Pressure is on for Leeds United at Brighton as Marcelo Bielsa explains need for sprint finish
No-one expected Leeds United’s players to stop sprinting before the finish line but, even with Premier League safety secured, the pressure remains on.
Marcelo Bielsa simply wouldn’t have it any other way because pressure is useful and there are still goals to achieve, so the Whites’ final five opponents should prepare for the level of intensity that has become this team’s trademark.
To say this season has gone to plan is a gross misrepresentation of Leeds United’s adaptation to the highest level of domestic club football.
They have handled the step up in competition and quality with a shocking degree of comfort, as a five-game unbeaten Elland Road streak against ‘big six’ sides proves.
It is easy to forget, as they sit in the lofty perch of ninth place in the table, closer in points to the top four than the bottom three, that all that was required in their first season back amongst the elite since 2004 was 17th place.
Bielsa, his staff and the players have left the expectations in the dust and ran a different race to their fellow newly promoted teams.
And instead of winding down to the end of the campaign, they’re winding up, unbeaten in six games, riding the wave of momentum created by draws with Liverpool and Manchester United and a win, with 10 men, over Manchester City.
Those games allowed Leeds to showcase improvement in the one area where they took the most flak, all season.
At times the criticism of the Whites’ defensive record was tinged with hysteria and a refusal to look at their performance as a whole, but shipping just four goals in their last six games, all of which were against clubs with plenty to play for and just as much attacking threat, has shown their evolution.
Bielsa, as ever, looks at the bigger picture. Defending well against the top teams does not a top team make.
“The reference I made to how the team has evolved was that we had to play opponents who are very qualified in the last three games,” he said.
“In those games we managed to play games which were balanced. We defended better than we attacked. It shows a grade of improvement. But in no way does it put us on equal terms with teams who are better than us.
“To compare yourself as a team you need to defend and attack well – we haven’t managed to achieve this yet.”
There is always room for improvement and, with the next game pitting Leeds against fourth-from-bottom Brighton, it might appear like an ideal opportunity to showcase both sides of Leeds’ game.
Tomorrow’s hosts may not boast the same quality as Manchester United but they demand the same level of intensity from Leeds, in Bielsa’s eyes.
“With regards to how we maintain the production in the last five games Leeds, as a team, if we’re not committed 100 percent then the performance levels drop,” he said.
“What we’re looking for is to continue with the same intensity in the remaining games. There are a lot of arguments for us to carry on this way.”
The argument that Leeds can relax in the comfort of Premier League safety and enjoy their football would fall on deaf ears around Thorp Arch.
By all means enjoy it, but enjoy it by being intense, to paraphrase one of Bielsa’s predecessors.
“We’re never going to do anything other than give 100 per cent for the next game,” said Bielsa yesterday.
“With regards to this weekend’s game, the reality is what we have faced all season.”
A 47-point haul with 15 still to play for is an achievement, but it is not sufficient to alleviate the pressure. And nor would Bielsa want it to be.
Pressure is fuel that has helped drive Leeds to this position. Pressure could help them maintain it, or better it before the race is run.
“I think that pressure is indispensable,” he said.
“In the case for us we play better with pressure. With five games to play the opinion that the performance level of Leeds can be maintained, improved or decreased depending on results. What happens in the final games can be decisive.”
With five games to go, the pressure is on.