With a week or so to reflect after the day that should have seen us crowned Champions (and before the all-pervasive, circular season-completion thread inevitably ramps up again over the coming days), I decided to try and capture a few (too many!) thoughts, some of the facts and my own appreciation for just how damned good this mighty Leeds United team has been and the journey it has so incredibly and successfully been on over the past 1.8 seasons before it all gets subsumed by an unavoidable wave of incoming asterisks, stats, whinging, crying-foul and litigation, because this team deserves its proper sporting recognition, while also making a case for just how far I believe this team (with minimal adjustment) can go under MB's peerless stewardship.
In so doing, I also wanted to challenge some of the somewhat lazy beliefs and far-too-easily-trotted-out opinions often held by shallow-soundbite journalists, envious opposition supporters, and even our own at times restless band of brothers and sisters. Indeed, I tend to find the collective media (both the banal broadcast propaganda and its echo-chambers of well-trained, easily outraged, lapdog fan and clickbait pundit-provocateurs) so depressingly unimaginative in their ability to challenge the cleverly indoctrinated modern narratives of "football as a business, not a sport", "investment / firing the manager / replacing players at any cost being the only viable solution to poor performance on the pitch", "fans being at the mercy of television" and "that ship has sailed" resignation to things never being any different. If nothing else, the current situation serves to remind us just how bankrupt and precarious such ideas might be.
By contrast, Bielsa is undeniably a man who thinks very differently and has refreshingly alternative principles and priorities, and imho this is what lies at the very heart of his ability to so dramatically change our fortunes over the past two years. He is relentless in his pursuit of excellence and resolute in his belief in application and improvement, and I believe this is something which has shown throughout the current squad with very little exception. Moreover, as a man who prides himself on thinking differently (however eccentric that might at times be perceived), he similarly embraces having people around him who care to think differently too, and if our rag-tag bunch of LUFC misfits can manage to grasp more difficult concepts, then (without wishing to damn WACCOE with such faint praise) surely to hell we can too. Anyway, in light of this appetite for thinking differently, I've entitled the post…
Marcelo Bielsa's beautiful mantra: a guide to alternative thinking, myth-busting and de-bunking lazy assumption
Early warning, it's bloody long (yeah, sorry about that), but I'd like to think it's justified in trying to encapsulate what this team has achieved so far across these 1.8 seasons—and if they're prepared to put so much effort in, then they deserve a bit back in return. I've tried to break it into sections so you can dip in and out at your leisure, and for the inevitable TL:DR brigade, there's some handy reference, one-line answers under each section header. If you choose to read it all, I can only thank you for your patience in so doing and hope you take something from it.
1. This same team cannot replicate the level it achieved last season
TL:DR—yes it can, in fact uncannily so, and if anything it's exceeded last season's performance so far this season with largely the same squad
While this was admittedly the result of a supposed mis-translation, it's a phrase that gained traction over the summer months as fans clamoured for more extensive (and costly) additions to the first-team squad with Roofe, Jansson and (to an extent) Clarke all exiting. Clearly replacing these was paramount, which was technically done via the loans of Nketiah, White and Costa respectively, but many were still dissatisfied and continued to believe that this team could not match last year's performance. Yet it has. In fact, it's uncanny just how consistent this team is—it's almost as if they're drilled within an inch of their lives to perform to a set level!
I've been continually documenting this throughout the season in the "Milestone, Projections and Stats" thread up until the Hull game here, and having now updated to include HTAFC, based on like-for-like fixtures across the season (with promoted and relegated teams switched for their replacements), after 37 equivalent games we are currently outperforming last year by 7 points and looked on target to achieve somewhere between 88 and 90 across the season:
While efficiency remains a challenge, the above highlights just how consistent this team has been year-on-year across these 37 fixtures to date, with a tight rotating squad achieving exactly 64.9% possession and 5.3 shots on target per game. Efficiency is up slightly (less shots taken, more goals scored) and clearly the biggest improvement has been in defence, with us conceding just 0.8 goals per game vs. 1.1 to date last season and scoring just over 1.5 per game. These thoroughly impressive stats are surely testament to Bielsa's forensic attention to detail and implicit belief in squad consistency and the ability when called upon for others to step in with such flexibility and ease, and highlights his own ongoing commitment to control and fast attacking football.
