Bielsa before Arsenal says all he does is fight - The Square Ball 16/12/21


Written by: Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

The first thing you want to know from today’s press conference with Marcelo Bielsa is about injuries, right? Or should I say recoveries. Well, here’s one: Robin Koch is available for the Arsenal game. Rejoice! But at what cost? It was forgotten amid the general misery, but the very specific misery of Jamie Shackleton as he limped off in Manchester was heartbreaking, and he is out with an injured achilles. Daniel James had the good grace to injure his abductor in training so at least the only time we’ve seen him cry is when he’s been surprised by a puppy.

Bielsa was asked today about the Premier League struggling to get games on with so many players catching Covid, and said, “I wouldn’t want to face a team that has that difficulty,” of missing players, “to take advantage of that difficulty.” I wonder if he might like to wind the clock back to Tuesday afternoon and try convincing Pep Guardiola that the same should apply to injury crises. As it stands, Bielsa says Leeds medical staff, and especially the players, are working “according to the indications that we get” from the authorities, and what he didn’t say is that with all their popping hamstrings Leeds are probably going to end up with more players ruled out than most of the Covid-affected teams but with no way of calling off a game.

Bielsa arrived today looking considerably more mad for it than when we last saw him beneath the bluest of moons. He had some printed papers to shuffle and particular questions he was waiting for. Radio Leeds’ Adam Pope asked, quite innocently, if with so many injuries and suspensions Bielsa was considering recalling some loan players, for example Leif Davis. That was the opening Bielsa needed for a prepared point, about how he’s been misrepresented about transfers and he is not against signing players in January:

“I would like to be precise to clearly state my position. First, I do not want, in this sporting moment, to use as an excuse the number of players available. Secondly, I never said that I don’t want players to join in January. You report that I am opposed. You who listen to me will tell me that I am not right. I only said, and I reiterate, that to bring in players, they have to be better than what we have. And that the club has invested £130 million in building this squad, and I don’t know whether or not it can invest more, but I’m not in a position to demand top level additions from an organisation that has been so responsible in building its squad.”

Money does seem to be on Bielsa’s mind lately, from his reference the other week to the club expecting better from him given how much they pay him, now to him refusing to be that guy asking for more money for transfers when the club, in his view, has given him plenty. Perhaps better not to say money, but value: Bielsa thinks the club has done its part, now it’s his responsibility to get them their money’s worth from the coach and players.

Later, in the part of the press conference reserved for Sky Sports, Bielsa added more about squad building, and the different financial strength of Leeds and Manchester City, which wasn’t enough to stop us drawing with and beating them last season:

“It’s not something that worries me because last year we had the possibility of competing in better conditions to the ones we’re experiencing this season. The league is showing what is capable of happening when you have powerful sides with greater resources. In turn, I understand that in every league in the world there are teams who have the capacity to generate more resources, and this difference is impossible to avoid.”

What’s happening to Leeds, this season, as he’s alluded to before when talking about the improvements of Pascal Struijk or Illan Meslier, is good for the club (no, stay with this, come on, he even says it’s hard to be patient) in terms of future strength:

“Constructing a good team can take years, and it requires the strengthening of players as part of a project. For example, the concerns over a lack of resources that we’ve had this season have led to some people claiming it is linked to the need to look to bring in new players. It hasn’t given rise to the idea of making the young players we already have stronger.

“Buying players will also block the pathway of academy players to the first team, or at least limit their minutes. So it’s very difficult to reconcile these two things. If [Patrick] Bamford or Rodrigo are missing, people will ask me why Joe Gelhardt isn’t playing. If [Kalvin] Phillips is missing, does this mean we should run the risk of accelerating Adam Forshaw’s road to recovery?

“You can see, there are many things that have to be considered when it comes to the project outlined in consolidating the structure of the squad. It’s certainly not easy to achieve, and nor is it easy to demand patience in the process.”

Bielsa did eventually get around to the idea of bringing loan players back, with an answer boiling down to him deciding in summer that they weren’t better than the players he kept at the club. He would have to consider if they have improved in their time away from the club before deciding to bring any of them back.

Another point was more of a Bielsa standby, when he explained his analysis of the defeat to Manchester City. We’ve heard much of it before: “We are not better than City,” he said, “but we can compete against them,” and to do that we had to “make them play worse” by cutting off their attack, making them easier to defend against; then we had to take the ball up the pitch and make the most of our own creative players. None of that happened, and Bielsa said something he’s said before, when asked to talk through big defeats, that he feels uncomfortable doing it because nobody really wants to hear it:

“After losing a game seven-nil, you feel a lot. You feel very uncomfortable with what you offer, and of course you feel weakened, as you can’t be otherwise … Nobody has any tolerance for listening to this kind of explanation from a coach who is responsible for a defeat by seven goals. But you ask me, and honestly, if I don’t answer you like this, I don’t know what to answer you. So, because I don’t want to evade the answer either, I give an answer that nobody is willing to listen to.”

