Phil Hay's Verdict: Norwich City 0 Leeds United 3 - A club in the pink as Leeds paint Norwich white
Even those of a generous persuasion will give Norwich City's pink away dressing room short shrift this season at best. Marcelo Bielsa has made a mockery of it, Daniel Farke does not believe in it and Leeds United left Carrow Road on Saturday asking what the point of it was.
The risk in playing psychological games is that a side like Leeds - “at this moment, 100 per cent the best team in the league,” Farke admitted - roll up and underline the importance of getting the basics right. Norwich’s attempt to lower the testosterone of visiting players with pink paint is the equivalent of Leeds’ employing a set-piece coach last season: a trivial misdirection and the least of their priorities when the fundamentals are so wrong. It is condemned already to months of ridicule, or a quick and quiet death.
Leeds realised the disorder of their priorities in May and sent a missive and a large paycheck to Bielsa. An expensive lick of paint was applied where it mattered and Farke, Norwich’s supremely upbeat coach, is in a good position to analyse the transition. Most of Bielsa’s players were at Carrow Road for the final away game of last season, limp and listless in what resembled a testimonial for Wes Hoolahan. For Norwich, a 2-1 win was like punching wet card. On Saturday the stains on the brick wall hit by Farke were red rather than pink. “Leeds played at a top level,” he said, smiling a beaten smile. “You can see why they are top of the league.”
Bielsa’s fixation with standards does not allow much room for different levels. There is acceptable and unacceptable, on both sides of the touchline. Before exiting Carrow Road, his staff were ordered back to the dug-out to clear up the standard mess of used waters bottles and paraphernalia which lay around it. A pink dressing room or not, Bielsa was leaving the place pristine, his penchant for litter collection is following him around the Championship circuit. What mattered above all was that a 3-0 victory at Carrow Road smoothed the wrinkles seen in Tuesday’s 2-2 draw at Swansea City. “The performance against Swansea decreased,” Bielsa said. “Today it increased.”
It increased with only the meerest of tweaks; the recall of Pontus Jansson to a defence which needed him. Bielsa set sail without Jansson this season, relegated him to the bench after a lengthy post-World Cup holiday, but the best version of him - focused, uncompromising, alive to the flow of the match - was there at Carrow Road, fronting up to Norwich in their best period of the game. For 15 minutes Farke’s players chipped away with some success but Jansson’s interventions, among them a covering tackle to stop Teemu Pukki shooting inside the box, kept Leeds poised for the ruthless hit which is becoming their calling card.
Pablo Hernandez seized the moment in the 21st minute with a sudden change of pace and an intelligent crossfield pass, spotting the run of an unmarked Gjanni Alioski whose header drew a diving save from Tim Krul. The goalkeeper’s parry dropped into the box, in between numerous Norwich players, and found a reborn Mateusz Klich who stroked in his third goal of the season.
Hernandez made Norwich suffer again in the second half, sealing Leeds’ win by curling a shot around Krul from 18 yards with 67 gone and leaving Bielsa to remark that he had rarely seen a winger capable of exerting so much influence on a game. Hernandez, now 33, said recently that he hoped Bielsa’s appointment as head coach would inspire improvement in his game. “I think he can make me a better head coach,” Bielsa replied. “He’s a real silent leader. He always takes responsibility for difficult things and he makes it easier for his team-mates. He does all this without saying a word.”
In between those goals, and five minutes after Klich’s, Roofe slipped Alioski into the box and Alioski beat Krul at his near post. The strike was fierce but Krul, with a narrow angle to defend, was too easily beaten. Leeds had wind in their sails with a one-goal lead and sailed out of sight with two behind them. Pukki almost reduced their back when Kalvin Phillips deflected his shot narrowly wide and Kemar Roofe was in the right place to stop Timm Klose’s header creeping in before half-time. “If the league leaders at half-time are 2-0 up and full of confidence, it's difficult,” said Farke.
Bielsa started Phillips despite substituting him against Swansea after 28 minutes. He played Alioski again despite doing the same at the interval in Wales. Alioski and Barry Douglas, after a disjointed start, found their range together on the left and Phillips slipped back into the role of dictating play. So much of the change under Bielsa is vast - the fitness, the precision, the soaring confidence - but there little things matter too: Phillips’ passing, which has broadened dramatically in its range and accuracy; Gaetano Berardi walking the line by bundling Jordan Rhodes towards the advertising boards in front of the away end but in a way which kept his nose clean; Samuel Saiz dipping in with tackles and inceptions to compensate for a day when his craft was limited.
A pink away dressing room was no more likely to rob Bielsa of that than it was to buy Norwich any of the talent or structure they lack. It might be what Norwich’s season is remembered for. Bielsa laughed about it beforehand and did not touch on it afterwards; an irrelevance of a tactic which looked less than clever at the end of a 3-0 defeat. Farke himself sounded unconvinced. “I don’t believe the colour has an effect, whether with the concentration or if it motivates an opponent a bit more,” he said. “For me it has nothing to do with the result or performance. I’m a bit old-fashioned on this topic.”
Old fashion is the new fashion with Bielsa and the Championship is finding out that football which others extolled on his behalf three decades years ago looks as fresh and vibrant as it did when he began inventing his brand in the 1990s. Even now it is left for those watching to dwell on the magic of it.
“It’s not necessary that I give my point of view,” Bielsa said. “I’d prefer that fans, the public and the analysts to give their point of view. The content of our offensive actions are accessible to everyone.” It is written in the league table, with Leeds top and Middlesbrough, in second, due at Elland Road this Friday night. Bueno.