Bielsa before Chelsea says Leeds are rejecting fatalism, for optimism and hope, fight and strength - The Square Ball 9/12/21


CHOOSE KOCH

Written by: Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Marcelo Bielsa’s pre-Chelsea press conference started an hour later than first planned, maybe to allow everybody to absorb the injury news update on the club website. Oh, Rodrigo now too, is it? That’s great!

Rodrigo has been suffering from bilateral heel pain for some time. The player and medical staff have deemed it necessary to reduce his activity for the time being, in order to aid his long-term recovery.

Robin Koch has overcome his pelvic injury, but has been ill for the last 10 days. He will resume normal training again this weekend.

Patrick Bamford suffered a hamstring injury during last Sunday’s Premier League game against Brentford at Elland Road. The evolution of the injury is subject to daily assessment.

Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper also both suffered hamstring injuries in Sunday’s game. Both players have undergone treatment for their injuries and the club’s medical staff will structure the next steps in their recovery.

Not just Rodrigo, but while Koch’s pubis might be better he’s been ill. Just superb things to hear, all of them. Obviously when his press conference got going Bielsa wasn’t adding anything to the conversation about timeframes:

“The times that they’re out, they’re subject to the evolution of the injury.”

QUESTION: There’s a lot of concern from the fans about Phillips, is there any chance of him being available for the December games?

“I’ve already answered him, it’s subject to the evolution of the injury. I can’t express myself more in that sense.”

He did offer more detail on the actual injuries, though, so if any physiological students want to get into the bones — well, muscles — of this, they’re welcome:

“They’re injuries in the tendons, not in the fibre of the muscle. I wanted to be precise. It’s not that they’re not muscular injuries, but they affect the tendon, not the muscle fibres.”

(My non-medically informed translation into footballese is that he’s talking about the different between a tear (in the tendons) and a strain (in the fibre). Something like that. It would also help if he’d clarified exactly which of our players he was talking about here! Never mind.)

I’ve long suspected, anyway, that this situation isn’t bad news for Bielsa. This is kind of how he likes it. If you’ve been paying attention to what he says over the last few years, you should have guessed what was coming today: the injuries will evolve and the players will be back when they’re back, and he will only accept new signings if they are better than players the club already owns — very difficult to achieve in January — because Bielsa believes he has the resources in his squad to solve all the problems. Why does he stick to this? Why won’t he dip into the loan market, tell the chairman to get his chequebook out, send some cheeky texts to some agent pals to see what they can do?

Because when Bielsa is coaching a club in an injury crisis, it makes him feel alive. Alive! And because he loves football when there’s an underdog, and when the underdog is him and his gang:

“I have always thought that adversity stimulates the capacity to generate solutions. I understand that there is a certain pessimism, because the next games are difficult, and because instead of solving absences we get new ones. But when we play against great teams, I feel that there is an added strength that arises when the supposed weaker team has the opportunity to win, to beat a team that is better before playing [i.e. on paper].

“Football has that unique attraction that allows for the hope, the fantasy, that contradicts logical reasoning at times.

“My position is one of optimism and strength. And it is not a position that I take individually, but it is the conclusion that I draw when I perceive the mood of this team. I understand that, in adversity, one of the possible responses is fatalism. But there is another option, that is optimism and hope and fight. I never say we’re going to win. But I always say we’ll do everything we can to deserve to win.”

This is the nearest I can remember hearing to a rousing battle cry from our Bielsa. Everybody else might be pessimistic, but the coach and players of Leeds United Football Club are full of optimism and hope, fight and strength. Bielsa has seen it. And they don’t care if they’re going to be written off before the next four games are played, they’ll give everything to deserve to win. Yes!

The only problem with Bielsa’s galvanising speech is how many fans just wanted to hear yes, yes we are signing six players in January.

“Regarding that, what I always say is if any player that the club is able to get is better than the players that we have, it will be a welcome possibility. But we all know the difficulty of the winter market, that it is difficult to find players who are competing [i.e. match fit] who do not have a place in the team they are in … whether it is an economically viable operation that those three conditions are met [1) better than one of ours 2) fit 3) out of a side and available for transfer], it’s not easy.”