2. What's the bloody point of possession and xG if you can't stick the ball in the back of the net?
TL:DR—possession and chances are key to how this team plays in building confidence, maximising attacking opportunity and minimising defensive frailty
As already stated, efficiency has always been a recognised and frustrating challenge for this team. However, this shouldn't negate the importance of our possession-based football. One thing has struck me about this team (and the failings that people seem to want to find with it) is that it's a team of healthy compromises, and for what it's worth, as I wrote here, I personally think the hugely impressive sum of the parts more than makes up for individual drawbacks. While I'm aware that we're often at our most devastating out of possession, hitting teams on the counter-attack, I believe there are two fundamental reasons why possession and xG are vital to this team whether we convert those chances or not:
- Firstly, I believe we are not a great defensive team when under sustained pressure: In our defence, I think Bielsa has created a speed, agility and hunger to win the ball back quickly with astute positional play and relentless swarming and tracking back, but we're far less adept at keeping repeated attacks at bay, and out of possession, we can at times be quite vulnerable (periods against CCFC and DCFC both showed that). As such, keeping our GA stat below 1.0 per game relies heavily on us not letting the opposition have the ball—so possession is key.
- Secondly, our relative inefficiency demands that we create enough chances to score: I continue to maintain that our relative efficiency is not just a function of our own players' ruthlessness (or lack of) but also the fact that we often seem to come up against packed defences (hence our excellent OG stats), somehow miraculously world-class keeping performances, and plenty bad luck and near misses. Our impressive xG is therefore not only a sign that the team is functioning well in the round, but is also key to our creating enough chances to win so many matches, both home and away.
These two factors in conjunction are essential in making this team what it is. In managing the game and controlling the ball, we minimise our weaknesses, in creating so many chances, we maximise our scoring potential. In fact, to highlight just how important this is, based on our average GF and GA stats to date, if we'd only managed 50% possession in each game, our average result would go from 1.5–0.8 to 1.2–1.2, and if our xG fell further, we'd be losing more than we're winning. Control of the ball gives this LUFC team confidence, allows it to tire the opposition and create overlaps, and gives it the platform to win.
3. Like all Bielsa (and LUFC) sides, this team will inevitably burn out
TL:DR—this tight-knit team is by far and away the fittest in the division, and has already shown much resilience in tough times and facing high expectation
I hope we're all finally getting over this one a little bit more. It's certainly the go-to critique of lazy journalism and envious rivals, but while I don't wish to go into full-blown analysis of Bielsa's previous teams (more than enough's been done on those to prove that the theory is at best 'inconclusive') I do wish to say that having watched this team perform over the bulk of the past two seasons, imho it's shown precious little signs of fatigue.
Of course, many on here will point to the 18-19 capitulation and second play-off leg as demonstration of "falling apart again", but I've personally never seen it in this team, physically nor mentally, as contentious as that might sound—indeed, I still maintain that given five more minutes, we'd've got that crucial extra goal and gone on to win that tie, even with 10 men. For me, the end of the 18-19 season hinged around Wigan (just one of those utterly inexplicable games which the stats point to us winning 99 times out of 100) and imho we were in the ascendancy vs. SUFC (unlucky), Villa (fair play) and Brentford (clear pen).
We are by far and away the fittest team in this division, keep going right until the end of most matches, score more the longer they go on, and have shown both physical and recently more mental resilience too, even when things are going against us (e.g. Brum away, Millwall home, the run post-Forest, which btw I still think was a pretty good performance, undone by some shoddy keeping!). Moreover, if (or when) we do manage to get promoted this season, my view is that this tight-knit small squad will technically have succeeded in achieving this incredible feat across what amounts to an 85 (or 94 if we complete) game season, which I believe would point to extreme endurance, tenacity and resilience over burn-out. Similarly, I've no doubt that, should we resume, this team would still be easily the fittest of the bunch and relentless in its pursuit of the required results.
4. It's important that returning players / new additions reach proper Bielsa game-fitness before playing
TL:DR—fitness lies at the heart of this team, its mutual expectations, and the relationship between players and manager, and is key to making the system work
This probably came to a head not just in the more limited usage of Nketiah but more recently in Marcelo's resistance to the swift introduction of JKA following his January arrival (and Bamford's own ongoing struggles at the time). However, on reflection, having seen the new trim JKA, you really get the importance of this time well spent (to fit him into the shirt, if nothing else!).
