Frank Lampard could file his first home game as manager of Derby County in the same box as other lessons about the Championship if football in the Championship ever looked like this. So much perceived wisdom about the ways of the division and yet those in it find a coach from the other side of the world forcing the division to adapt to him.
Marcelo Bielsa contends that his football is nothing new, that passing and moving and pressing like a ten-tonne weight was on the go before he bought his first tactics board, but he should try telling that to the crowd at Pride Park who were reduced to silence as Leeds United mangled Lampard’s team on Saturday. He should try telling it to anyone who has watched Leeds United redefine mediocrity in eight years as a Championship club. That his CV is so light on silverware makes you wonder: does anything matter more to Bielsa than the concept of football people love?
He must remember the date and the sensation of his first time in a home dug-out, back with Newell’s Old Boys almost 30 years ago, and without even checking the result, it cannot have been a worse experience than Lampard’s. Derby’s aspiring boss has a scrapbook to die for but the pictures of his maiden fixture at Pride Park will show him flat and doused in rain, with hands deep in his pockets and no solutions forthcoming. “It was tough,” Lampard admitted when the torture was over. “We were beaten by the better team on the day. There were a lot of lessons.”
Gary Rowett made a great play of heeding lessons after Stoke City’s defeat at Elland Road last weekend, a crushing loss in its own right, but neither he nor Lampard learned more about the Championship than they did about Bielsa. The real benefit of Derby’s hammering lay in the notice given to other managers of how Leeds have taken to playing and how Bielsa’s educated mind works in practice. Uwe Rosler, the last Leeds coach to win at Pride Park, promised “heavy metal football” but went out on his shield to the sound of sad violins. Bielsa’s threat to attack at will, dispense with all caution and take on the Championship in the way he has taken on other leagues in other countries appears to contain not an ounce of bluff. There are other ways of playing, the 63-year-old always reminds you, but none which he is ever tempted to try.
In two months he has given the squad at Leeds a personality transplant. There are elements in his favour which his predecessor, Paul Heckingbottom, would have benefitted from - a fit Luke Ayling, a switched-on Samuel Saiz, a perfectly proportioned left-back in Barry Douglas - but it is hard not to contrast the imagination of Saturday’s win in Derby with the dour, detached finish to last season which Heckingbottom oversaw. Heckingbottom felt too often like a coach waiting for something to change. Bielsa has set about many of the same players with absolute clarity. The shift in culture was aptly summed by a club who last won away from home on Boxing Day rattling four goals past Derby.
Kemar Roofe scored two of them, in the 21st minute and again on the hour, with finishes of the highest order. Behind Roofe, Patrick Bamford, a £7m signing, is settling in for some time on the bench. Bielsa took the injured Adam Forshaw with him to Derby but Forshaw must feel a starting place slipping like sand through his fingers as Mateusz Klich shines at the centre of the renaissance. For the second time in a week, Klich scored the opening goal at Pride Park with a deft shot from the edge of the box, five minutes into the match. The Pole has made the journey from dispensable to indispensable in a matter of weeks. “So far so good,” Klich said. “This is what everyone likes to watch.”
Derby discovered in the play leading up to Klich’s strike what Leeds would do to them: on the counter-attack in one blink of an eye but picked off in another after Saiz pinched possession and burst out of his own half. One-touch passing took Bielsa’s players from back to front at exhausting speed and Saiz was everywhere in the first half, making Derby guess which area of the pitch he would tear up next. Having watched the the ball run to him like a magnet, Lampard sent Bradley Johnson on at half-time with orders to man-mark the Spaniard.
Only twice did the game threaten to turn against Bielsa; first when Tom Lawrence equalised by beating Bailey Peacock-Farrell with a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque knuckleball free-kick which careered under the crossbar on 12 minutes, and again at the start of the second-half when Martyn Waghorn’s studs came within a fraction of prodding a Mason Mount effort into the net. Leeds were 2-1 to the good, back in front through a glorious hanging header from Roofe which dispatched Gjanni Alioski’s 21st-minute cross, and even if Waghorn had found an exposed net, Lampard would have remained at the mercy of the disarray in his defence.
“There was maybe too much difference in the score,” Bielsa said, charitably suggesting that the final result was harsh on Derby. “It was more clear during the second half but in the first half we suffered actions which could have allowed our rival to score goals.” He consoled Lampard by talking up his “good taste in attacking football”, sympathising no doubt with the unavoidable hard knocks of management, and highlighted the “exceptional” talent of Mount, Lawrence and Harry Wilson. The truth on the day was more bitter for those three players. And up front, Waghorn resembled a cast-off bobbing in the sea, anxiously waiting for assistance. “To be fair,” Lampard said, “Leeds have come to our place and looked more confident than we did.”
Roofe scored again in the 60th minute, wrong-footing Fikayo Tomori with a wonderful touch and turn before raking the ball into the roof of Scott Carson’s net. Carson, who had pulled off an improbable save to keep out an earlier header from Roofe, was beaten for a fourth time on 64 minutes when Pablo Hernandez reached a lost cause and hooked it towards the six-yard box where Alioski was waiting to stick away a header. Two wins from two, six points from six and all without Bielsa showing a flicker of passion.
“What is more important to me is being able to repeat this type of performance,” Bielsa said. “To be enthusiastic, you need more time than just two games.
“If you see the rankings after 23 games or after 46 games, you will see differences that invite you to think that any premature analysis is not good. What happened in the games so far don't mark anything definite. It's too early to draw conclusions. In each game we will have to prove ourselves again.”
It was that demand which found Leeds out after their streak to the top of the Championship a year ago but the fact remains that under Bielsa the club have beaten two more fancied sides than any of the teams they encountered in the first seven games of last season. And the worry for the Championship is the realisation of when Leeds last produced anything like the majestic football seen against Derby: six days earlier, at home to Stoke City.