Marcleo Bielsa's touchline messages and things you missed in Leeds United's clash with Cardiff City

Leeds United's behind-closed-doors clash at Cardiff City was their first taste of the Championship's 'new normal.'

By Graham Smyth
Sunday, 21st June 2020, 7:59 pm
ANGUISH - Tyler Roberts' yelp of frustration summed up the feeling of the Leeds United players as the game slipped away from them at Cardiff City. Pic: PA
ANGUISH - Tyler Roberts' yelp of frustration summed up the feeling of the Leeds United players as the game slipped away from them at Cardiff City. Pic: PA

Supporters were absent from the Cardiff City Stadium, which was filled only by the shouts of players and coaches throughout the 90 minutes.

There was no crowd noise piped into the ground, as Neil Harris' Bluebirds took a 2-0 win and left Leeds second in the table, a place behind West Brom and level on points.

When the Leeds players emerged for their traditional first-glimpse of the playing surface they were all sporting masks, as were staff and media members, whose temperatures had been checked upon entry and were dotted around the press area and stands, with spare seats left between them.

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The Whites, who along with the hosts were sporting Black Lives Matter t-shirts for the warm-up, were put through their paces as normal but elbow bumps and not handshakes or high fives were the order of the day as they commended team-mates on their play during the final preparations.

So much of the matchday routine was different, due to the guidelines in place to keep players safe from the risk of infection, but some things remained the same - Leeds' assistant kit man Richard Murray continued to spray passes back and forth with Jack Harrison in their traditional warm-up habit.

As kick-off approached, during that period were noise would begin to swell and every seat in the away end would be taken, there was nothing. No atmosphere. No real building of the anticipation and excitement, no sense that an occasion with real sporting significant was about to take place.

Leeds emerged first from the tunnel and once they had taken their places on the pitch, Cardiff City followed.

The 22 players and match officials then paused for a moment of silence to mark the deaths of Cardiff hero Peter Whittingham and Leeds legends Trevor Cherry and Norman Hunter, before a minute of applause for the NHS.

And when referee Andy Woolmer blew his whistle to start the game, every player on the field took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign against racial inequality.

The pre-match rituals and gestures complete, the game began without the intensity Leeds brought to proceedings in their last outing at home to Huddersfield.

It felt, and sounded, like a training session or an Under 23s game.

What was very noticeable early on was just how vocal certain players are. Illan Meslier, Leeds' 20-year-old goalkeeper, is one of them.

Jack Harrison, the on-loan Manchester City winger, is another. He repeatedly called for the big switch when in acres of space on the left, but was not always given what he wanted.

In the first half, Leeds' technical area did not resemble the orchestrated-chaos that normally brings such close attention from fourth officials. Bielsa stayed on his bucket for the most part, leaving it only to crouch down on the far side of the technical area to get a better view of corners and set-pieces around the Cardiff area.

At 1-0 down in the second half, he became more vocal and more animated, demanding 'calm' from his players as their frustration began to rise. He reminded them not to foul and give free-kicks away, and when they did something he liked, he told them. "Very good. Again," he bellowed.

The quiet in the ground amplified the protests directed to officials by players. Several visitors helpfully informed an assistant referee that an offside should not be given when the ball is played backwards, using language of varying strength.

When Tyler Roberts' let out a yelp of anguish and frustration, as Stuart Dallas wound up for a shot from 30 yards that brought just a corner, it was a noise that summed up the feelings of the visitors and the way their afternoon was going.

Luke Ayling, the man to whom Leeds have looked for inspiration on a number of occasions this season during difficult games, went on one of his storming runs forward, this time down the middle of the pitch, as he tried to drag them back into the game. Yet just a minute or two later he was storming off the pitch and up into the seated area where the socially-distanced substitutes were located, his face like thunder. Gjanni Alioski was his replacement, but the North Macedonian had no more success in inspiring a comeback than the man he replaced.

When Mateusz Klich, who looked more and more irritated as the game wore on, shouldered a defender to the turf deep in Cardiff territory, his captain Liam Cooper told him in no uncertain terms what he thought of the 'stupid' challenge.

Every foul was met with a chorus of 'hey' from team-mates of the victim, the volume of the chorus depending on the severity of the alleged crime. Challenges by Kalvin Phillips and Helder Costa provoked the loudest cries from the home side.

Bielsa spent more time off his bucket in the latter stages. And while his gestures and asides to his staff had all the appearance of frustration, his vocal input for the players on the pitch remained positive to the last.

When Helder Costa almost slipped the ball into the run of Patrick Bamford, the Argentine rushed off his bucket: "Very good Helder, very good Patrick."

Another half chance arose and went begging. "Again," he shouted. "Again." Roberts, one of those Bielsa attempted to spur on, cut a weary figure in the final minutes.

And despite the encouragement of the head coach, Leeds could not find a way through and remained 2-0 down to the final whistle.

The post-match routine, the media inquest into exactly how and why Leeds were beaten, also took on a different form in the new normal.

Bielsa, his Sky television interview done, was ushered into a room in the belly of the stadium while press members remained in a concourse behind the press box, logging into a Zoom call along with journalists who were participating from home, and speaking to the head coach through laptops.

The questions and the answers they elicited were more familiar than the medium by which they were exchanged and so too will the feeling of the Leeds fans be this week. Frustration and disappointment will give way to anticipation, nerves and excitement again as the days pass before Saturday's visit to Elland Road of Fulham, when the new normal will take effect for the very first time in LS11.