IF Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa planned to keep their expectant public on edge, pre-season is having the desired effect.
Bielsa has held his counsel all month and shown nothing like the whole of his hand. Leeds continue to leave everyone wondering if their recruitment will sound the right notes at the death. On the evidence so far, their recruitment needs to.
There is a pensive, pregnant tone about Leeds, driven by the assumption that the bigger picture for the season ahead will more be clear and complete by the time it starts.
The club’s owner, Andrea Radrizzani turned up for last night’s friendly at Oxford United and even before a 4-3 defeat, there were many who would give a penny for his thoughts on the way this summer has turned out: the sensation of Bielsa arriving as head coach watered down by a thoroughly flat transfer window to date.
Radrizzani, United’s majority shareholder, has said next to nothing about it and Bielsa, since late June, has said nothing about anything with a microphone present.
In that vacuum, there is no telling how satisfied pre-season has made him: the performances, the tactical development, the standard of opposition or the as-yet unfulfilled attempt to bring his squad up to strength. The Argentinian’s poker face is hiding a world of thought.
He can have taken no pleasure taken from the first hour of the trip to Oxford, where a young, raw and out-matched team were reminded that League One clubs know how to play.
Leeds were on the road to defeat by half-time, picked off three times in 43 minutes, and while Bielsa’s side was fleshed out by Under-23s, for long periods it was hard to fathom the purpose of the exercise in what was the most difficult of United’s five away friendlies.
The game, at the very least, provided a chance to honour Paul Madeley after his death at the on Monday, as Oxford’s stadium announcer and the travelling crowd did, but United’s players took to the field initially without the black armbands they had planned to wear.
Nothing is quite going as it should, though Tyler Roberts raised the standard with a clever finish and his first Leeds goal on 54 minutes.
United finally found their appetite in the last half-hour, threatening to come from three goals down to force a 4-4 draw.
That passage of the night provided value for money.
There was little to be gleaned in terms of Bielsa’s grander plan, other than the persistence with a 4-1-4-1 formation.
With a couple of exceptions, his line-up against Stoke City a week on Sunday will consist of players other than those fielded at Oxford and Las Palmas is likely to be the first definitive indication of how he plans to burst Stoke’s increasingly expensive bubble.
Stoke have thrown money at James McClean in the past week and the club completed a £10m deal for Tom Ince yesterday.
They are cash-rich in a way which Leeds can only envy and their wealth is telling in a market that United are struggling to nail. Sources at the club say they have bids on the table in the scramble to land a centre-forward, a full-back, a winger and another midfielder but as the window wears on, two birds in the bush are worth less and less than one in the hand. Leeds need deals not targets if Bielsa is to attempt to punch his weight in the Championship.
Both of the players signed so far were present at Oxford, though Jamal Blackman – having failed to play at all since his loan move from Chelsea – was named on the bench behind Will Huffer.
Bielsa’s team, packed with development-squad players as it had been at York City last Thursday, went against the expected grain in a match featuring the strongest domestic opposition lined up for him before his appointment.
Oxford, with a League One campaign, starting next Saturday, were very close to full strength.
The friendly at the Kassam Stadium was a legacy of Kemar Roofe’s transfer from Oxford to Leeds in 2016, one of two matches agreed as part of that deal. Roofe himself was not in town having played at Southend United on Sunday. Without him and more nous in their side, United were quickly exposed by a streetwise Oxford side who found errors a plenty to feed on from the start.
One, leading to a third-minute shot from James Henry, drew a full length save from Huffer but the goalkeeper was beaten eight minutes later after Oriol Rey, Leeds’ young Spanish defender, lost possession on the right wing. Rob Hall cut it back to Henry who drilled a shot across Huffer and into the far corner.
Leeds conjured half-chances for Jamie Shackleton and Sam Dalby but, amid constant confusion in their defence, conceded again in the 26th minute when Hall received a pass inside the box, skipped past a challenge and casually beat Huffer.
Henry was then on hand to tuck away a third goal two minutes before half-time after Huffer spilled Jon Obika’s strike.
Bielsa gave Blackman his chance at the break and introduced Ryan Edmondson and Tyler Roberts alongside him. Roberts, having ended his long wait for a run-out in a Leeds shirt over the weekend, went one step further with a lovely goal, skipping past his marker on the corner of the box and showing a deft touch to curl in a shot with the help of the far post.
Roberts, instantly, looked a cut above and Leeds have long been confident about what their investment of £2.5m bought them in January.
After Obika tapped in a fourth for Oxford on 61 minutes, Leeds belatedly moved through the gears and Lewis Baker reduced the hosts’ lead to 4-2 at the end of United’s next attack.
Jack Clarke then cut the deficit further by striking from long range 18 minutes from time.
Entertainment levels were high as the sun went down. In the light of day, the question for Bielsa is how many of this crop can genuinely back up a squad in the Championship.