QPR 2 Leeds United 1 - Phil Hay's verdict: Marcelo Bielsa's young guns prove point in QPR defeat
Marcelo Bielsa knows that the kids at Leeds United are alright and a raucous cup tie with Queens Park Rangers vindicated the lengths he is pushing them to.
Defeat came his way at Loftus Road but in a manner which will spare him from the criticism the FA Cup can pile on men in his job.
Managers at Leeds before Bielsa have diced with weakened line-ups to their cost: Garry Monk against Sutton United two years ago and Thomas Christiansen away at Newport County last season, a game and a defeat which began the erosion of Andrea Radrizzani’s faith in him. Both had their reasons but befel the fate of lower-league humiliation.
Monk, by fielding two youngsters who had never looked like playing for Leeds and would never play for the club again, was making a point about a lack of January transfers. Christiansen, by ringing nine changes in Wales, was prioritising the Championship while badly underestimating the team and the horrible pitch United were about to face.
Where Bielsa differed was in believing confidently that an academy he has been delving into all season would give QPR a game. The academy did not disappoint, even if the result did.
Bielsa has more credit in the bank than Monk or Christiansen - enough to field a team with an average age of 22 and name a bench with an average age of just 19 - and the trip to London did not carry the threat of the embarrassment the FA Cup lives for in the earlier rounds, but a team much younger than this would require a soft-play zone at Thorp Arch.
All the same, it needed a goal 15 minutes from time to see them off.
QPR drew first blood with a 22nd-minute penalty, converted by Aramide Oteh, but Leeds were level within three minutes through Aapo Halme and gave as good as they got for most of the afternoon. Both sides struck the woodwork twice - Tyler Roberts rattling both posts with very the first effort of the tie - and the entertainment made the prospect of a replay and a fourth meeting between the clubs in the space of two months infinitely more bearable.
Somehow, a no-frills, all-Championship fixture became one of the ties of the third round but QPR deservedly won when Jake Bidwell nodded in a free header.
The magic of this cup is a contradiction in terms for QPR, who are usually long gone from the tournament by the time it gets serious. The club had won four ties in 22 previous years, a truly dire record which had seen them hit a wall in the third round in sixth consecutive seasons. The cover of their match programme carried an image of their appearance in the final in 1982, the only time they have gone so close.
Bielsa’s knowledge of a trophy he had never contested before was, unsurprisingly, so patchy that he was caught confusing Kevin Keegan with Ronald Reagan last week but he kept up with the traditions of Championship coaches in the third round by making as many changes as he could.
His line-up, with a strong strain of junior names, did not lack balance but was deprived of vast experience. Bielsa counted on the zest of Jack Clarke and others to catch QPR cold, which Roberts almost did.
McClaren, though, maintained some continuity by limiting his changes to five and keeping some of his most effective senior players in place. Bielsa’s substitutes were a collection of fresh faces which the former England coach could not have identified, amongst them the Bulgarian and former Barcelona trainee Kun Temenuzhkov. Leeds arrived in London with teenagers everywhere and no trump cards in reserve.
Without two unkind bounces of the ball, Bielsa’s raw collection would have held the lead after just 28 seconds. Roberts arrived to meet a headed clearance on the edge of QPR’s box with a sweet volley which flashed past Matt Ingram and hit the inside of a post. The shot deflected against the other post before ricocheting clear.
It was a promise of a good tie in the offing and QPR committed in the same spirit. Bailey Peacock-Farrell pulled off three good saves in the first 15 minutes, the best a parry to stop Bright Osayi-Samuel prodding Ebere Eze’s pass into the net. There was no caution in either camp and no sign of either team, with other fish to fry in the Championship, trying to end their involvement in the competition quickly.
Bielsa’s defence, though, was the weakness in his side and QPR took the lead in the 22nd minute after applying pressure in the right areas. Halme had already been booked for taking out Eze when Leif Davis stuck out a foot and tripped Jake Bidwell inside United’s area. Oteh drove the penalty safely down the middle.
The response from Leeds was swift and emphatic, helped by an error from Ingram three minutes later. Rangers’ goalkeeper let Lewis Baker’s long-range free-kick slip off his body and Halme found himself with the ball at his feet, a few yards from an empty net; the goalscoring position a centre-back craves. His first senior goal was on a plate.
The match screamed of more to come at both ends of the pitch and the margins stopping them were fractional: Roberts bundling a deflected shot inches wide and Oteh letting the ball run away from him as he shaped to finish with defenders pursuing him desperately. Halme avoided the urge to dive in and risk a second booking.
That possibility forced him to make way at half-time, allowing Tom Pearce to drop in at left-back and the diminutive Davis to partner Luke Ayling in the centre of defence. Under any other coach, it would have looked like suicide.
United stunted QPR’s speed without taming it completely and in the 66th minute, Jordan Cousins produced a strike from long range which Peacock-Farrell turned against the outside of a post.
A Bidwell header in the 75th minute was pushed off the line by the keeper but Bidwell gave Peacock-Farrell no chance at the resulting corner when he nodded inside his far post and Luke Freeman hit the same post as Cousins before the final whistle.
A place in the draw for the fourth round was a step too far for Bielsa’s kids, but only just.