Marcelo Bielsa's 'madness' is purely method as proved by Leeds United emegence of Pascal Struijk
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They agreed to make big changes at the Thorp Arch training ground, they spent money on the facilities he needed to get players Bielsaball ready and they spent money on the players he needed to supplement the group he inherited. Leeds accepted his need for a large staff, a small squad and the way he likes to operate with the press.
Leeds bought into his culture, style and philosophy, allowing it to permeate through the youth system – when the Under-18s played their Manchester United counterparts in the FA Youth Cup system there were clear signs of the head coach’s influence.
What Leeds got in return was a revolutionised first team, a rejuvenated fanbase, a near brush with promotion in his first season and a second season that ended in a Championship title.
But the focus on the ultimate dream of Premier League football has not been so narrow that the long-term future was left on the backburner. Bielsa’s obsession with winning promotion has not come at the detriment of the players whose time has not yet fully arrived – when the club were recently awarded Category A status for their academy, they were keen to highlight the size of Bielsa’s role in raising standards at Thorp Arch.
Even when a pandemic permitted only the return of first-team football and left the Leeds’ youngsters on the fringe of the senior side with no Under-23s fixtures in which to develop their ability, maintain match fitness and impress Bielsa, he has continued to cast his gaze over everything and everyone at Thorp Arch.
“In these circumstances we are now in with the COVID situation, we are working with 35 players and all of them play football in training with very hard sessions where they had a lot of chances to show themselves,” he said. “During this period they train a lot in football sessions, even if they weren’t official matches and I think every player is fit and good physical condition.”
As the tension around Elland Road reached fever pitch and each game took on more and more significance in the club’s history, Bielsa continued to buy into Leeds United’s proud tradition of giving youth its head.
Even in last Thursday’s game against Barnsley, when a win would leave the Whites a single result from promotion, when the opposition made life almost impossible and things weren’t going to plan, Bielsa turned to a 20-year-old with just seven minutes of first-team football under his belt. Throwing centre-half Pascal Struijk into the battle to play the pivotal central defensive midfield with half an hour to go had a ‘sink or swim’ feel about it.
But Bielsa was simply buying into Thorp Arch and what he had witnessed in training.
“Pascal since he came back from lockdown has been brilliant,” explained striker Patrick Bamford. We were doing murderball and he was on the opposite team. He was playing in that holding midfield role and I’m not joking I was getting screamed at by the manager. He was just getting the ball every time and I couldn’t get anywhere near him – the back two and him were just passing it round me. I was losing my head because I was just chasing after him and he was literally controlling the whole session.
“The manager was shouting at me and I was thinking I can’t get near him. He’s been good since he came back and naturally he’s been a centre-back at the club and that’s the only position we’ve ever seen him in until he came back after lockdown.
“He’s done really well. I think he’s earned his chance and, to be honest, I thought he did all right when he came on. He didn’t really put a foot wrong.”
Struijk did put a foot wrong, early on in his performance, giving the ball away in a dangerous position as Barnsley attacked with menace. He didn’t sink, though, he settled and then he swam. A perfectly weighted through ball for Gjanni Alioski started an attack that should have ended in a goal.
Three times he recovered the ball, three times he cleared it from danger, three times he rose to win important headers.
The final whistle gave Leeds a precious three points and a third consecutive clean sheet. The feeling it gave Struijk as he was embraced affectionately by battle-hardened senior players might just live with him forever. It was probably bettered, however, by Sunday’s first senior start in the 3-1 win at Derby, when he shone again in front of the back four and took part in the post-game title celebrations.
If Leeds fans are honest, the sight of Struijk stepping onto the pitch last Thursday to replace winger Jack Harrison in a game of that magnitude, at a time when the Whites were under the cosh, will have done little to calm nerves that were on the edge for longer than is healthy.
The outcome of the decision simply proved, again, that what is often perceived as an Argentine’s madness is purely method.