Fitness (and technique at pace) is vital to this team. For the central defenders, it enables them to quickly cover the wide-open spaces that tend to be available as teams break. For the wide men, it provide the endurance and energy to allow them to fast-overlap going forwards and fast-cover in retreat. For the central midfielders, it gives them the mobility to pull the opposition out of position, move the ball quickly from side to side, and smart-overload on either wing. For the (too oft maligned, imho) lone striker, it equips him with the stamina to work the flanks and instigate the press from the front with a doughty determination. For each and every player, it gives them the physical capability to confidently embrace different jobs on the team, and if you've taken the time to watch any of Bielsa's fascinating coaching lectures, you'll appreciate just how much stead he puts in this "dynamic multi-functionality", and how it informs his view of total football and the ability he requires for players to cover multiple adjacent positions in transition, recovery and overload with minimal fuss and maximum effort.
While we could debate at length the relative success of different players out of their first-choice position (be it White or Dallas in the middle of the park, Hernandez more central or out wide, Alioski at LB or LM, Klich at 8 or 10, Ayling at CB etc.) the fact that Marcelo can so confidently call upon such versatility is fundamentally built on epic fitness and intelligent coaching. But for me, the real reason it works is the surrounding fitness, workload and adaptability of EVERY other player on the team to take the collective strain of this incredibly fluid and flexible style of play. This is why I believe he values fitness so highly—not only does it allow the team to function as a more reliable, interconnected whole with each player appearing exactly where they're supposed to be at just the right time, but it also means he can "find solutions" by slotting replacements in with utter confidence in them hitting the ground running.
I think we've seen this on numerous occasions—such as the changes at Arsenal, the extensive mid-game back-line re-jig vs. Reading, Tyler's recent explosive return—and this commitment to fitness, movement and intensity seems in a way to represent the pact between player and manager for inclusion, retention or promotion to the line-up. I'd even go as far as to say that it forms the very basis of trust, empathy, ambition, fairness and respect that runs through the very heart of this team. While we'll always be impatient for new signings to play, it's just as important to keep the whole group motivated and upbeat, and this commitment to game-fitness and required effort is the bond of minimum expectancy that unites these players, even if they're having an off day.
5. Bielsa's just so bloody stubborn and far too loyal to certain players—at times we need a Plan B!
TL:DR—he's not stubborn, but principled, loyal to players as a sign of respect and expectation, and flexible with systems and formations if not in style
I've written plenty on this previously, and for what it's worth, I believe that Marcelo is loyal to certain players when he believes it is called upon (see above re the earned respect between player and manager, motivation and commitment) and I believe this loyalty helps to manage the expectations of both in-post and out-of-post players—i.e. you know where you stand with him if you put in a shift. While some might view this as stubborn, I see it as a sensible and consistent strategy for retaining the healthy, supportive yet competitive motivation and integrity of the wider group and forging the indomitable spirit of this tight-knit squad. It is undoubtedly one of the primary reasons that players past and present speak of him so highly. It builds trust.
While I'm sure it must be frustrating at times for new arrivals or those on the bench, I've never seen anything but respect for these principles from the players as I think they themselves acknowledge the sheer effort each of them is giving on the pitch, even when it's not running quite right for them. I remember a fairly recent interview with Roberts when he spoke of the team being as delighted if Bamford's scoring started to click again as him getting the opportunity to feature, and while I'm sure they're all itching to get game-time, that sense of team and collective effort seems to be strongly instilled in them.
As for Plan Bs, don't get me started! Bielsa believes in a style of play or a way of playing and relentlessly drills his players to deliver it—this style is all about controlling the football, winning possession high up the pitch, fast recoveries when out of possession, quick passing and transitions, counter-attacks where possible, and relentless, attacking, overloading football. As such, if you're expecting a "lump-it-up-to-the-big-fella" type of Plan B, you're going to be sorely disappointed, because that's not his belief nor has he trained his team to play it. However, he does believe in different systems or formations—a core 10 in fact, which you can educate yourselves on courtesy of the fascinating hour-long lecture he gave to the 2017 Somos Futebol in Brazil here—he teaches his players to be able to effortlessly adopt different positions whereby his teams are flexible enough to change formation in-running without necessarily having to make subs.
