Leeds United 0-1 Newcastle United: What not to do - The Square Ball 24/1/22


CLARITY

Written by: Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Two moments summed up the slow moving carnage of Leeds United’s defeat by Newcastle at Elland Road. First was in the opening minutes, when Dan James crashed into a tackle on Kieran Trippier so hard the ball disappeared. Leeds players looked, Leeds fans looked, but it was nowhere to be found. The Newcastle players didn’t look, even though they had a throw-in to take, because the last thing they wanted to see was a football. Like Liverpool and their Covid testing, Arsenal depleting their own squad, Burnley every week, Newcastle had bought into the current trend where half the Premier League is frightened of playing matches. They took that attitude on the pitch with them, forced onto the field but unwilling to spend time with a ball on the grass.

The second moment was a few minutes from the end, when Newcastle’s plan was working better than even they could have hoped. Diego Llorente chased a dead ball into the Magpies’ dugout, where their staff and substitutes were sitting on it like an egg, and he stayed there fighting for it even while Leeds’ coaches ran to drag him out and tell him, they’d found another ball, the game was going on without him. He galloped back on like an ostrich.

Leeds collectively lost their minds after Newcastle scored their 75th minute winner and I’m not sure why. Marcelo Bielsa’s first substitution changed the game, but bringing on one player shouldn’t diminish the other ten. Tyler Roberts replaced James, and within five minutes he lost possession while trying to send Raphinha through. Llorente fouled Javier Manquillo on the edge of the box, then went crazy at Roberts, as if Llorente hadn’t given up cheap possession next to his own penalty area in the first half, giving away a corner and giving Jonjo Shelvey the chance to volley a great save out of Illan Meslier. 0-0 but already things weren’t cool. This time Meslier’s wall and sights were undone by Shelvey’s low curler, and Leeds were losing and furious. As the game dwindled, and yet another Newcastle player lay down on the ground, Rodrigo drop kicked the ball high towards the Cheese Wedge. Mateusz Klich kicked a coat into the air as he was subbed off. There was an angry edge to how Leeds ended the game that they couldn’t channel into a goal, even after saviour Joe Gelhardt came on. Bielsa said afterwards he thought all those attackers at once — Rodrigo, Roberts, Gelhardt, with Raphinha and Jackie Harrison wide with Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling — would be enough. But, for example, he made the wingers swap sides, and the team kept playing down the wrong side anyway. Leeds, he said, were “lacking clarity”.

I’m not advocating for calm acceptance but I wonder why Leeds couldn’t keep their cool given how often they’ve played this game before. Or maybe it was the frustration of knowing this was groundhog day that unhinged them. Leeds United should have won this game, and proved it last week against West Ham, but if you’ve watched Leeds for long then you must have known defeat was likely. There’s always a size five sphere of disappointment ready to smack you in the cheek whenever you brave the bottom of Beeston Hill. The glory of promotion felt exceptional because it was. This game, an overcast Saturday afternoon in January at the bottom of the league, is football as it really is.

This game was also Bielsa’s football as it really is. It can and does achieve so much: Leeds are in the Premier League because of it, Argentina had arguably their greatest World Cup qualifying campaign with Bielsa at the helm. Perhaps it’s true that Leeds were only one Pat Bamford or an earlier Gelhardt away from battering Newcastle here, from capitalising on the searing through balls from Rodrigo, the sizzling cutbacks from Raphinha, the hot crosses from James aiming for, well, him, because he was the striker. But the culmination of that great Argentina team’s qualifying was a tortuous half hour after Sweden took the lead in the third group match and Bielsa’s team, desperate for a win, could only find an 88th minute equaliser from Hernan Crespo. Bielsa lives that World Cup as, in his words, “The worst failure in the history of the Argentina national team,” and as someone who says he has learned much more from defeat than victory in his career, I wonder if his mind goes back to that game, and others like it, when his team starts slapping as weakly on a locked door as they did against Newcastle.

