Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United entertainers are a dying breed in the modern game - Daniel Chapman
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.
Elland Road hosted a rare visitor last weekend.
But rather than the thrilled flock and click of eager twitchers cornering some hardly seen owl, the flight of the no-goal bird was heralded by the disapproving slaps of empty tip-up seats in the wind.
Leeds don’t draw and someone always scores, so United 0 Chelsea 0 must have been the bitter end for a few pools coupons, if people still fill those out.
Thomas Tuchel and his Blues join a select company who have closed down Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds in his three seasons here.
Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough, Garry Monk’s Sheffield Wednesday, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal – the record was one a season until now.
Does anything link these managers and teams? Are there clues that Bielsa was ‘found out’ in these games, hints for stopping his high-tension, high-fun machine?
Not really. The only consistent factor is eight Leeds players in the squad for all four games.
I’m not sure Tuchel will have been calling Pulis for advice last week, or urging Antonio Rüdiger to study clips of Dominic Iorfa’s battles with Pat Bamford.
Even without goals you can expect the unexpected from Leeds, and few expected their performance to so easily match the millionaires from Chelsea on Saturday.
We should be careful before drawing any conclusions, though, in case while getting carried away by Pascal Struijk’s dominance of Kai Havertz, we have to retrospectively reconsider the stalemate between Kalvin Phillips and Barry Bannan.
It’s why levels are better judged from final league tables, while games are there for entertainment along the way.
All the Chelsea game lacked from its fun quota was goals, although Luke Ayling did his best with a trick shot off Diego Llorente and his own crossbar, and Tyler Roberts had his usual one-a-game ruled out for someone else’s offside, so you can’t say Leeds weren’t trying.
I’ve kept a line from one of Martin Tyler’s commentaries in the back of my mind, said during the quickly infamous first half at Old Trafford.
It was something about how Leeds, fresh from a 5-2 win over Newcastle, were taking football back to the huge scorelines of the game’s younger days. It reminded me of researching the club’s pre-Revie mysteries, running a finger down columns of results that, pre-Bielsa, felt bewildering.
Take 1934/35. That, as I’m sure you know, was Dick Ray’s final season after eight years that just about secured United’s place in the top flight. The first away game was an 8-1 defeat to Stoke. Not good.
But how good were Stoke? A week later at Elland Road Leeds beat them 4-2, so they weren’t that good. A 5-2 win over Chelsea at home became a 7-1 defeat away, West Brom won 6-1 at their place then lost 4-1 at ours.
Throw in 3-3 draws with Preston and Middlesbrough, and a 4-4 with Everton for good measure – that one was 2-2 at half-time. Soccer was that way for years.
Two decades later, in the winter of a Second Division promotion campaign inspired by John Charles, Leeds scored 21 in seven games while letting in 19. There wasn’t a 0-0 draw all season.
Perhaps we can make harsh judgements about the standard – I doubt there were many nutmeg rabonas, although I wouldn’t put it past John Charles.
Instead, just think of the excitement, and how it’s no wonder attendances boomed and soccer became the national and the world game, when any team could beat another, when any number of goals might be scored, when fans had so many exciting things to talk about.
It’s bizarre how this season, with televised football more prominent than ever as it tries to lift spirits in a locked down population, the game has done so much work to stifle that joy.
Yes, VAR, you, obsessively analysing every thrilling goal, searching desperately for reasons to destroy it – stop being mean to Tyler Roberts and stop boring us all.
But the response to Bielsa is part of it too.
Martin Tyler’s gleeful recollection of golden days was rare, and even people like him, moved by enjoyment, keep the word ‘naive’ swirling in the game’s lexicon.
It’s a strange term that tends not to mean much but, at face value, it takes us back to Dick Ray’s days being the game’s youth.
Leeds United then were 15 years old, professional football itself not much older. A 4-4 draw was the naivety of a teenage sport. And now?
Now, somehow, West Bromwich Albion drawing 0-0 in a relegation six-pointer with Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United supposedly represents the pinnacle of football’s maturity, a serious match played by adults, while Bielsa is Peter Pan, the little boy who won’t grow up, fun for a laugh but ultimately doomed to Neverland while his Lost Boys leave him.
Let’s end the thought this way: when I grow up, I do not want to be Sam Allardyce.