No excuses for Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United after FA Cup disaster against Crawley Town - Graham Smyth's Verdict

To beat Leeds United, Crawley Town had to get it so right and hope that Marcelo Bielsa somehow didn’t.

Sunday, 10th January 2021, 11:18 pm
TRIPLE CHANGE - Marcelo Bielsa made three substitutions at the interval of Leeds United's FA Cup game at Crawley Town and the Whites suffered in the second half. Pic: Simon Hulme.

For a League Two team to come out on top by a scoreline of 3-0 against a Premier League outfit boasting a £29m striker, £16m winger and three internationals with European Championship aspirations, they needed to win their battles, concentrate intently, defend intelligently and take their chances.

It wasn’t the magic of the FA Cup and it wasn’t a fluke. It was a team of professional and in-form footballers carrying out the instructions of their manager to the letter and leaving the pitch deserved winners.

That does not, however, excuse Bielsa or the players wearing white.

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He got his pre-game talk so right, highlighting the purity of the FA Cup, its importance to the English game, the reasons for respecting it and the value in taking on smaller clubs.

A strong team was expected, Bielsa said there would be no debutants in the starting line-up and we knew that England international Kalvin Phillips and Scotland international Liam Cooper would play given an upcoming Premier League suspension and a return from injury respectively.

The team Bielsa picked was indeed full of experience and should have been more than enough to overcome a team playing three divisions below.

Record signing Rodrigo started up front and Pablo Hernandez played in midfield with Helder Costa and Ian Poveda on the flanks.

Bielsa insisted his preparation for this game was no different to the treatment he gives the best clubs in the land.

“I feel it’s healthy for the bigger teams to be able to be generous with the smaller teams,” he said on Friday.

“An expression of generosity is to compete with them as equals.”

His players’ performance and his half-time substitutions were generous to a fault.

A goalless first half that featured little more of note from the visitors than a nutmeg contest between Poveda and Hernandez and a shot from the former that was well saved by Glenn Morris, was encouragement enough for a disciplined and tidy Crawley side, even before Bielsa swapped Rodrigo for a winger, in Jack Harrison, his captain Cooper for 20-year-old Olly Casey and the relatively inexperienced Pascal Struijk for the positively green Jack Jenkins, still just 18.

With Hernandez having to drop deep to try and dictate, Rodrigo had looked isolated for much of the first half but at least gave Leeds an attacking presence in the final third and played his part in the build up of a number of attacks. He should have earned a penalty too, but referee Peter Bankes missed the foul.

The Whites were in control, even if Struijk wasn’t shining, because Cooper was winning aerial battles, mopping up and adding a reassuring presence in the defensive third.

But it all changed after the break and within eight minutes Leeds had all but added to their list of FA Cup encounters that should be, but may never be, forgotten.

Crawley didn’t even have to spring a surprise to go 2-0 up, they played exactly as Bielsa knew they could.

“It’s a team that responds to a direct approach, defensive organisation is also a tradition,” he said in his pre-game press conference.

“They have two interior midfielders with creativity and they have forwards and wingers with the capacity to unbalance the game.”

A direct approach – a long ball from keeper Glenn Morris – and a winger in Nick Tsaroulla with the skill to beat Leeds players – unbalanced this game.

He spun Jamie Shackleton, evaded Pablo Hernandez, darted into the box too quickly for Casey and drove the ball beyond Kiko Casilla into the far corner of the net.

Leeds crumbled.

Leif Davis’ pass to Harrison was poor, the makeshift striker wasn’t strong enough to win it and when Tom Nichols played it into the channel for Ashley Nadesan, Casey couldn’t stop the shot. Nor could Casilla, who let the second goal in from an angle acute enough to bring his goalkeeping ability into question once more.

His performance up to the goals had been solid, punching clear a pair of early corners and making a sublime back post reaction save to beat out Nichols’ header, but it meant nothing by the 53rd minute.

Bielsa’s response was to bring on Raphinha and Sam Greenwood. Taking off the struggling Davis was easy to understand, but removing Poveda, who in the first half at least had been Leeds’ best attacker and was outperforming the ineffective Costa, was not.

Crawley remained composed and solid. They had enjoyed numerical superiority in the midfield throughout, preventing firstly Struijk and then Jenkins from getting a grip on proceedings.

Phillips, playing as a centre-half presumably to give Struijk more game time in the defensive midfield position he will need to fill against Brighton, was doing too much defending to be able to build attacks.

Hernandez played some nice first half passes but looked increasingly frustrated.

The problem for Leeds was that Crawley had plenty of attacking intent but refused to over-commit when they did get forward. It was left to their strikers and wingers, with some support from midfield, meaning that when Leeds countered, they encountered red shirts aplenty.

It was drab fare from one of the Premier League’s most entertaining outfits, albeit in an unfamiliar line-up.

“More energy lads,” screamed Gjanni Alioski at his team-mates as they conceded free-kicks in their own half and played further into Crawley hands.

Phillips’ foul on Nadesan earned him a yellow card and from the free-kick, the hosts booked their place in the Fourth Round.

Casilla’s initial save from Nadesan dropped straight to Jordan Tunnicliffe and he roofed his shot.

The 3-0 cushion allowed Crawley boss John Yems to ring the changes with a triple substitution, including their top goalscorer Max Watters.

He could and should have made life even worse for Leeds when he raced onto a ball over the top, took it past the stranded Casilla and failed to find a finish as white shirts scrambled back.

It was so comfortable for the home side that Yems was able to bring on Mark Wright in stoppage time, Leeds suffering the indignity of playing the part of the losing opposition in the 33-year-old reality TV’s star’s professional football debut.

Mercifully, he wasn’t able to add insult to injury before full-time.

This will still go down, however, as a day when Bielsa, who was unable to explain his decisions as there were no facilities in which a press conference could be safely hosted, got it wrong and Leeds wrote another painful chapter in the club’s book of FA Cup disasters.