And in so many other games besides. The pattern Newcastle imposed by the end was nothing new. Since those first shocking matches in 2018, the 3-1 over Stoke, 4-1 at Derby, worried opponents have done what Eddie Howe did, setting up with nine defenders in two tight lines and a striker somewhere in the distance. They’ve kept the ball out of play, kept the clock moving, and hoped for Leeds to attack themselves out of contention. Clubs that aren’t worried, like West Ham last week, are easier for Leeds to unlock, because they’re trying to win, and that’s when a frantic high press can make them lose. But if Leeds don’t get an early goal up over the dour, they can end up in the quicksand, and they know it. And when they concede, it sends them crazy.

Calmer minds and more creative intelligence might have helped. Better players should be better, after all. It didn’t necessarily help Argentina, with Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega, Gabriel Batistuta et al to break down Teddy Lucic’s Swedish resistance in 2002. Every strategy has its weaknesses, and I wonder if Bielsa solved this one then he’d be ready to retire satisfied. In some ways the frustration must keep him thinking. He lives, loves and laughs to wake up in the morning with problems to solve. In the meantime, though, he has to keep everyone around him convinced that his path is the right one, even when it goes wrong the same ways. Elland Road’s howling frustration at Newcastle’s time-wasting carried an undertone of envy. We love what we do, but why we can’t we also do that, sometimes? Put this argument to stern Bielsa, though, and you won’t only meet the resistance of his beliefs, but his specs will reflect the boiled summary of what you’re actually asking: please only ever use the tactics that will win.

Part of that is a desire for action inspired by the opening of January’s transfer window, and the absence of players climbing through. Newcastle have spent around £35m already on Chris Wood and Kieran Trippier, and don’t want to stop, but they are desperate and have no choice but shopping. Aston Villa, too, are having ‘a good window’ by spending £27m on Lucas Digne and a big loan fee and wages for Philippe Coutinho. Leeds have done nowt. But then, compared to Villa, Leeds didn’t confidently spend a £100m fee received by buying three players as part of a detailed, analysed and well-prepared strategy, then watch it blow up in ten weeks, sack the manager, and go spending millions more on a new manager with a completely different idea, requiring many millions more on different players. A bad summer begets a good January, because you’ve no other choice.

Leeds, meanwhile, came up from the Championship with a clear plan, strategy and budget for finishing 17th twice. While clubs everywhere rapidly defenestrated their managers and binned the whiteboards they planned on, panic setting in after a few short weeks, Leeds have got themselves within four months of achieving what they set out to achieve over two years. That’s a bind of its own because defeat by Newcastle means the failing line is too close for comfort, and not entering the transfer market now is bravery that could end in foolishness. But dipping in is fraught too, if the player isn’t chosen carefully. Believing in what they’re doing has got Leeds this far, but the next seven days are an angst-fuelled test of their confidence. You can wake up every morning and take solace in the calm faith of Marcelo Bielsa, the seven points cushioning Premier League safety. By midnight you’re deep into the Chivas Regal and faxing a blank cheque to Salzburg.

The one clear gap in United’s implementation of their strategy is in midfield, where Michael Cuisance, Conor Gallagher and Lewis O’Brien are public evidence that it’s a position Leeds have been working on, fruitlessly, for twenty months. Brenden Aaronson is the latest manifestation. Adding him now would fit with the strategy chosen in summer 2020, that this squad plus Better Midfielder X would do everything Leeds United needed to do by summer 2022. Among all the clubs working desperately to rescue a different version of themselves from the wreckage of their plans, from Spurs to Norwich to Newcastle to Aston Villa to Everton to Watford to Manchester United, Leeds remain one player away from completing the idea they’re convinced in. Leeds could make it over the line without Aaronson, or anyone. With him? It will still be nervous. The only safety is in league points, and those will always feel as easy to gain in one game as they feel hard to lose in another. Marcelo Bielsa can do many things, but he can’t make a round ball square.

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