It suited the league in a competitive sense to see the wings of its leaders clipped but Leeds are no longer there to be shot at on the basis of results alone. Bielsa tried on Wednesday to turn the debate over ‘Spygate’ in his favour by laying bare the extent of the analysis he does on every opposition team but 11 Championship clubs came back at him on Friday by asking the EFL to investigate the revelation that Bielsa’s staff have watched each side in the division train.
What began with a covert scouting trip to Derby County’s training complex will end no-one-is-quite-sure where.
Neither the EFL nor the Football Association, both of whom are examining Bielsa’s tactics, have spoken about the possibility of a points deduction but Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown upped the ante on Friday by asking the EFL to impose one, reprising the summer of 2007. Leeds have been careful to say nothing in response, aware that after apologising to Derby a tit-for-tat exchange might do them more harm.
Bielsa cannot avoid questions so easily and having refrained from dispatching a member of staff to take in a Stoke training session before Saturday’s game, he was asked afterwards if that lack of insight had contributed to a 2-1 defeat at the Bet365 Stadium. “No,” he replied. “We can’t say we ignored the features of the opponent. We just didn’t take advantage of the opportunities we had.”
Stoke City 2 Leeds United 1: Phil Hay's player ratings as Pontus Jansson sees redHad Leeds brash enough to peer into Stoke’s training ground, they would have seen the club’s new manager, Nathan Jones, attempting to defy Bielsa’s assumptions about him. Jones was inclined to use a four-man defence in his previous job at Luton Town and did so when Stoke lost 3-1 on his bow at Brentford last weekend.
Bielsa ordered his analysts to review all of Luton’s fixtures under him this season, an intense process of research which followed Jones’ appointment a fortnight ago, but Leeds were met in Stoke by three centre-backs, two wing-backs and two up front.
Bielsa’s transparency in publicly revealing the depth of his analysis did him credit but it was questionable whether Jones would have gone rogue with his formation without knowing how closely United’s head coach had been scrutinising him.
“He’s well drilled on what our usual formation is so we thought we may have to give him a surprise,” Jones said. “We needed to be tactically right at it, and we were.”
Stoke have been treading water since Leeds toyed with them mercilessly on the first day of the season, the beginning of Gary Rowett’s rapid demise in the Potteries. Bielsa’s players were fluid and vibrant in the sunshine of that August afternoon at Elland Road, impossible for Stoke to withstand, but a wintry afternoon in the midlands brought their football down to that level.
Cold Saturdays in Stoke are no different to cold Tuesday nights, the yardstick by which the English game insists on judging foreign men with talent, and Leeds were frozen in the area of the pitch where Bielsa expects them to be lethal.
Stoke City 2 Leeds United 1: Attacking play not good enough, admits Marcelo BielsaJones’ tactical ploy might have been unexpected but Bielsa saw a more simple explanation. “We couldn’t arrive in the box often enough,” he said. “If you have the ball and you can't arrive in the last part of the pitch, you can't have chances to score.”
It was there that a victory went begging, and defensively where the game was lost. Stoke scored twice in the second half, either side of a red card for Pontus Jansson, and Gjanni Alioski’s 95th-minute goal - a better finish than a consolation deserved - was the last kick of the ball in anger.
Twenty six crosses came from either flank, and 12 from Alioski alone, but there was little for Jack Butland to do until a late header from Luke Ayling drew the calibre of save which marks out an England international. “The one time we needed Jack, he came up trumps,” Jones said.
Leeds’ imprecision out wide and Jack Harrison leaving the field an hour into another game which demonstrated little about him will only encourage the club to press ahead with their interest in Swansea City’s Daniel James.
The club’s defeat at Stoke was a classic example of possession with no product, something Bielsa has generally avoided: Stoke with little over a quarter of it rewarded with three points. It was not an afternoon where Jones was ever looking to the massive, ball-in-to-the-box wildcard which is a 37-year-old Peter Crouch.
There was ample space for Leeds to work with in front of Stoke’s back three but few moments as cutting as Pablo Hernandez’s early shot which zipped by Butland’s right-hand post. Stoke got their foot into the game after 20 minutes and Bailey Peacock-Farrell, a keeper standing under the shadow of substitute and new signing Kiko Casilla, pushed a free-kick from Peter Etebo over his crossbar, keeping out Stoke’s best chance of the first half.
Listen to Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa's post-match press conference in full following Stoke City defeatBut two minutes into the second, Sam Clucas drilled a well-hit shot inside Peacock-Farrell’s far post after Liam Cooper and Mateusz Klich fluffed headers inside United’s box. Bielsa was keen to avoid discussing the quality of the defending, much as it deserved comment.
“I don't give an opinion on that publicly but it was a game that we could win,” he said. “Even when we had one player less it was the same.”
Jansson was already on a yellow card, issued early on for dissent, when he was booked again after stumbling into Benik Afobe’s legs as the striker broke clear. Afobe barely broke his stride but send a heavy touch into the arms of Peacock-Farrell and referee Gavin Ward went back to show Jansson a harsh second yellow.
Jansson became involved in a confrontation with stewards after insisting on giving his shirt to a disabled fan at the front of the away end.
Bielsa is never drawn into berating referees and despite Ward leaving himself open to criticism, he wasn’t tempted to start. “We can't say that we win or lose because of the referee,” Bielsa insisted. “The referees don't decide the final result.”
Bielsa has lost Jansson for Leeds’ game at Rotherham and the furore over ‘Spygate’ has lacked perspective about the squad the Argentinian has driven to the top of the league. Aside from Casilla, Tyler Roberts was as experienced as it got on United’s bench and when Bielsa withdrew Mateusz Klich, a midfielder whose waning conviction is summed up by the lack of a shot on goal from him in 2019, his replacement was Jordan Stevens, an 18-year-old debutant.
Was the strength of the bench an issue? “We had all the resources to win the game,” Bielsa said. “The possibility to break the balance was so evident.
'Never liked the away kit! - Leeds United fans react to Stoke City defeat“At one moment of the game we had six offensive players and they were not offensive players without the ball. All of them had options to break the balance so we should focus more on that than other aspects.”
Ayling almost made the difference with a header in the 85th minute which Butland clawed brilliantly off his line but three minutes later, Joe Allen arrived at Peacock-Farrell’s back post to slide in a cross from substitute James McClean. Leeds have mounted impossible fightbacks before but the game was over by the time Alioski turned and finished a corner from Hernandez.
It was not the pleasant break from talk of spying which Leeds anticipated and it would please the club to leave a curious saga behind them, at the behest of the FA and the EFL.
The club have the Championship on their back, as if it wasn’t there already, and added baggage to carry as they defend a one-point lead.
Bielsa looked composed, as Bielsa usually does, but three defeats in four league matches have not been brushed under he carpet. “Every time the team doesn't win,” he said, “I'm worried.”