A scuffle with Neil Harris followed by an apology and a phone call to Pep Guardiola; just a Saturday in the life of Marcelo Bielsa. There is no-one quite like him in Championship circles and if Millwall away is any gauge of Leeds United, perhaps this season will be different too.
Years go by and faces change but Millwall without fail leave Leeds and their head coach staring down the barrel of a gun in Bermondsey. Bielsa was facing it in the 89th minute on Saturday, his hands tied by the spell which Millwall always cast in this fixture. Then Jack Harrison, the winger he talked Guardiola into loaning him in July, picked out the bottom corner from 20 yards and loosened the New Den’s hold.
Bielsa has taken little interest in the history of games at Millwall but anyone who knows it has come to know that Leeds do not nick points there. In an average season, Harrison’s shot would have slipped wide and the header which Millwall’s Tom Elliott drove against a post in injury-time would have found its way over the line. It was the same experience, the same infuriating afternoon until Harrison made something give.
Leeds’ unbeaten league record was resting on that goal and so was their position at the top of the Championship. Moreover, the late reply to Jed Wallace’s 55th-minute strike put a sock in impending arguments about Bielsa’s inability to prevent a write-off at Millwall, the way in which his squad has been cut to the bone already and the possibility that defeat in the docklands, as it did with Thomas Christiansen this time last year, might knock the club badly out their stride.
A 1-0 loss would have started that debate. A 1-1 draw, claimed so late and despite the absence of several players, was a feather in Bielsa’s cap. Harrison, one of Manchester City’s young brood, finished the game as a centre-forward and came up with the equaliser. Far from crawling towards an obligatory defeat, Leeds found the resolve to stop a procession of blows in this part of London. “When you have a small difference, like 1-0, you always keep faith, you always have hope,” Bielsa said. “We had a feeling we could score and get the draw.”
Harrison’s goal - a sweetly-hit strike with his left foot, squeezed inside Ben Amos’ far post - rescued what fast becoming the worst week of Bielsa’s short time with Leeds; a week in which Patrick Bamford, Kemar Roofe and Pablo Hernandez succumbed to injury and a first league defeat was on the cards. Bielsa gave no credence to the idea that the absentee list was felt at Millwall - “I don’t think it’s linked with the players who aren’t with us,” he said - but in filling the bench with Ryan Edmondson and Jack Clarke, he was making more use of the academy than even he intended.
Time is sure to tell whether his policy of running with a thin squad is astute or rash in a division so hard. There were patches of Saturday’s draw which were begging for Hernandez’s vision and Roofe’s eye for goal. The latter’s lack of fitness gave Tyler Roberts a league debut front and four good chances passed him by, two in either half and the best of them blocked by Murray Wallace and Amos before half-time. Bielsa replaced him on the hour but was not critical of his finishing.
“Some people value strikers when they score a goal,” Bielsa said. “I prefer to value them taking into account the number of chances they have. If he had scored one goal we would all be saying he had a wonderful performance. He had a good performance.”
The changes did not stop at Roberts. Bielsa sized up Millwall’s front pair of Lee Gregory and Steve Morison - the self-styled Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on his 299th club appearance - and chose to play Kalvin Phillips as a third centre-back between Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson. “I always play with a third defender when the opponent has two strikers,” he said. “But I abandoned this idea when the opponents scored.” The switch limited the influence of Phillips’ passing and pulled Mateusz Klich back from the areas where he did damage last month, burdening Samuel Saiz with the task of orchestrating attacks alone. Millwall found enough of a foothold to fashion the set-pieces they wanted, something Bielsa prepared for but Leeds made hard working of coping with. “For us it’s still hard to resolve situations even when we know in advance that we will face them.”
The opening goal was a product of those tactics, coming from one of an endless line of long throws from Ryan Leonard. Early in the second half he picked out Jake Cooper who flicked a header to the back post where Jed Wallace - the player who settled a ludicrous meeting between these clubs at Elland Road in January - lost Barry Douglas and side-footed the ball in; the sort of effort Leeds have conceded in Bermondsey more often than they can remember.
Bielsa dragged off Klich and then Roberts, who had twice failed to connect properly with only Amos to beat, and did what he could with a weakened bench. Harrison moved to the front of a team which no longer contained a striker. Millwall sat back and then pressed again, occasionally tempted by the protection of a second goal. Leeds would not have recovered from that but with the game into the penultimate minute, a high ball broke to Harrison who steadied himself on the edge of the box and found the one fraction of the net Amos could not guard.
Bielsa was asked afterwards if he would call Guardiola to thank him for Harrison’s signature. "Of course I will,” he said. “But he already knows I'm thankful. I don't need Jack Harrison to score to be thankful.”
A few minutes earlier, Bielsa and Harris had confronted each other on the touchline after tempers flared as Gjanni Alioski tried to hurry a throw-in. Bielsa and Harris were moved apart and the Leeds boss apologised afterwards, saying he - at the age of 63 - should have known better than his counterpart. “I've spoken to him downstairs,” Harris said. “There's no problem whatsoever.”
As Harrison’s shot flew in, Saiz sprinted to celebrate with Bielsa and his bench and Stuart Dallas ran to retrieve the ball from the net. If there was a hint in Dallas’ urgency of a desire to nick a win, Millwall came much closer in injury-time. Elliott hit the inside of a post with seconds to go and Tom Bradshaw and Conor McLaughlin looked like finishing off scrambles in Leeds’ box, only to be denied by necessary deflections. Onslaughts like that can age a coach by 10 years.
“Forgetting the last five minutes, we could have won the game,” Bielsa said, his poise restored. “But we had the last five minutes of the game when we could have lost it. This means we still have to improve and grow.”
A draw at Millwall, small beer though it might be, is proof of Leeds’ growth; of the ability to crawl out of a situation where the scoreline was against them and the crowd were on top of them. Bielsa seemed surprised last week by the psychological significance placed on a game which looked to him like any other. Now he knows why.