Phil Hay's Verdict: Leeds United 3 Stoke City 1: Potters' swept aside by the Bielsa express
Marcelo Bielsa found himself a perch before kick-off, a bucket-shaped stool at the back of his technical area, and for the 90 minutes that followed he barely moved.
There is a crackle around him at Leeds United, fizzing wildly after yesterday’s mauling of Stoke City, but Bielsa watched that win like an abstract neutral: intrigued, impassive and unnaturally calm.
There were no histrionics or loss of control, even when the game was done, and it dawned quickly that Bielsa has been in these cauldrons of pressure for longer than he can remember: Lille, Marseille, the Europa League final with Athletic Bilbao.
The insanely passionate world of Argentinian football, where his deepest love lies. The Championship will spend a few days digesting this result. Bielsa toddled off like a man who would dwell on it for only as long as it took to watch the highlights to death.
There is, still, much to be said about the way it materialised, from the aggression which drove a costly, big-hitting Stoke squad into its shell, to the fitness of the footballers Bielsa flogged from 8am until 8pm throughout pre-season, to the stringent demand to look for the ball and play with it at every turn.
Leeds are at their worst when Elland Road spreads fear amongst them, like it did in the second half of last season, but there was no anxiety in possession and no confusion about what to do with it. Stoke were suitably perplexed.
In Spanish or English, Bielsa’s message has run deep into certain players who, on the basis of the six months before his appointment, might think of themselves as lucky to be here.
Mateusz Klich, a cast-off in January, scored the opening goal yesterday and no longer looked like a waste of a boot peg at Thorp Arch.
Samuel Saiz escape the cloud of indiscipline and fatigue which ruined his first year here. Stoke were hassled and harried and at the end of the first half, Jack Butland spilled a shot from Pablo Hernandez into his net and left Gary Rowett’s team 2-0 down. Stoke learned very quickly that the Premier League is not like this.
Bielsa needs time to acclimatise too, and it will take some conditioning to play like this level all season, but the stories of his analysis of the Championship prior to accepting a contract with Leeds were not exaggerated.
He came in with his eyes open and stared patiently yesterday as his players dug Stoke in the ribs and his coaches barked orders around him. The bemusement with which Stoke reset themselves after Butland’s blunder late in the first half promised no fireworks in the second. And there were few.
Benik Afobe replied with a penalty in the 52nd minute but Liam Cooper glanced in a header five minutes later and with that, Bielsa finally clenched a fist, confident that the sting had been drawn. There were occasionals wobbles, including a late header from the perennial Peter Crouch which almost crept in, but injury-time found Bielsa’s players attacking like hell again.
It was as Bielsa’s reputation promised.
The days leading up to the first game of the season brought more news of Bielsa’s idiosyncrasies, including the wonderful tale of him ordering United’s players to carry out three hours of litter collection at Thorp Arch as a way of remembering what a normal job feels like.
For all the complexity of his football, he has shown himself to be incredibly straight. He promised to start Bailey Peacock-Farrell in goal and did.
He threatened to leave out Pontus Jansson and did. Patrick Bamford, newly signed for £7m, only made the bench. There are no sacred cows left at Leeds, save for Bielsa.
His choice of players was confounding, almost reckless, in the names it overlooked but Bielsa had worked closely with most of them from the first day of pre-season.
If he was searching for understanding amongst them then he found it. Leeds followed the pillars of Bielsa’s mantra – press, attack, dominate the ball – Stoke were made to feel the heat of the afternoon after just 16 minutes.
There was a spring in Saiz’s step from the beginning, free of the cobwebs which grew on him as he became a passenger last season, and his return to the party reiterated Bielsa’s insistence on ekeing more out of players who had previously fallen short. So did the competence of Klich, the Polish midfielder who tucked away the opening goal in the 16th minute.
Saiz measured up Stoke’s defence and slipped through a pass which Klich gathered before stabbing past Butland from six yards. Klich had last started a league game for Leeds in September. At the turn of the year he was all but finished in these parts and headed for a loan in Holland. No surprise that his smile beamed from ear to ear.
Elland Road exploded but Bielsa sat passively, blowing bubbles of gum on his inverted bucket. He did not twitch when Ince, from 30 yards, cracked a pot-shot off the top of Peacock-Farrell’s crossbar or when Berardi lost possession and left Liam Cooper one-versus-two against James McClean and Afobe. Cooper anticipated McClean’s inside pass and quelled the trouble with an outstretched leg.
More often than not, Stoke were doing the stretching. Gjanni Alioski’s cleanly hit volley drew a strong save from Butland before half-time and he and Kemar Roofe aimed other chances wide. Then, with the first half into injury-time, Hernandez had a go from 20 yards and Butland allowed a saveable shot to slip off his palms and trickle into the net. A goalkeeper who was at the World Cup last month had been reduced to mistakes like that.
Stoke were grasping for a rope and found one briefly seven minutes into the second half. Gaetano Berardi and Kalvin Phillips failed to dig McClean’s cross out of their own box and when Ince took it clear, Barry Douglas brought him down. Afobe sent Peacock-Farrell left from the penalty spot and dinked a clever finish down the middle.
Leeds sucked it up and within five minutes, Douglas – an assist-machine at Wolves – re-enacted that role with a gift-wrapped, inswinging corner which Cooper glaced neatly across Butland. Only then was Bielsa on his feet, waving a few instructions before retreating.again. The Argentinian liked what he saw. Stoke did not. The Championship won’t fancy 46 games of this.