Bielsa before Manchester City can’t imagine football without mistakes - The Square Ball 13/12/21


Written by: Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Mistakes? Even this was a press conference of mistakes, and low key chuckles. After three attempts at understanding and answering a question about Leeds having a lot of players a card or two away from a ban, Marcelo Bielsa eventually told his translator Andres Clavijo just to say, we always tell the players not to get booked whether they’re close to suspension or not. “Sorry, I made it very complicated,” Bielsa told him.

Then a journalist started translating their own questions into Spanish. Andres was a picture as he stared down the camera as if someone had taken his fork and was eating his lunch off the plate in front of him, and Bielsa was lulled into a Spanish state of mind. He hadn’t considered the question being put to him, about how often Leeds have lost games despite winning or drawing in them, but he answered with various theories about why this might happen to a team. After his translation stalled, Andres turned to Marcelo and said, “Well, I don’t remember the whole answer anymore.” He’d got the part about how it might be because a team keeps attacking when they’re ahead, or takes too many risks, but forgotten what Bielsa said about how if you give up possession and drop into defending, trying to avoid mistakes, you can end up giving the other team more chances to score with all that ball. Because it was a long question, “I was thinking in Spanish,” Bielsa apologised to Andres.

Perhaps the oddest confusion was right at the start, answering about injury news. There are no new injuries to report. Hurrah! That means there’s either nothing wrong with Raphinha after he was put in cotton wool at Chelsea, or they just haven’t worked out how badly he’s broken yet. The bad news is that none of the injured players will be back against Manchester City. Booo. That includes Kalvin Phillips, who The Athletic’s David Ornstein reported this morning has had surgery on his hamstring. Bielsa was asked if could clarify that.

“Not at the moment,” said Bielsa, “there’s no news that he’s going to be operated on.” Oh. Well I guess now we know Bielsa doesn’t have an Athletic subscription. Then: “I assume you’re referring to the shoulder.” No, he was told, his hamstring. Now Bielsa started clasping his hand to his shoulder, then his hamstring, saying he had no precise data about operations to either. Okay. Could somebody let Marcelo know if or when they’re operating on our star midfielder, please!

I think the confusion comes from a question at last week’s pre-Palace press conference, when news of Phillips’ hamstring injury had just broken. Given Kalvin’s long standing shoulder issues, the BBC’s Adam Pope wanted to know, would the club consider operating to solve them while he recovered from his hamstring problem, turning the time out into a two-for-one? Bielsa said he hadn’t thought about doing that, and didn’t know if anyone was planning it, but it sounded like common sense if it was possible. Asked about operating on Kalvin again today, and with apparently no knowledge about any hamstring surgery, I think he assumed this was just another shoulder proposal.

Bielsa’s attitude towards injuries is fascinating, and this obliviousness fits into a pattern ever since he’s been at Leeds, in which injuries are the domain of the club’s medical staff, and all Bielsa needs to know about players is their availability. Bielsa is not going to influence Rob Price’s decision to operate or not, because Price is the expert and Bielsa is biased towards wanting his players to play. When he gets to Thorp Arch in the morning, Bielsa’s priority is not how many stitches a player has in his leg, shoulder or wherever, but the condition of the players who can play in the next game. Between going away and coming back what happens to Kalvin Phillips is not Bielsa’s concern, because he trusts Rob Price and his team to deal with it. It’s a theory, anyway.

He seems more captivated by Pascal Struijk’s injury, though. Maybe Kalvin’s various complaints are too humdrum. On one hand Struijk is not really badly injured at all: “neither bone, nor muscle, nor joint.” But a kick to his foot in training caused bones in the sole of his foot to collide with each other, meaning pain — I guess a kind of bruising — too severe to play with. “Honestly, I’ve never seen an injury like that in my entire career,” said Bielsa, and he was still shaking his disbelieving head when he offered up that Rodrigo’s heel problem is a very rare one too. “It’s a pain in the heels that is only solved if the pain disappears, which I haven’t seen in so many years. And the specialists who treat it talk about how there’s very few cases annually.” Well, I’m glad at least some of the reasons our players can’t play are so fascinating.

After all that, there wasn’t much to be said about Manchester City, and nothing to be learned from beating them last season — “I don’t think we’ve exploited frailties or weaknesses.” They’re a team full of well known players who bring “countless combinations” of different characteristics to different places on the field, depending on where Pep Guardiola tells them to go; Bielsa didn’t go into this detail specifically, but I think he’s referring to the players making the concept of designated positions redundant, when for example Kevin De Bruyne can play as a striker in a certain way or in midfield in a certain way. “It’s a constant evolution,” within games, said Bielsa. That means you have to face Manchester City as a team, not a collection of players. “The amount of variables they use to attack means that the attacking play has to be interpreted collectively rather than dissected individually.”

Guardiola, for his part, said today that City will have to adapt to play Leeds. “Before, we played against them, we knew it, we felt it,” he said. “It is one of the toughest opponents. They play every week in a special unique way and we play against the special and unique way just two times a year. It is completely different to other opponents … We will have to adapt to try and do what we want to do.” He also picked out what I was thinking last week about Bielsa actually enjoying the problems caused by so many injured players. “If there is one person who doesn’t complain about what happens, it is Marcelo,” said Guardiola. “He loves to work when the situation is tough.”

Back to Bielsa. A couple of questions about Joffy Gelhardt were swiftly dismissed. How will he deal with an excitable scamp so thrilled about scoring his first goal? “For a goalscorer, whether he’s young or not, scoring is always a boost that improves his self-esteem.” Okay. And how will Bielsa use Joffy now, given he’s impressing so much and fans would like to see him in the starting eleven? He’ll use Gelhardt, “According to the assessment of his resources as a player as an advantage to the needs of the team.” In other words, if he’ll improve the team, he’ll play, and “demonstrating efficiency”, as he did, increases his chances. This all seems pretty self-evident, which is probably why Bielsa didn’t dwell.

Lewis Bate, meanwhile, doesn’t have to do anything more than what he’s doing to get into the team. “He’s a very hard working person, very serious.” He’s just got to compete with and prove himself a better option than players in the squad both of his own age and older. “I watch, and whether correctly or wrongly, I pick,” Bielsa said, adding with a chuckle, “this question sounds more like it came from a parent or an agent than from a journalist.”

Well, we all makes mistakes. Bielsa was asked about the tweets sent to Mateusz Klich after the Chelsea game, and while he didn’t address the social media aspects, he did reinforce Klich’s — and everybody’s — right to get things wrong. In football, in fact, it’s a need, because how can there be goals if there aren’t mistakes?

“Football is a game that contains errors. And to imagine footballers without the possibility of making mistakes would take away the disinhibition [freedom] that is indispensable in a creative game. Nobody wants to make errors. Everybody always [tries to] combine prudence [i.e. taking care] and the ability to avoid them. But if you look at the goals that are scored every weekend, you’ll see that it’s very hard to find one without some unfortunate action by the team that suffers it.”

As Bielsa once said, if he had a team of robots, he would win every match. But within that idea, he was implying, what would be the fun in that?

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