Thirty years of riding swings and roundabouts must be why Marcelo Bielsa, in the twilight of his career, is so protective of the referees’ guild. There is a sympathetic ear in the dug-out at Elland Road and in this of all months the men in black have needed one.
Jeremy Simpson became Leeds United’s bete noire at the start of October, so inept in the club’s eyes that they asked for clarification on 23 incidents in a 1-1 draw with Brentford, but Geoff Eltringham won the right to depart in peace on Saturday by allowing a goal which Kemar Roofe handled into the net as Nottingham Forest clung to a 1-0 lead. What goes around comes around, or whichever phrase is in vogue this week.
The Hand of Roofe lacks a certain ring to it and the probability that his deflection of a shot which was headed for the inside of a post will be forgotten before long explains Bielsa’s view that swaying back and forth in an emotional state over telling errors is a waste of energy. Leeds were worth no more than a point against Brentford. They were worth at least a point against Forest. Irrespective of the agitation, Simpson and Eltringham somehow succeeded in leaving each club with what they deserved.
Roofe’s effort, finished on the goalline with his right forearm after Forest’s inaction caught up on them and Mateusz Klich hacked a shot across goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, might be the hardest goal Leeds have worked for yet. Efficiency - Bielsa’s preferred term for the conversion of chances - has been on his mind for the past few weeks and Leeds slogged their way to a 1-1 draw on Saturday in a match which played into the hands of Aitor Karanka and put Bielsa at the mercy of the master of organisation.
No-one in the Championship is quite so astute at parking the bus as Karanka. Bielsa has never owned a bus and, wherever he works, tries to think of his squad as a fleet of Ferraris but he will find things to admire in the organised discipline Karanka relies on. “They (Forest) are one of the good teams in the Championship,” Bielsa said, and a coach who keeps himself to himself in his technical area had a spirited chat with Karanka before the game began.
Forest scored after 11 minutes, a Jack Robinson header on the third occasion in three games that Leeds have conceded directly from a corner, and automatically fell into a low-risk, regimented set-up which protected that goal until eight minutes from time. Leeds’ possession ran to 71 per cent and they prodded at Forest from different angles without finding obvious weak spots. Karanka’s unabashed calculation - that his team could concentrate for long enough to make Bielsa’s shoulders drop - was looking good until Forest’s defence lost track of an unmarked Klich at the far post.
There were aspects of the contest only a mother could love but Bielsa saw the best in it, appreciating what he called a “beautiful game”. Compelling was closer to the truth, as the Championship always is. “It was an unfair result,” Bielsa argued, and not because of the controversy surrounding Roofe’s equaliser. “All the aspects of the game were in our favour. We ran a lot, we had the ball, we attacked the whole game and we didn’t concede chances to the opponent. A draw is not enough to give the reward the team deserved.”
No side in the league draws more regularly than Forest but Leeds are fairly close behind and a mass of five in their last 10 games is indicative of results under Bielsa and the division in general. There is no glaring problem with Leeds’ form but Bielsa cannot quite get the club on a roll. As a whole, the Championship is waiting for a team to take the initiative like referees wait for Christmas cards. Bielsa described Leeds’ league position - first before Saturday - as “misleading” in his pre-match press conference but in a perfectly handicapped field they were as worthy of it as anyone. Karanka had his own views on the side he had faced. “The table tells you how good they are,” the Spaniard said.
Bielsa’s attempts to strike out at the top are not being helped by an endless streak of injuries and the tactical consequences they are causing. Luke Ayling was the latest casualty, substituted after 25 minutes against Forest having been hurt in tackle on Robinson, attempted to play on and felt his knee give way under him. Bielsa indicated that Ayling’s recovery could be a long one. “It is an important injury,” United’s head coach said.
Bielsa’s defence, therefore, finds itself in a permanent state of rotation. Barry Douglas has a hamstring injury and Gaetano Berardi is out for the foreseeable future with an injury of his own. Bielsa has fielded seven different full-backs and is at the stage where he is experimenting with Stuart Dallas as a left-back, asking more of Dallas than the Northern Ireland international can give him.
It was Dallas over Tom Pearce on Saturday - a right winger chosen in front of a left-footed defender - and Dallas who lost his man when Robinson nodded Joe Lolley’s corner into the net. Pearce took to the pitch when Ayling was hurt and Dallas switched to the opposite side of of the field. That tactical shift was a reversal of Leeds’ defeat to Blackburn Rovers a week earlier when Bielsa moved Dallas from right-back to left-back after 15 shaky minutes. Again, as is his way, Bielsa blamed himself.
“When Dallas played right-back he played very well,” United’s head coach said. “It’s about the mistakes I make because there was such a difference in his performance. I didn’t help him by playing him (at left-back from the start).” It was put to Bielsa that Pearce might have been an option from the outset. “In the last game (against Ipswich Town) Dallas had a very good performance,” Bielsa replied. “It was hard for me to take the decision not to put him in the team.”
The enforced changes have come at the cost of the flow Leeds were in before the season’s first international break. Pressure began to weigh on Samuel Saiz and Bielsa opted to forego his creativity against Forest and give Adam Forshaw a go. Forshaw was busy and useful and almost scored in the first half when his shot from 20 yards bounced fractionally wide but until the hour, when Bielsa removed Kalvin Phillips and sent Saiz into the fray, Forshaw was quarter-backing Leeds in the way that Phillips is supposed to. From there, his passing kept Forest under the cosh.
Not for the first time, Bielsa was brave with his reshuffles and tactical in his thinking. Phillips made way and Pearce was given just 40 minutes before being substituted himself, creating room for Jack Clarke to play with the fearless excitement which will push Bielsa into starting him before long. The winger almost found the top corner from 20 yards and sent a searching low cross inches in front of Pablo Hernandez’s outstretched foot. After Roofe’s arm broke the dam, provoking protests from Pantilimon and Forest’s players, Hernandez almost won it with a cheeky back-heel which trickled wide.
Afterwards all eyes turned to Roofe, who made no pretence of the ball striking any other part of his body. It went without saying that the goal should have been disallowed and the only question was whether the forward’s handball had been deliberate.
“Yeah, it hit my arm,” Roofe said, “but it was just instinct. It’s up to the ref to give it. It’s the same with other decisions. You get some, you don’t get some.” That fickle reality is why Bielsa prefers to lose sleep over other things.