Bad moments at Leeds United are always relative and Marcelo Bielsa would struggle to believe the worst of the club’s excesses but a coach like him knows better than to verbalise his inner thoughts on a whim.
There was juxtaposition between a second defeat in 13 games and Bielsa talking in sober tones at the end of it but Leeds are slipping into a rut where goals and points are drying up and their head coach was unwilling to massage the statistics. “Negative results are always a source of worry,” he said and there was no denying Bielsa felt it after losing 2-1 at Blackburn Rovers. “We have to conclude that we are in a low or a bad moment.”
October 20 and Bielsa was already in the realm of must-win matches. A 1-1 draw with Brentford before the international break - remembered by everyone else for the work it gave the Football Association’s disciplinary department - left the Argentinian thinking that Ewood Park was a venue where his players were under pressure to come good. “We needed to win this game,” he admitted and as a result of two free headers, Leeds took nothing away with them. The simple errors, the frantic late stabs made at Blackburn defence: it was some way removed from Bielsa-ball as the product was advertised in the heady weeks of August.
It was tempting in that month, naturally tempting, to assume so much of Bielsa and think that football so surgical would cut the Championship to pieces but on days like Saturday the reality of his job, the miracle of turning water into wine, comes back into focus. There is little in his squad, and nothing in Saturday’s line-up, which wasn’t here last season - few changes in names and faces from the side who finished 13th in May - and the “negative cycle” Bielsa spoke about at full-time will examine the most fundamental question at Elland Road: can a coach alone have such a profound effect on players who sank under the weight of 46 Championship fixtures?
Blackburn Rovers 2 Leeds United 1: Phil Hay’s player ratings
There are handicaps for Bielsa, some of his own making in the size of squad he has chosen to work with, which cannot be downplayed: absence after absence and, as a consequence, the impact of picking a team without either of his first-choice full-backs. Luke Ayling was banned at Blackburn and Barry Douglas was injured, tearing up the insurance of two defenders who rarely sell Bielsa short. It took all of 15 minutes for Bielsa to spot that Stuart Dallas was in deep water at right-back and order him to swap sides of the pitch with Gaetano Berardi.
“From a creative point of view they were doing positive things,” Bielsa insisted, “but the characteristics of Blackburn’s players meant it was better (that they moved to opposite sides of defence). I should have noticed that before the game but I thought more about our offensive play. If I had taken the right decision I would have avoided a difficult moment in defence.”
Leeds were already 1-0 down having conceded from a corner given away after Blackburn cut through on Dallas’ side of the pitch. Just two minutes in, Harrison Reed stroked a delivery into the box and Danny Graham met it with the type of header Graham has been scoring for years. There was nothing more imaginative about Blackburn’s winner on 70 minutes, another free header from another set-piece, buried by Darragh Lenihan as Kemar Roofe - back from a calf strain but missing his mojo - and Samuel Saiz asked each other who had been marking him. Does Bielsa devote time to coaching defensive set-pieces? “As much as I can,” the Argentinian replied. “We work on set-pieces each week.”
Blackburn Rovers 2 Leeds United 1: Bielsa concedes Whites are in a "bad moment" following defeat
There was vibrancy about Bielsa’s football when the season began and a twinkle in the eyes of his players. Ewood Park and a midday kick-off, the end of the international fortnight, provoked a sluggish start in which Blackburn’s energy and anticipation of second balls wearied Leeds. Tony Mowbray had done his homework. “I built Leeds up as some superhuman, athletic, quality football team,” the Blackburn manager said. “My players rose to the challenge and got the job done.
“I’ve seen Leeds live twice recently and they played 80 minutes of the game in the opposition’s half. The opposition were never going to score a goal. They couldn’t get over the halfway line, let alone have some shots. That’s telling me he (Bielsa) is a top coach.”
Peacock-Farrell kept Bradley Dack, Rovers’ go-to man for goals and assists, at bay by beating away his shot in the 14th minute, at the end of the invasive attack which convinced Bielsa his defensive line was out of kilter. Adam Armstrong whipped an effort inches over Peacock-Farrell’s crossbar before Mateusz Klich, with nothing obvious doing, equalised 15 seconds before half-time.
Leeds’ goal was precision in amongst so much flailing: Saiz redeeming a mass of poor decisions or wrong passes with a killer ball to Berardi, and Berardi showing the sense to send a cut-back to the feet of Klich. Six yards out and gambling again in the way that he has learned to, Klich stuck away his fifth goal of the season.
WATCH: Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa reflects on Blackburn Rovers defeat
It teed up the second half nicely and Leeds had plenty of it. Blackburn were caught between two stools, unsure of how readily to commit, and dropped deeper than they had before the interval. Bielsa chose not to start Pablo Hernandez, concerned that the midfielder was short of match fitness after a hamstring pull, but had him stripped and ready to go at the moment when Craig Conway - on as a substitute seconds earlier, while Hernandez waited on the touchline - dropped a corner onto Lenihan’s head and Lenihan nodded a finish down past Peacock-Farrell.
“We didn't defend as well as we usually do,” Bielsa admitted. “The rivals created difficulties but we could have avoided the goals they scored.” In the business of forcing goals himself, Bielsa is seeing a different issue and though Klich’s 86th-minute shot was clawed away from the top corner brilliantly by David Raya, it was Rovers’ only wobble. Peacock-Farrell kept Leeds in it again by meeting Armstrong’s low finish with his foot.
“We played better when the opponent was winning,” said Bielsa. “This is the defect. What we can say is that this is a loss against a rival who is not better than us but it’s fair to recognise that apart from their two goals they had other chances to score.”
Bielsa has been calling a spade a pala from the day in June when he introduced himself with an 80-minute press conference and there was no grave anxiety in his voice afterwards; more the sound of a coach who, after having his way with the Championship for a month, was having his sleeves rolled up by it. “Our goal was to avoid the result going through a negative cycle,” he said. “Now we had to find solutions as soon as possible.”