Why Marcelo Bielsa will be considering Leeds United's possibilities without setting Elland Road targets
Marcelo Bielsa resisted the temptation to offer his conclusion on the success, or otherwise, of Leeds United on their Premier League return until the very last game had been played and even then he was conflicted.
It’s ‘very Bielsa’ to refuse to issue an analysis until he has all the evidence he deems relevant.
What he said wasn’t particularly elaborate but it was typically honest and worth waiting for, given the implications for his fourth season in charge of the Whites.
There was no scope for asking the Argentine how Leeds had performed against his personal target because he told the media towards the end of the Premier League fixtures that none was set and, instead, the season was taken one game at a time, from first to last.
The head coach, who revealed in March his belief that a position in mid-table or below did not deserve to be valued, wasn’t dissatisfied with ninth place in the Premier League. He wasn’t thrilled, either.
“It’s difficult to offer a conclusion because, on one side, I’m very satisfied with what the team achieved but, on the other, I feel like we could have added a few more points,” he said.
“If we divided the competition in two, in the second part we received 50 per cent fewer goals than we did in the first part. Had we had that defensive security throughout the campaign, if we had added those points, I would have liked this season.
“Anyway, I’m satisfied with what we achieved. It’s very difficult to win a game in the Premier League, very difficult, and, on the other side, I feel like we could have had a few more points.”
As a newly-promoted side, even one with grand plans for the future, a place in the top 10 was more than almost all Whites fans could have asked for.
Even with their summer 2020 transfer splurge, the club’s overriding goal was simply to stay in the top flight, which would allow them to continue building towards a redeveloped Elland Road and a return to European football.
So to remain unbeaten at home against the ‘top six’ and to rack up wins over Manchester City, Everton and Leicester away from home en route to 59 points, just three fewer than Tottenham Hotspur who took the final European place, was far beyond the call of duty.
Yet, remarkably, it could have been even better. As the final table suggested, European qualification was tantalisingly close to becoming a reality at the first time of asking.
The Europa Conference League is not exactly where Andrea Radrizzani and the 49ers visualise Leeds’ medium and long-term future and the sheer number of games required to win the tournament would increase the difficulty of what is always going to be a challenging Premier League season, particularly when Victor Orta is still in the throes of building a squad capable of playing and winning every few days.
But Leeds were also just six points behind West Ham, who made up the top six and took a Europa League spot.
There was an evolution in the squad as they settled into Premier League life.
The set-piece issues that cropped up in the first half of the season, an inability to prevent counter-attack goals in those back-to-back 4-1 defeats by Leicester and Crystal Palace and a defensive fragility that wasn’t evident in the Championship were problems that Leeds worked hard to resolve and the improvement in all defensive departments is one of many reasons for hope ahead of 2021/22.
It would be churlish to tell a group of players, most of whom operated in the Championship a year ago, that they fell in any way short last season but, as Bielsa said, points did go begging.
What was evident from the off and never went away was Leeds’ knack of making games truly competitive, even against the best and, as remarkable as it is to say, they could have got something from the 4-3 defeat at Anfield on the opening day.
They should have got more than a 0-0 draw against the 10 men of Arsenal at home and they didn’t deserve a 1-0 loss at Wolves that came thanks to a huge slice of misfortune.
Efficiency in front of goal wasn’t often an issue, not in the same way it was in the second tier, yet imprecision in the build up was at times.
And, when they got the defensive side of things so right in that run against the ‘big boys’, the attacking side suffered somewhat.
It was a case of room for improvement rather than any need for special measures and, if there’s anything Bielsa is known for, it’s making players and teams better.
Bielsa, who once challenged players in his care to consider exactly how many goals were possible in 90 minutes, might not be setting targets but he will be considering possibilities.
And, for a club determined to give him more quality to work with, something Bielsa considers wholly satisfactory and something better than ninth has to be considered within their grasp