The other reason not to sign players this January, in Bielsa’s view, is that this so-called injury crisis isn’t even that bad. Okay don’t start throwing your Ellie the Elephant toys at the wall, at least hear him out here. He says we always have, on average, four players out with medium term injuries for every match, occasionally with a fifth or sixth player with a short term injury on top. And, Bielsa says, if you go through the injury statistics of other teams, they all usually average four players out at once too. So there’s no special reason to think Leeds are at a disadvantage. Has anyone told him that it’s Kalvin actual Phillips who is out for weeks, plus Pat Bamford for who knows how long, and Liam Cooper? Well, of course they have. But he has other players. Here they are:

“At the moment the absentees would be Rodrigo and Bamford for the centre of attack, and for the defensive trio it would be Cooper and Phillips. But I think we will get Koch back, and Gelhardt has given us options in his position. And Pascal as well [should be back]. Cresswell when it was his turn to play also had positive responses.

“Tyler is evolving in the centre of the attack, Klich is also an option as an offensive midfielder, Forshaw has played as a defensive midfielder before and he’s done it well.”

See, when you put it like that, loads of players. (No Lewis Bate though? Maybe because he’s an option further forward in central midfield, not directly for Phillips, so not relevant to the question. Or maybe Bielsa just hates seeing Bate’s skinny little legs and won’t consider him until the sherry and eggs kick in, I dunno.) Bielsa also seems to be putting a lot of faith in Robin Koch:

“Forshaw has been a presence that strengthened the team, and Pascal as well, in that position. I think Koch can be an excellent defensive midfielder as well. In that sense, I try to develop what those players can contribute.”

Koch, first through pubism and then ‘illness’, is lacking match fitness; ideally, says Bielsa, he’d get that in the Under-23s, but he’ll make exceptions if he needs to:

“He hasn’t played for a long time, so the preparation he’s undergone is very demanding, very varied. We think his fitness needs the competition [of playing] itself, but in case we need him more quickly in the team, we will look at the possibility of calling him up. With three basic conditions: that he is healthy, that he is physically fit and that he is technically sound. Then he needs the competitive rhythm. The ideal is that he acquires it not in first team games, but for example in the U23s. But that’s the ideal. Sometimes there are situations that prevent you from doing the ideal and you do the best you can.”

Which is what it all comes down to for Bielsa. He mentioned the other week that he feels like he’s paid too much for the team not to be playing better. Likewise, he’s paid too much to need the club to go signing new players for him when he’s got a handful of injuries. Solving these problems is his job, not the bank’s. There are no excuses, only solutions to find:

“I never find a justification in the difficulties. Not because it is a principle, but because I feel that way too much. To think that difficulties justify the performances going down, from my point of view, that would be an easy way.”

One thing was clear when Marcelo Bielsa came to Leeds in 2018: whatever we’d be doing, we wouldn’t be doing it the easy way.

Chelsea, then, and our “excitement and desire increases because they” — and three coming after — “are very important opponents”. What about them? Bielsa says their Champions League team that drew 3-3 away to Zenit St Petersburg last night was a mixed up side that didn’t represent their true strength, and you’d have to analyse their defeat to West Ham to see if they deserved that (and that’s for Thomas Tuchel to comment on, says Bielsa, who regards himself as just another spectator). Bielsa was asked if he had different plans based on which striker Tuchel might choose, Lukaku, Kai Havertz or Timo Werner.

“They’re all similar,” he said with a shake of the head while the question was still being put to him. “They’re all centre-forwards with different characteristics, but we’re not going to plan the game differently depending on who’s playing.”

Lukaku, Havertz, Werner. “They’re all centre-forwards”, insert philosophical shrug. Bamford, Rodrigo, Gelhardt, Roberts. One centre-forward is very much the same as another, isn’t it? Phillips, Forshaw, Koch. Whoever is on the pitch, all that matters to Bielsa is that it’s Chelsea versus Leeds. One more time, not the last: “In adversity, one of the possible responses is fatalism. But there is another option, that is optimism and hope and fight.”

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