Across 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, 3-3-1-3, 2-3-5 and plenty more besides and with players shifted inside and out, forwards and back, I'd argue LUFC have probably demonstrated the most flexible (and innovative) formations of any team in the division—that they seem to do it with such little fuss is a credit to their training and integrity. Meanwhile, it never ceases to entertain when fans bang on about "gettin' 2 up top FFS!" when we're invariably playing with 3, 5 or at times even 7 up top already!
6. Ben White, eh? What a find he's been!
TL:DR—he's brought much-needed agility, movement, positioning and passing to the RCB role, I truly hope he stays, but if he leaves we'll find a way
Not gonna do a whole "told ya so" spiel, but… To be fair, despite being personally less concerned at PJ's departure having acknowledged MB's preference for a more mobile (and shorter) version of defending and our relative success with it in 18-19, bringing in a 21-year-old starting CB with previous loan spells at Newport County and Posh was always going to come with an element of risk. In hindsight, we can all now look back on it as an absolute masterstroke, his effortless defending bringing calm to the team courtesy of his astute positioning, smart pace and mobility, confident ball-play and unflustered versatility. He's absolutely ideal for the way we play right now, and his success can surely be put down to a combination of good scouting, excellent coaching, the player's attitude and the opportunity provided.
Clearly I sincerely hope he stays, and depending on the outcome of this season, it may well be the case that circumstances and resources allow it more than we might think, it suiting his ambition and potential to grow within this burgeoning team and under this excellent manager. But should he depart, before we all start tearing our hair out and losing our proverbial shit, try to consider that if Bielsa's methods can instil such qualities in a largely overlooked League 1 player and turn him into a sought-after, top-flight defender, who's to say he couldn't do similar with another uncut gem or potential U23 prospect. Bielsa teaches the art of the possible via the examples of the best, and in doing so seems able to realise previously untapped talent, fitness and agility. We should continue to believe in and support this mantra and the players he employs to deliver it.
7. "FFS Cooper / Phillips / Berardi / Ayling / Harrison / Costa / Bamford etc." nonsense
TL:DR—enough of the 'escape goats' already, every man jack (especially Jack!) of these players has pulled up trees for LUFC and deserves our support
Throughout the past two seasons, there's been a litany of 'escape goats' (sic) from KP and Coops in Summer '18 ("no spine for a LUFC team!") to Berardi vs. Derby and Costa and Bamford in more recent times. Now on a football forum where people are open to their perfectly valid opinions, I'm not going to suggest that people can't be disappointed in or gripe about certain individual performances. However, in light of the fact that each of these players has shown dramatic improvement under Bielsa and that I doubt that any of them have given more physical and mental effort for the betterment and advancement of Leeds United Football Club over the last couple of seasons than at any other point in their career. As a group, I believe they have continued to show steadfast belief, unrivalled application, doughty resilience, sporting integrity, and peerless energy, enthusiasm and endurance throughout. That Marcelo has managed to instil such transformational self-belief and side-before-self cohesion in this bunch of top lads makes me incredibly proud as a Leeds United fan.
Meanwhile, as the social media virus continues to infect us all with sufficient vitriol and bloody-minded arrogance to shoot our vicious mouths off with impunity at the slightest annoyance and become evermore impatient, irrational, outspoken, outraged and entitled, I'd like to think that as Leeds fans we could rise above such embarrassing and divisive knee-jerk venting, take the higher ground, and demonstrate that we are a far better calibre of supporter—smart enough to see the bigger picture, generous enough to praise the effort, patient enough to appreciate the quality of the football on show, strong enough not to start whinging at the first signs of difficulty, big enough to admit when we were wrong, humble enough to sportingly accept defeat where justified—and not just a bunch of absolute twats. We're surely a far classier breed, cut from a different cloth!
While I'm fully aware there are sections of our own fanbase that can be just as short-sighted or idiotic as the next man, I'd similarly like to think in a way that being Leeds engenders an unrivalled sense of Yorkshire grit, fighting spirit, unity, pragmatism, common sense, struggle, irony, respect, superiority and support—built in good times, sealed in hardship—and that viewing the utter nonsense that plagues other clubs would galvanise this 'Outsider' spirit and our unique us-against-the-world mentality. I don't think this ambition is based on blind faith or masochism, but one based on shared belief, empathy, encouragement, striving, and a respect for and appreciation of the team's collective efforts. Even in defeat, it's very hard to argue that this fine group of men is not straining every sinew and leaving it all out on the pitch to try and win—and as fans, we can't really ask for much more than that.
