“There is nothing positive to take away from our performance,” were the words of Marcelo Bielsa as he echoed the thoughts of thousands of Leeds United fans following their 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City on Matchday 17.
“I can’t find anything that can be valued. When there’s nothing that’s well done, it’s not individuals that fail, but the organization. There’s no justification I can offer.”
He finished with a sobering remark. “We’ve never had a performance like the one today.” The Argentine is right — the mauling at the Etihad Stadium is the worst Leeds have played under the veteran coach since he arrived in West Yorkshire back in 2018; the result was the joint-worst, in terms of a losing margin, in the club’s history.
4.8 – Man City’s seven goals tonight came from an xG of 2.2. Their positive difference of 4.8 is the second-largest by any side in a single @premierleague game since Opta have full xG data available (2010-11), after Southampton v Sunderland in October 2014 (+5.0). Ruthless. pic.twitter.com/WuEjdOaYce
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 14, 2021
Generally, there is no shame in losing to Manchester City away from home, but the way in which Leeds capitulated is a huge cause for concern, particularly after a first half of the season that has seen them win just three matches out of 17.
Leeds prepared for exactly this type of match, according to Bielsa, and yet they were powerless to stop it.
“The game was exactly how we thought it would be,” he said. “We prepared ourselves to avoid everything that happened. We didn’t manage to get anything. [Our usual style] is what we tried the whole game. Surely if we’d done the opposite, we would be lamented for not attempting anything to take away possesion from the opponent. What we attempted generated danger to our own goal. We didn’t do anything well. That was evident in the scoreline. I insist, everything that happened was what we wanted to avoid. As there’s nothing to take from it, it’s inevitable I have to take responsibility for a defeat of this type.”
A campaign that began with hope of a push for a European berth has devolved into a relegation battle, and while there are mitigating factors to consider, there is no question that Bielsa must take his fair share of the blame for where Leeds now find themselves. Bielsa often appeared the lonliest man at the Etihad, crouched down on the touchline and staring at the ground, seemingly to reflect on what may have led to the disastrous events taking place.
The 66-year-old worked miracles during his first three seasons at Elland Road, taking a squad that perennially finished mid-table in the Championship to a ninth-place finish in the Premier League by playing some of the most thrilling football that many Leeds supporters can remember.
What’s wrong with Leeds United?
The defining narrative of Leeds’ season so far has been injuries, with Bielsa having been unable to select from a fully-fit squad at any stage. It felt as if he was getting closer to that possibility on December 5 against Brentford, when Luke Ayling and Patrick Bamford returned after long layoffs, only for five key players to be ruled out of action for the foreseeable future just days later.
Any team that lost their best player (Kalvin Phillips), top scorer (Bamford), club captain (Liam Cooper) and record signing (Rodrigo Moreno) all at once would struggle, and certainly Leeds looked short of quality and leadership as the goals flew into Illan Meslier’s net on Tuesday. But the fact that there are no suitable back-ups for players in key positions comes back to Bielsa’s insistence that he maintain a small squad, which in turn led to a confusing summer when it came to transfer strategy.
Leeds’ website lists its first-team squad as having just 19 players — by far the smallest in the English top flight. Though the club has a talented pool of Under-23s who can help fill gaps on matchdays, it was clear to fans last season that any prolonged absences for players such as Phillips and Bamford could have disastrous effects, unless decent back-ups were brought in.
But instead of reviving a squad that had been out-performing expectations for three years, Leeds stood still. The organization replaced outgoing left back Gjanni Alioski with Junior Firpo, before waiting until the final day of the transfer window to pay $34 million to sign Dan James from Manchester United — a winger for a team that already possessed a number of players capable of playing in wide areas.
No back-up striker was found, with Rodrigo and Tyler Roberts instead trusted to provide support for Bamford.
Most frustratingly, there was no new midfield arrival, despite that being the position where Leeds lacked the same talent as their top-flight rivals, particularly when Phillips was not on the field in 2020-21. With Phillips in the lineup last season, Leeds lost just eight of their 28 league matches. Without him, they lost seven out of 10.
They did make an attempt to bolster the middle of the park, and were rejected by Conor Gallagher as he instead chose to join Crystal Palace on loan from Chelsea, but otherwise they seemed content to sit on their hands, believing that the current squad could again lift itself to new heights.
