Leeds United 1-4 Arsenal: For some of us, it’s not a good time - The Square Ball 20/12/21


Written by: Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

From out of the fog this was some Arsenal we’ve seen before, in Leeds United’s last season in the Premier League in 2003/04, when the Gunners came to Elland Road and won 4-1 in the league, 4-1 in the FA Cup, saving a 5-0 beating for Highbury in April. Leeds fans were just shrugging by that point, as Thierry Henry scored four, sprinting through a defence of Stephen Caldwell and Michael Duberry, a midfield featuring Lucas Radebe and Dom Matteo unable to protect them. A side with Champions League class had been dismantled: Martyn, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Dacourt, Bowyer, Kewell, Keane, Fowler, all gone in two seasons. Too many in too short a time for any team to cope with.

The present Leeds team have lost as many first team players in a couple of weeks and a 4-1 defeat to Arsenal was inevitable and historically too tidy. (Arsenal won by the same score at Elland Road in September 2002, when Leeds were still good in theory.) Hardly any time has passed since Marcelo Bielsa was calmly explaining that Leeds, with four medium term injuries and one or two more game by game, were only reflecting the Premier League average. He started this game without ten and an eleventh was limping within ten minutes. After the game Bielsa talked about the injuries, the stoppage time penalty at Chelsea, a result “difficult to imagine” at Manchester City, and that the game with Arsenal would have been fairer at 3-2, but “the 4-1 is produced.” Diego Llorente, careful with his health, double-vaccinated and boosted against the coronavirus, is ill, presumably catching it anyway. It’s, “a run of form so negative that we’re going through,” said Bielsa, or in other words, Leeds United are bang out of luck. From his conviction a few weeks ago that United’s problems were run of the mill, this is the nearest I’ve heard Bielsa come to saying the situation is out of control. “They’re all problems that are usually resolved,” he said, “but in this case they’re not.”

There is a last days of Thomas Christiansen feel about Leeds at the moment. His first nine games, in 2017/18, took Leeds top of the Championship; a slump — just after the BBC asked if this was the season Leeds would get promoted — was saved, and on Boxing Day Leeds were comfortably in the play-off places, the season’s target. Next came carnage: Samu Saiz sent off in Newport and banned for six weeks for spitting; Eunan O’Kane, Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi sent off; two goalless draws punctuating wild defeats that left Christiansen looking more and more bewildered, week by week, until Neil Warnock’s Cardiff beat his Leeds 4-1 and that was the end for TC. What followed, though, was even worse: half a million to get Paul Heckingbottom from Barnsley bought four wins, four draws, and eight defeats.

It feels incredibly unlikely that Leeds will try changing the coach this season, and Bielsa is considerably less disposable than poor old Thomas Christiansen. You don’t remove a world class coach who has delivered the best results Leeds have enjoyed in a generation, even if Mick McCarthy is out of work, ready, willing and able. The course is set to discover what we never found out about Christiansen’s time in charge: what might the rest of the season have been like if he’d been allowed to try sorting it out?

How much sorting out Bielsa needs to do feels dependent on factors out of his control. First, the Premier League meetings this week, discussing whether to pause the season to deal with the new coronavirus variant. So far, the plan to keep pressing on and get the games played isn’t working, because the games are not being played, and fans are still either travelling to fixtures that don’t take place or putting their health at risk in stadium concourses, although I’m not convinced anybody in charge cares much about that. Second, players coming back from injury. Last season we learned that Leeds United’s best team can compete with anybody and belongs in the top half of the Premier League. This season we’re learning that the patched up reserves can’t.

Within Bielsa’s control are transfers and the style of play, and the two are linked. The background sounds now are that Leeds will be moving for new players in the January transfer window. Whether to recruit was a choice in summer, but it’s a necessity now. Bielsa will not be the problem he’s painted as: last week he deliberately stated that he is not against buying players in winter, he just thinks it’s hard to get good ones. That’s not the same thing as the pickiness that gets ascribed to him. A picky manager, in 2018, either would not have come to Leeds or would have insisted on the entire squad being overhauled to meet his requirements. Instead Bielsa took Kalvin Phillips, Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas, Gjanni Alioski and the rest, working with what he found to make what he needed. The infamous adaptation period, when players are held back to learn, is a product of luxury. If he’s got the time, he’ll use it. If he needs to throw a player straight in — Dan James, Raphinha — they will go in.

That’s where style of play, or rather idea of play, is important. The other week Bielsa said throwing a plan out is easy: “But what’s difficult is to construct a new philosophy to substitute it, and know that it resolves the next game.” He brushed the theme again after the Arsenal match. “You have to be very convinced in a big way where you’re going, to absorb these types of moments,” he said. In other words, you have to keep believing in what you’re doing. That’s important when bringing in new players. Finding players to fit certain jobs on the field is hard enough, without ripping up those job descriptions and searching for players to fit a new style the existing squad aren’t even used to yet.

The plan for Leeds to get out of trouble is to stick with the way they know how to play, find new players who can fit in, get the best players fit, and keep going. At the bottom of the table it’s important to have a coherent strategy, and that one, almost writing itself, is an advantage Leeds shouldn’t squander.

The test it has to survive is the current run of games when Leeds’ style of play has been carved open by Manchester City and Arsenal. The Gunners were smart, aiming not at young right-back Cody Drameh but the experienced players out of position on the other side, Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling, calculating they could be turned on their wrong feet and that Martin Ødegaard, arriving through the middle, would be too strong for Adam Forshaw. Chances made that way, though, were either blocked, or saved by the excellent Illan Meslier. Arsenal’s goals were given them by Leeds, Jackie Harrison giving up possession from his dead leg before Xhaka dived for a pen and Forshaw was muscled off the ball, that was the first; Dallas passing behind Matuesz Klich in the centre was the second; the third took advantage of space left by Ayling and a cacophony of blundering blocks. That was the first half. Leeds improved in the second half, taking themselves to the edge of a comeback when Joffy Gelhardt’s penalty box skill won him another penalty, like against Wolves, a dopey foul by Ben White, and Raphinha smacked in the spot kick; until with seven minutes left Tyler Roberts gave the ball away and that was four.

The game was won in the first half, making Arsenal’s full-time reaction strange. Mikel Arteta punched the air, hugging his staff around him into a celebratory gang, as if after three away defeats in a row they’d overcome some significant hurdle by seeing this game through to the end. Honestly, if this Arsenal side hadn’t beaten this Leeds side, Arteta should have shame-quit, but all game he and his players seemed to think they were really doing something. Speaking about teams being depleted by Covid last week, Bielsa said he wouldn’t want to “take advantage of a team that has that difficulty”. Arsenal had no such qualms about Leeds United’s injury crisis. Back at the start of December, Bielsa said it’s as important to deserve what you get as to get what you deserve:

“Because if what’s deserved is not obtained, the path is the correct one. If what’s obtained is not deserved, the path is not the right one. In both cases time verifies those things — and the only thing I’m saying is that what corresponds is to deserve what you get.”

Nothing good comes easy, and Leeds United’s third season of Premier League football certainly won’t. Last season’s ethereal drift to 9th now looks like what it was, a dream. This season’s fight to survive is how it was supposed to be all along. This January, in the transfer market, in the treatment room, on the training ground and on the pitch, Leeds will have to deserve what they eventually will get.

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