The New Lawn and a new Leeds United, or a new train of thought from the dug-out at least.
The Marcelo Bielsa era took its first steps last night with a 2-1 win over Forest Green Rovers and some of the trademarks established by his own, singular brand of management.
The backdrop for Bielsa’s maiden game as Leeds’ head coach was the parched countryside between Gloucester and Bristol, at the modest home of Forest Green, but Bielsa did his homework on the League Two club and took his preference for a lean squad to extremes by arriving with 15 players. There were no 45-minute run-outs or gentle introductions. The remainder, on their first appearances of the summer, will be put through the same process at York City tomorrow.
Left behind were Lewis Baker and Jamal Blackman, United’s loan signings from Chelsea, and Pontus Jansson sat the game out with his post-World Cup holiday drawing to a close but Bielsa hit Forest Green with a team approaching the strongest available to him. The fact that every member of it had been on the books at Elland Road last season explained why Leeds would like to see another three transfers completed before the end of the week. The fascination lay in the tactical ideas and delivery of the innovation which spawned Bielsa’s cult of disciples and brought United to his door in May.
From the first whistle Leeds’ formation was every bit as fluid as Bielsa’s track record suggested it would be, settling on something resembling 4-1-4-1. Luke Ayling, Gaetano Berardi, Liam Cooper and Stuart Dallas provided a line of four at the back, contrary to expectations of a three-man defence, with Kalvin Phillips sat in front and instructed to drop in as an extra centre-back when numbers were needed. Bielsa had flogged the players for the best part of a month before last night’s friendly and there was ample evidence of their schooling in the high press, the factor which Bielsa’s football depends on.
Mark Cooper’s Forest Green side were ahead of Leeds in their preparation, three games into their run of friendlies, but found wanting by the shift up in class. Bielsa lived up to his reputation as a stickler for video analysis by insisting on having all of those fixtures filmed. If the surroundings felt alien, the opposition did not.
His preparation bordered on obsessive but time is ticking on as it always does in July. United’s first friendly took place less than three weeks out from the start of the Championship season, making their glut of six matches in 13 days about far more than building core fitness.
For all the attention on Bielsa’s methods, the opening goal in the 16th minute could not have been more straightforward. Pablo Hernandez’s hanging corner was nodded down by Luke Ayling and Kemar Roofe, having been on the end of a few earlier chances, punished a sleeping defence by driving the ball in from close range.
A second goal followed nine minutes later, in the style that Bielsa was looking for. Patient build-up found Adam Forshaw in an advanced position and his ball into the box cut Forest Green open. Roofe laid it off to Ayling who planted a finish beyond goalkeeper James Montgomery and into the far corner. The positioning of Phillips a few yards in front of Bielsa’s centre-backs left Forshaw free to work the edge of Forest Green’s box.
United were sound defensively until first-half injury-time when Dayle Grubb produced something from nothing by dispatched a 20-yard shot high inside Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s right-hand post. Even then the respite was brief. Stuart Dallas drew a diving save from Montgomery early in the second half and Gjanni Alioski was denied by the keeper’s legs but when Leeds needed him, Peacock-Farrell came up with a one-handed save to see off Christian Doidge’s volley on 66 minutes.
Bielsa’s sat calmly in his seat and took it all in with an inscrutable expression, too long in the tooth let pre-season animate him.
The reckoning for him is still a fortnight down the line, when Stoke City come to Elland Road, but his evening in Gloucestershire reassured him that his players are getting the message.
Forest Green Rovers: Montgomery, Shephard, James (Trialist 73), Rawson (Hollis 68), Winchester (Simpson 76), Grubb, Doidge, Williams (Archibald 46), Gunning, Mills (Laird 68), Reid (Brown 46). Subs (not used): Thomas.
Leeds United: Peacock-Farrell, Ayling, Forshaw, Cooper, Berardi, Alioski, Dallas, Hernandez, Saiz, Phillips, Roofe. Subs (not used): Miazek, Dalby, Diaz, Rey.
Referee: Sam Allison; Attendance: 3,250.