Why a lonely path at Leeds United isn't so bad with Marcelo Bielsa at the end - Daniel Chapman

Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.

Tuesday, 27th October 2020, 6:10 am
Marcelo Bielsa was forced into the early substitution of Pascal Struijk at Aston Villa. (Getty)

It looked like a moment for compassion but the referee had none for Pascal Struijk.

The rule about substitutes leaving by the nearest touchline was brought in to prevent deliberate time-wasting, and comes with the risk of a visiting player being jeered and heckled as he walks on by.

But in the 21st minute, taken off by a coach who laments time lost through stoppages, none of this applied.

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Instead of being left to a delighted crowd revelling in his enforced early surrender, Struijk’s fate was arguably worse: a half-lap with no company but caverns of seats emptied by the pandemic, nothing to soothe his numb shock but the feeling left by Ezgjan Alioski’s consoling hand on his shoulder, nothing to look forward to but the piecing glare of Marcelo Bielsa, made worse for glaring everywhere but at him.

There was even time for false hope, and Pascal kept looking at the pitch for a reprieve, as if he’d imagined the whole thing, as if Jamie Shackleton wasn’t there and the game wasn’t going on without him.

‘Hey Streaky, come back on!’ Who, me? You guys!

We know Kalvin Phillips suffered this first, twice, but his was a short trot to the bench amid the anonymity of the Championship. In the Premier League the eyes of the world are on your every move, trying to get their money’s worth out of £14.95.

And we know Phillips woke up next morning as if nothing had happened, apart from a few items being added to his to-learn list.

A 21st-minute change hardly raises an eyebrow in West Yorkshire now, and if Shackleton had himself been taken off later, it wouldn’t have registered as a surprise.

These are the trademark decisions that Marcelo Bielsa makes make sense even as they subvert conventions.

‘A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph,’ as they write on the walls in Hyde Park.

If you would take a player off to protect them from a second yellow card with 20 minutes left, isn’t there equal logic and greater need with 70 left? And yet it’s still seen as unusual.

There are traces of Frank Lampard’s invisible code around the status quo. Imagine the angry phone calls to Bielsa from dad and Uncle Harry if he’d taken off our 21-year-old Frank.

You’re supposed to trust a player not to get themselves booked again, and not to is a form of insult. But that’s not really the point when Jack Grealish is also on the pitch.

Bielsa might trust Struijk not to foul him, but could he trust Grealish not to dive anyway and get him sent off? And Struijk knows, deep down, the value of being trusted to play at all when Marcelo Bielsa is the coach.

Struijk has a handful of first team appearances and a patchy record at the Ajax academy behind him, and a lot to learn ahead. But when Phillips was injured — an England international worth more than £30m if he isn’t actually priceless — Bielsa confirmed the solution with no more than a shrug. Struijk plays instead. Nothing changes.

Bringing on Shackleton was the same.

On paper United looked chaotic. Shackleton replaced Klich, who replaced Struijk who had replaced Phillips; Ayling replaced Cooper so Dallas replaced Ayling and Alioski replaced Dallas.

These weren’t square pegs Bielsa was forcing into round holes but sticks of dynamite. Surely so many changes would all blow up?

Apparently not. In fact, the 70 minutes that followed were among the best of Bielsa’s time at Leeds, suggesting the club’s captain and its star player could make do with the bench when they’re fit again.

That wouldn’t be an insult, either.

Bielsa doesn’t deal with traditional first elevens, and Shackleton’s performance proved his point.

He’s been a ‘first eleven’ player since the day Bielsa arrived, meaning he could play as much as anyone actually on the pitch. Only 11 can start a game, but the bench are their equals.

Based on Friday night’s match, had Shackleton drawn a beard on and played 46 games last season, nobody would have known he wasn’t Mateusz Klich.

Bielsa has built a classic ethic on the bench that combines the versatility of Paul Madeley with the patience of Mick Bates, two players whose commitment to Leeds mean Don Revie’s first XI is always stretched in the memory to at least 13.

Like Bielsa, Revie saw the first team as a state of mind, not a list of names. Twenty minutes of a game are as important as 90, or five at the end. And a long walk isn’t so bad with Bielsa at the end.