Phil Hay: Tuned-in Bielsa's operating on a Premier League wavelength at Leeds United

When it comes to dressing-room headcounts, the Premier League and Marcelo Bielsa have been on the same wavelength for almost a decade. Bielsa's stipulation of two players for each position, supplemented by the best of a club's academy stock, is not unlike the Premier League's rules: 25-man squads, with no more than 17 over the age of 21 who fail to meet the definition of a homegrown player.

Wednesday, 22nd August 2018, 6:33 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd August 2018, 6:35 pm
Kalvin Phillips.
Kalvin Phillips.

Down in the Championship, where Bielsa is immersing himself in English football, the quotas are less binding, like a transfer window which shuts on August 9 but still permits Stoke City to bid for Ryan Woods three weeks later. Leeds United had occasional struggles with the EFL’s homegrown regulations last season but their existing squad clears those requirements easily. Over and above there are no limits on size, beyond a manager’s preference, gut feeling or tendency to panic.

Whatever happens this season, panic will not be Bielsa’s undoing. His attitude towards the transfer market has been borderline sedate since he told the board at Leeds that no fewer than 14 members of the squad he took on were good enough to play for him. New signings were imperative and anyone who saw Bielsa, Andrea Radrizzani, Angus Kinnear and Victor Orta deep in conversation in the car park after last month’s friendly at Oxford United would have deduced that business was too slow at that stage but Bielsa’s mood is so relaxed that some at Leeds are almost willing him to ask them for a centre-back.

The absence of stringent squad limits in the Championship is a reflection of the division itself. Manchester City have four games before the season’s first international break. Leeds are contesting eight. Bielsa will discover the wonders of the UK’s motorway network this week and, irrespective of Norwich City playing psychological games by painting their away dressing room a shade of pink, might find a few tired bodies around him when he gets to Carrow Road. He is four injuries down already – Adam Forshaw, Stuart Dallas, Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper – and has driven his players through a cycle of preparation which cut their body fat towards 11 per cent, the figure which Premier League players strive to stay below. For Leeds this is both a marathon and a sprint.

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Should the club worry about burn-out? The counter argument to that idea is Athletic Bilbao. In 2011-12, Bielsa’s best season in Europe by a street, Bilbao negotiated 63 games in La Liga, the Copa Del Rey and the Europa League. They negotiated those games with 23 players. Bielsa took them to Slovakia, France, Austria, Russia, England, Germany, Portugal and Romania. There were heavy defeats in both cup finals and a sag in their league results in the last two months of the season but Bielsa’s faith, his belief that a bloated squad degrades collective appetite, was well placed. Sir Alex Ferguson – Bielsa-d in the last 16 of the Europa League that year – said it was “the best Athletic team I’ve seen for some years”.

What Leeds do next, with a week to go before the loan deadline passes, is Bielsa’s call. Leeds made contact with Everton about Matthew Pennington a few weeks ago and Pennington wants to return but Bielsa has shown little interest in signing a central defender all summer. Even after Tuesday’s injury to Liam Cooper, there was no wavering on that front. It might go some way to explaining why the trail to Kyle Bartley went so cold so quickly once negotiations over Bielsa’s appointment became serious. Leeds have been scouting wingers and are conscious of making sure they have someone to deputise for the lung-bursting playmaking of Samuel Saiz but at this stage they are in the market for cover. The window for marquee signings in the Championship has all but gone, unless a club like Brentford find some reason to send a player like Woods on loan elsewhere.

Bielsa admitted last week that he had not quite “drawn our team perfectly”, saying there was no like-for-like replacement for Kalvin Phillips after Ronaldo Vieira’s sale to Sampdoria. That, combined with the centre of defence, is where Leeds look shallow in an otherwise nicely-balanced squad. They need nothing major nor dramatic but a little depth where depth is lacking. It would be counter-productive to overload the dressing room when Bielsa is so specific about numbers and pointless recruiting a coach from his league if his strategy is not allowed to play out. But the Championship is the Championship and experience of the division tells a thousand stories of the way in which players drop like flies.

Bielsa’s football does not engender negativity. It encourages you to sit back, enjoy it while it lasts and go with the flow. If it blows itself out, such is life. If other clubs in the Championship solve the conundrum of negating it, that is the name of the game he is playing. But there is too much potential in Bielsa’s hands for the season to suffer from something as simple as a weak bench or sticking plasters in his line-up. Leeds should not be at the mercy of that. It’s like the man himself once said: “If players weren’t human, I’d never lose.”

Matthew Pennington.
Liam Cooper.