Why Leeds United fans should be reassured as Marcelo Bielsa faces up to Premier League relegation fight
Marcelo Bielsa’s head has been on a swivel all week, looking back at Leeds United’s loss at Spurs and forward to their visit to Brighton.
His work with the players at Thorp Arch in preparation for each Premier League outing is a combination of what must be corrected from the previous game and how to deal with the fresh challenges provided by the next one.
At Tottenham Hotspur he saw a problem in the second half that took, in his words, ‘too many movements’ to try and fix, so that will have likely occupied some of his thinking in the days since. At Brighton his men will encounter a team he sees utilising the versatility of their players to shape shift ‘naturally and efficiently’ and that will have been another focus this week.
“The previous game is always a reference and the next one in the same way, we combine both things and the week has been sufficiently long to correct and to project,” he said.
But all his studying, analysing and plotting has not taken his eyes away from the Whites’ current reality – a relegation battle. Leeds are fourth from bottom and just two points ahead of Burnley.
To some the use of the phrase relegation battle, by the media or fellow fans, is a sign of panic or doubt or disbelief, even disloyalty.
‘Only 12 games have been played, it’s too early to be talking about relegation,’ is a favourite response and while it holds some truth, Leeds are one of at least a dozen clubs who began the season knowing that, no matter how unlikely, the drop was a possibility. The battle is there from start until near the finish for most of those clubs. The sooner you can win it, the better, leaving you to play out the final stages of the season in relative freedom, as Leeds did last season.
A manager grounded in realism is no bad thing, however and nothing to be afraid of. Clubs who refuse to accept or realise they’re fighting for their lives in a division do not act accordingly and before they know it, it’s too late.
That will evidently not be the case at Leeds. Bielsa knows where Leeds are in the table and he knows what has put them there, so he’s working with the corresponding urgency to move the team to a better, safer place.
Yet he is not so fixated on the table that he cannot see positive signs that point to potential upward mobility, there is no wood obscuring the trees and the rot of resignation to fate has not set in.
“There are two ways to see it,” said Bielsa yesterday.
“One of them is that we are avoiding being in the bottom three – I don’t hide that or try to shy away from it, it is the reality that we have to face and it’s the situation that we need to avoid. The results that we have obtained up until now are those that position us in the table where we are, after, there are the performances and what you deserve.
“The performances in the last period have been improving and what we deserved allow us to think that we should have a few more points. I don’t ignore the reality and I always fight to reverse a negative moment or period.”
Fighting talk is good, it’s reassuring.
What might reassure Leeds fans even more is that Bielsa is only seeking solutions in what he can control.
If he were to be making excuses of an injury crisis that is absolutely noteworthy and difficult, and if he was yearning for the January transfer window to open so he could hurriedly usher in some reinforcements, his messaging would inspire a lot less confidence.
Injuries will happen, they can be prevented to some degree but not totally. Leeds have discovered this as fully as any club over the past three and a half years. Putting your hope in a fully fit group of first choice players is not a proactive approach, nor perhaps is entrusting it to players who he has not yet worked with. And rather than bend to the whims of circumstance,
Bielsa is trying to fashion ready-made replacements already under his command at Leeds. That approach has allowed Joe Gelhardt to step into the lone striker role with more than a year’s worth of learning and adapting behind him, meaning the team should theoretically be able to play as they desire with a teenager in Patrick Bamford’s place.
It has allowed Jamie Shackleton, with three and a half years of education in Bielsa’s ways behind him, to fill gaps in the team with a far greater understanding of the system than any January arrival could bring with him.
As much as many, including this correspondent, have argued that an addition or two in the new year would be prudent and helpful, Bielsa is telling all and sundry that he’s still content with the squad and its depth, so he’s actively working with what he’s got to craft solutions to problems. He feels responsible.
Publicly stating that January could not come soon enough, as managers have in the past, would be abdicating a measure of that responsibility, something Bielsa appears highly unlikely to do.
Whether or not you agree with his assessment of Leeds’ reality, his view on new signings or his methods, you have to respect a man who holds only himself accountable for issues and makes it his business to solve them.
“The injuries are not one of the reasons why we are there and of course it worries me the position that we occupy in the table,” he said.
“I am in charge of a group of footballers to warrant, to deserve to be in a higher position and the club has trusted in me. One of the aspects that shows this confidence is what they pay me to do this job and of course these results that I am offering are not what is expected.
“I think the club has put enough human resources at my disposal for the results to be different.
“I can’t attribute the position in the table, nor the injuries to having not a sufficient amount of players. Obviously what is left is the management of the players that I have and I think that is where the focus of the attention is.”
Leeds’ problems, be they ones that surfaced at Spurs, ones that will present themselves at Brighton or the league table itself, have Bielsa’s full attention. He’s not for complaining and he’s not for speculating. He’s managing.