Owner Andrea Radrizzani even angered fans when he claimed on Twitter that Adam Forshaw, a player who had been out of action for two years with a hip injury, would be the new ‘signing’ that they needed to cover any Phillips absences. And while Forshaw’s form since his return has been one of the few bright spots in Leeds’ season, the ex-Middlesbrough midfielder works far better in tandem with the England international than without him.
Though Leeds have a team behind the scenes, led by sporting director Victor Orta, working on transfer targets throughout the calendar year, the final decision falls to Bielsa, and too often he has been reluctant to shake things up, trusting the small but hard-working group he has at his disposal.
That loyalty, of course, breeds strong morale within the squad, but it also leads to situation like we saw at the Etihad — where his team to take on the Premier League champions and current league leaders featured a right-back at center back (Ayling), a central midfielder at right back (Jamie Shackleton), and wingers in both central midfield (Stuart Dallas) and up front (James). The mess was apparent as Dallas was required to change positions twice throughout the match as substitutions were made.
Is it any wonder that things looked so disjointed against City?
“I think the club has put enough human resources at my disposal for the results to be different,” Bielsa said in November, refuting the claim that he requires a bigger squad. “I can’t attribute the position in the table, nor the injuries, to an insufficient amount of players.”
Whether he will admit it or not, the number of senior players in Bielsa’s squad is small, but there are further issues at play when it comes to how he is setting up his side. Bielsa’s loyalty doesn’t just stop him from signing players to challenge the status quo, but also from giving some of the club’s talented youngsters a chance to prove themselves when positions are open for them to fill.
Though both Joe Gelhardt and Charlie Cresswell have been handed their full Premier League debuts this season, the pair of 19-year-olds have only started one game each, despite there having been gaps in the side that they could have helped fill.
A natural forward like Gelhardt, who scored his first Leeds goal against Chelsea on Saturday, is far more accustomed to leading the line in Bamford’s and Rodrigo’s absences than a player like James. Center back Cresswell, meanwhile, has the maturity and physical attributes to cope at Premier League level, and selecting the England Under-21 international would then allow Ayling to return to his natural position at right back.
Instead, Bielsa seems to have a hierarchical system within his squad, and will only turn to his younger charges if every other possible combination of senior players has first been tried. Throwing them in against Manchester City might not have appeared wise on the surface, granted, but clearly the strategy deployed at the Etihad proved to be a disaster on its own.
Stylistically, meanwhile, Bielsa continues to use a man-marking system which can get his side into trouble against teams that possess confident dribblers such as City. It is fair to point out, however, that while it might have been the safer option to shut up shop at the Etihad and play for a point, the difference in quality between the two teams may well have led to a similar result regardless.
Whether he is willing to change how he sets up his team against lesser opponents remains to be seen, but it would be a brave person who bets against Bielsa sticking with his tried-and-trusted process of recent years.
In normal circumstances, such issues would point to a stubborn manager who needs to be relieved of his duties before it is too late to rectify the situation. But you will do well to find many Leeds fans who realistically want Bielsa to be sacked.
While Leeds’ current problems are largely of the coach’s own making, there is not another manager who the club could realistically hire and who has the capabilities to get this group of players pointing in the right direction once more. Bielsa’s methods have been shown to work at both Championship and Premier League level, and if the injury curse that is hanging over the club’s Thorp Arch training ground can relent in the coming months, then there is at least a first XI at Leeds that is capable of climbing the table.
One or two clever January additions would undoubtedly help as well, even if it is to solely allow players to revert to their preferred positions while others return to full fitness.
Things, though, may get worse before they get better. Arsenal visit Elland Road on Dec. 18 before Bielsa prepares to take his side to Anfield to face Liverpool on Boxing Day, ending a run of four successive matches against “Big Six” teams.
Home games against current bottom-three sides Burnley and Newcastle follow soon after, however, offering Leeds the chance to pull themselves away from trouble if the after-effects of the City defeat can be shaken off quickly.
The onus is on Bielsa to lead his team through the current situation, and though there might be some questioning the decisions he has made to get them here, there is no one they would rather have in the dugout to take them forward.