The last prepared point was about his future. First he thought we were going there with a journalist from Premier League Productions, who wanted to know if recent results were a big test of Bielsa.

“Well, what you [really] mean, I can’t get you to say it,” replied Bielsa, “is if I’m afraid I’ll get kicked out?”

No, no, insisted the journalist, that wasn’t what was saying without saying. He just wanted to know how Bielsa is managing the change from being a team that wins a lot to a team that’s not. The first answer is that Bielsa will not rest on old wins, when there’s always another game coming to test him:

“Look, I never think it’s right to brag about a strength that you have to prove, over time, that you possess. Of course this moment is the worst of all the moments that I’ve spent in Leeds.”

But he also wanted recent results to be stated fairly, not slanted to make things look bad:

“You say that out of ten games we won two, but you can also present the succession of results with a more favourable look. The cuts in the sequence of results are made according to the intention of the question, and it is natural for you to put it that way. But you could also say that the last segment [of the season] prior to the defeat to City was the most productive segment so far this season, and that the performance against Chelsea was the best. But it is natural that a 7-0 result should generate the backlash that it has generated, and I always believe that in adversity you have to face the difficulties and that requires courage, that is to say, to face it with the totality of what you are capable of.”

Adversity was a theme he came back to. He’ll never avoid it, although ideally he’d rather there was another way the team could get better, to grow, rather than losing 7-0:

“It’s part of my job to be able to deal with the toughest moments and the most difficult moments. And you get out of it by correcting, by taking on, not delegating. I take responsibility. Those are the things that we try to do.”

“I face what I face and I try to act as strong as I can, because I don’t want adversity to be a necessity for us grow. But if it happens, rather than interpreting it as an insurmountable obstacle, I try to imagine it as a new challenge, more difficult than the previous.”

This took us to Oscar Paul of The Sun, and an answer cut off the end of the YouTube livestream, presumably due to the embargo obligations given to certain types of press; the YEP recorded the video, though. Oscar wanted to know what Bielsa thought about “pundits” who have “suggested you’ve taken Leeds as far as you can. Can you assure fans you’ll be here at the end of the season – as long as the club want you to stay?”

Given Bielsa had already told one reporter he suspected he was really asking if he was afraid of the sack, asking this from behind ‘pundits’ and ‘fans’ was not a good start. “This question you’ve transmitted to me, I don’t know how to interpret it,” replied Bielsa. “To say I’ve taken them as far as I can is to say it’s a closed cycle [i.e. Bielsa’s time is over]. Is that how you’ve interpreted what the fans want?”

Already Oscar was into dissembling mode. He wasn’t interpreting anything, no sir! “No, but certain pundits have, but I wonder have you questioned that yourself?”

“What is it that you interpret from those pundits you listen [to], that makes you want to ask me that question? If those people are saying I’ve taken the team as far as I can, what is it — do you mean the cycle is over?”

Oscar stuck to his story. He wasn’t asking if Bielsa’s time might up, of course he wasn’t asking that, he was only asking, does Bielsa ever ask himself that?

“Of course I’m going to continue fighting until the end of the season. Listen to what I said before, that I said I always think that, upon adversity, you always have to fight. You never know if your strength is going to be enough, or what [will be] the progression of the difficulties that you come up against. Having said that, I’m going to fight until the end of the season without any doubts, and I hope that nothing happens that doesn’t allow me to do what I’ve just said. I mean to be strong enough to stand my ground in the face of difficulties.”

Next up was a ‘Darren’ whose surname I couldn’t catch, but who seemed to be wearing a coat indoors and was willing to step into the hole Oscar had just been digging. “You were answering a reporter’s question before, wondering if he was asking, do you fear being sacked? The reporter said he wasn’t asking that. So can I ask that question now? Do you fear that you could be sacked?” Ooh, tough! Although he did keep going and slightly ruin the effect: “…and presumably from your last answer that’s the last thing you want to happen, you want to see this job through.”

Bielsa wasn’t letting him off with that.

“Do you think there is any coach who can’t be sacked?”

“No,” said Darren, “every coach is sackable if results go wrong.”

“Well, you think I’m so vain that I think I can’t be fired?”

“Absolutely not,” replied Darren, trying to smile his way out of it.

Bielsa almost went with another Q&A, but left this one rhetorical.

“Do you think that after suffering a 7-0 defeat, I can discard the instability? Of course the job of a coach is especially unstable. I have no particularity that makes me infallible, that makes me immune to this characteristic. And after losing 7-0, you can imagine that everything I’m saying is reinforced. Now, that’s the situation I’m in. That’s the description of the circumstance. In the face of all this circumstance, all I do is fight.”

And I don’t think anyone fancied testing that.

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