CRAIG HOPE: Marcelo Bielsa’s final Leeds match felt like a mournful goodbye to the family dog… rarely will a manager leave on the back of four straight defeats with as much affection and acclaim
- Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds sacking was a sad reminder of all he’d done for the club
- Leeds suffered a 4-0 thrashing at home to Tottenham on Saturday afternoon
- The club have conceded 20 times in five games, and taken one points from 18
- Bielsa got Leeds promoted to the Premier League following a 16-year absence
There was no anger inside Elland Road, no storming of the directors’ box amid calls for the manager to be sacked. Instead, a sad acceptance of a journey’s end.
It felt like a mournful goodbye to the family dog, and Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa have certainly lost their bite. It was time for change and, when Bielsa’s departure was confirmed at 11am yesterday, there was little protest from supporters.
Rarely, though, will a manager leave on the back of four straight defeats — and a club tumbling towards relegation — with as much affection and acclaim as that which will be afforded to the Argentine.
Marcelo Bielsa was sacked as coach after nearly four years in charge of Leeds United
Leeds have failed to win any of their last six Premier League games and near relegation zone
LEEDS (4-1-4-1): Meslier 4.5; Ayling 4.5, Llorente 3, Struijk 4 (Klich 46min, 5), Firpo 3.5; Koch 4.5; Raphinha 5, Forshaw 5, Dallas 5.5, Harrison 5 (Rodrigo 46, 5); James 5.
Booked: Klich, Dallas , Firpo, Rodrigo.
Manager: Marcelo Bielsa 4.
TOTTENHAM (3-4-3): Lloris 6; Romero 7, Dier 7, Davies 7; Doherty 7.5, Winks 8, Hojbjerg 8, Sessegnon 7 (Bergwijn 78); Kulusevski 7.5 (Royal 78), Kane 8.5, Son 7 (Scarlett 87).
Scorers: Doherty 10, Kulusevski 15, Kane 27, Son 85.
Booked: Davies, Sessegnon.
Manager: Antonio Conte 7.
Referee: Craig Pawson 7.
Leeds are here, in the Premier League after 16 years away, because of Bielsa. He turned Championship players into top-flight stars, making England internationals of Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford, both of whom are currently sidelined. That has not helped.
But what we have seen in recent months is a squad losing faith in Bielsa’s unbending methodology, a man for whom the notion of change does not extend much beyond the colour of his side’s jerseys. Without that belief, some have started to look like the second-tier players they perhaps always were.
In December, Phillips gave a revealing interview to Sportsmail in which, without any great need for coercion, he shared his opinion on why Leeds were failing this season.
‘One of the main things is that we’ve now played every team before. We are not new any more. A lot of teams are coming to us and knowing how to play against us,’ he said. ‘They are changing their formation two or three times every game, and it does cause us disruption in the way we play. There is a bit of confusion.’
Confusion. Whereas once the fluidity of Bielsa’s system would bewilder the opposition, now it was leaving his own men in a state of puzzlement. With Bielsa, it works until it doesn’t, and, in truth, it had stopped working long before this latest run of one point from six matches.
It must be noted, however, that at no juncture was Phillips disrespectful towards Bielsa. He made a point of crediting the boss with his own career transformation and tweeted yesterday: ‘Thank you Marcelo for everything you have done for me. You saw in me what I didn’t even see in myself. You helped me grow as a player but most importantly as a person.’
Bielsa got Leeds promoted after a 16 years wait to return to the top flight of English football
The rise and fall of Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds shows the impressive job the Argentine has done
But during the course of that interview, there was a definite undertone of concern. His admission that Bielsa was ‘very stubborn’ and would not adapt their style of play felt significant, especially given Phillips is exposed to the pragmatism and versatility of Gareth Southgate with England.
He also made mention of the ‘language barrier’ with Bielsa. After nearly four years and to still be using a translator, you suspect, had diluted the impact and meaning of the message.
For what we saw against Spurs — and in the winless matches before — was a dysfunctional team scraping the bottom of Bielsa’s touchline bucket in search of inspiration.
They never really knew how to defend, but now, they had suddenly run out of ideas of how to attack — and that always was their best form of resistance.
What remained was a ‘team’ who looked anything but, a group of individuals shorn of confidence and cohesion. Fit? Always. Fit for purpose? Sadly, no longer.
Harry Kane was a key part in Tottenham’s 4-0 with at Elland Road on Saturday afternoon
Spurs were the fourth team in as many weeks — on the back of Newcastle, Manchester United and Everton — who had faced Leeds amid varying crises of their own. Each emerged victorious, profiting from the footballing equivalent of emergency aid.
The submissive nature of the 3-0 defeat at Everton on February 12 was particularly damaging and caused the hierarchy to accelerate their thinking on Bielsa’s replacement.
They had become easy to play against. As one Spurs official commented before kick-off on Saturday: ‘If we keep our shape, our best players will be able to pick them off.’ So it proved. But what this inevitable loss also exposed was the club’s poor recruitment. Maybe with better players Bielsa’s processes would not have malfunctioned.
Centre back Diego Llorente and left back Junior Firpo were signed for a combined £31million but have not improved the team. Against Spurs they made it unmistakably worse. With the players available, Bielsa’s cycle had evidently expired.
But what a spin it has been. He put the United back into Leeds, unifying a club, its city and supporters.
Leeds were the 12th club of Bielsa’s managerial career following short stints at Lazio and Lille
He was derided as the hipster’s darling after winning promotion to the Premier League but, before long, we were all stroking our goatees in appreciation of his football, 90 minutes of escapism from a world of pandemic and fear. Bielsa, we rejoiced, was fearless.
To think, we were also warned he was a madman — ‘El Loco’ went the nickname — but from that eccentricity was born art, and the images left behind will forever be immortalised. They have named streets and beers after Bielsa in this part of the world and now, in his absence, there will be a statue commissioned.
Yes, the 66-year-old may be gone, but he will never be forgotten by supporters who refused to turn on their adopted Latino, even in times as desperate as they are now witnessing. For what he has left behind — undeniable to even the most devout of Bielsa loyalists — is a side heading back to the Championship. It is why the owners have acted now before it is too late. They are two points above the relegation zone having played two games more than third-from-bottom Burnley.
The new manager, set to be American Jesse Marsch, inherits a squad already drilled to their physical limits. He cannot make the customary soundbite of improving fitness levels.
Leeds travel to Leicester next weekend as they look to rectify their poor league form
Rather, it is the mental realignment of a team who look disorientated that is most urgent. They are exhausted — not lacking fitness — but in need of a new voice, something different to think about.
On Saturday, their thought process was scrambled. They were 3-0 down inside half an hour and individual errors could be attributed to each of those goals, scored by Matt Doherty, Dejan Kulusevski and Harry Kane, who later brilliantly laid on a fourth for Son Heung-min.
Come the end, there were boos from the stands for the first time in four years. Not directed at Bielsa and far from vicious in their dispatch. It was simply the kindest way of letting it be known that their journey had reached its end. Very few will have been as memorable.
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