Clearly there's a time and place for criticism—football is based on opinions after all—and these players are far from flawless. But next time you're about to vent your spleen at a particular individual on WACCOE or reach for da Twittahs to hurl some passing abuse, maybe take a breath and ask yourself whether that player's still putting in a shift and giving his all for the team at large, how much they've improved in the round, whether the rest of the team's still getting behind them, if they're just in a tough run of form, and what benefit barracking them is actually likely to have.
Football doesn't always go your way, there are no guarantees, and we're all on this exciting journey—for now one that appears to somehow be going beyond the point at which "the world stops turning round"—and while we'll no doubt face future setbacks, for a team with so many redeeming factors right now, measured disappointment seems a more apt response than irrational abuse or abject despair. It's fine to feel frustrated, but players make mistakes and go through difficult times—they're only human after all—and for me it's some of the most unfairly maligned that have actually demonstrated real progress and ended up excelling (not a justification btw!) and I sometimes think they deserve far better for the effort and commitment shown. We should all be immensely proud of every single member of this team right now, however things turn out.
8. This side will need considerable strengthening and investment if it's to compete in the Premier League
TL:DR—will it 'eck as like, it'll undoubtedly need some tweaks, but the system is total and this current team could easily achieve a top-half finish imho
Don't want to get ahead of myself here, so will keep it brief, but will it 'eck as like. While it's easy to get seduced by the fiscal demands and fancy-dan talent of the supposed "Best League In The World"™ imho there's a ridiculously large amount of averagely managed, over-rated, overblown dross in that division right now. Furthermore, I don't believe there's any team that moves like us in such fast, precise and intuitive fly-by-wire paths, nor that displays such control at the back, such calm in tight spaces, such boundless energy and endurance—and let's face it, a mere 38 games would be an absolute breeze for this team!
As I say, I'm not gonna tempt fate by over-egging the point, but I personally think we could ostensibly go into such a campaign with JKA, Bamford and Roberts as our up-front options ("absolute heresy and hogwash", I hear the QSI-obscene-money-brigade cry!) and that our primary requirements would likely be a little more support at CB and CM (and potentially GK) and perhaps an extra wide man. Anyway, such pontification is for another thread and another time, but I believe that Marcelo would equip the same guts of this team to take on whatever division it finds itself in (whenever it starts up again) with a resurgent sense of energy, ambition, skill, speed, confidence and self-belief to take all-comers in its stride. Call me pissed-up-on-lockdown, but under Bielsa I believe the current squad could easily secure a top-half finish and with minor changes, a top-6 finish is well within our reach—I think the trip to (an admittedly transitional) Arsenal already gave us a good taste of that.
Well, if you've made it this far, I can only thank you—you've clearly got nowt much better to do, but I appreciate your efforts as I do those of this mighty LUFC team. Hopefully you've enjoyed some of it along the way and found plenty to agree (or disagree) with. More importantly, hopefully some of the above can inspire you to embrace Marcelo's mantra and think differently for yourselves. Try to look more closely at just how well this team is performing and just what these players are managing to achieve well beyond their previous potential, and perhaps resort less to lazy assumption, media myth, casual soundbite or reactionary abuse.
I've no idea how this season will resolve itself, and there's more than enough debate on that matter elsewhere on this fine forum. Whatever the outcome, my only overriding sadness is the increasing likelihood of not getting to see the reactions of Marcelo and this fine group of men, because they truly deserve that moment, we truly deserve that moment, and it looks set in some way, shape or form to be denied us. You sense he has the potential to either take it humbly and passively within his stride or to explode with sheer pent-up emotional outpouring of everything that he's faced and internalised in his many years as a manager, and boy would I love to see that at a packed ER.
On a brighter note, the one mitigating factor to this sadness and the whole situation at large is imagining just how much football he is managing to watch in these lockdown times, and the extent of the forensic knowledge and vital preparation it will equip him with to take this majestic team on to the next level, in whatever division and season it finds itself. As I maintained before, these are indeed exciting times, and long may they continue.