In all of these aspects we have things to correct but most important is the matter of efficiency. To score, the opponent does less than what we have to do.” It is becoming the focus of Bielsa’s strict gaze. Hurst has been warned.