Leeds’ best hope of revival still lies with Bielsa

Ian King
Leeds United concede for the seventh time against Manchester City

Leeds United were torn to shreds by Manchester City and should treat this as a wake-up call, but ripping everything out isn’t the answer.


There were points during the match between Manchester City and Leeds United when it felt as though somebody should call for a safety car. This was City at their absolute imperious best, ruthlessly efficient in front of goal, clinically incisive with their passing and movement, dominating the match from the very beginning to the very end.

It’s almost exactly 50 years since Leeds toyed with Southampton before the Match of the Day cameras, a performance that lived long in the memory as one of the definitive football maulings of that decade. This time it was Leeds’ turn to be on the receiving end of an absolute monstering by the an era-defining team. Manchester City ran up seven goals without reply, featuring six different goalscorers, and with Kevin De Bruyne marking his return to the team by scoring two goals. By the end of the evening, and with City having declared at seven from 15 shots on target, it equalled Leeds’ worst ever result in any competition.

There are, of course, mitigating factors, and most of those are to be found in the Elland Road treatment room. Leeds are still labouring under a plethora of injuries, with Liam Cooper, Patrick Bamford, Kalvin Phillips and Pascal Struijk among those missing, and that makes an obvious difference against the very best teams. Leeds won 2-1 at The Etihad Stadium last year, but this time around there was no chance whatsoever of a repeat of that result. Leeds could only hold Manchester City at bay for eight minutes, and they were two down within a quarter of an hour. It’s difficult to devise a game-plan that can take such circumstances into account.

With modern football being modern football, attention will turn to Marcelo Bielsa. There’s no question that Bielsa has transformed the fortunes of Leeds United, and getting them back into the Premier League after a gap of 16 years was no small achievement. But Bielsa has a history of not staying with clubs for particularly long, and he’s already spent longer at Elland Road longer than at any other throughout his career. But after this particular match, Bielsa seemed at a loss to explain what he’d just seen, saying that, “It’s not that City played very well, it’s a lot more noticeable how badly we played”, and that “we have never played so badly in these four years”.

In these febrile times, heavy defeats inevitably lead to discussion of the manager’s future, but Leeds United’s relationship with Marcelo Bielsa is different. Such has been the transformative effect that he has had on the club that even such a heavy defeat doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s heading towards the exit.

Those who are willing Andrea Radrizzani to pull the trigger may want to be careful what they wish for. What sort of upgrade on Bielsa could a team that is fifth from bottom in the Premier League reasonably expect in the middle of winter? In terms of the football calendar, this is precisely the worst time to be looking to change managers, with the busy Christmas and New Year periods just around the corner, and January being occupied with the midwinter transfer window. It’s always tempting to crave some sort of change, any sort of change, after a chastening defeat, but it should go without saying that changing manager is always a risk, especially at a club where the personnel has been moulded to shape the style of the manger being replaced.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that, no matter how terrible Leeds may have been against Manchester City, their form prior to this match has not been particularly dreadful. They’d been unfortunate to lose their previous match at Chelsea due to a late and somewhat soft penalty, and before that they’d only lost one of their previous seven matches. Indeed, of the seven teams to have beaten Leeds in the Premier League so far this season, six are in the top seven in the Premier League. As with several other teams below the top places in the table, Leeds have drawn too many games this season, all of which hints that there is very little between many of the teams.

Furthermore, it remains the case that any team getting relegated this season will end up having to be worse than several of Newcastle, Norwich, Burnley, Watford and Everton. Leeds have stalled this season, of that there is no question, but the likelihood of this season actually ending in relegation remains slim. The injury situation has been bad, but it will surely improve, and the January transfer window offers the opportunity to bring further reinforcements into the squad. It is well known that Bielsa prefers a lean squad, but is this a policy that he would be able to continue through January if the injury situation doesn’t improve and the team remains within sight of the relegation places?

Leeds should treat this result as a wake-up call while there is still time to take positive action, but that action doesn’t have to be, to use the sort of language their CEO would understand, a ‘cultural revolution’. Perhaps this season, with players obviously highly fatigued and dropping like flies with injuries, is a bad one to be playing Bielsaball, but panicking Leeds United supporters can take a little solace from the past. The Southampton side that was torn asunder by their greatest team wasn’t relegated at the end of the 1971/72 season. Just as Southampton were half a century ago, Leeds were heavily beaten by an exceptional team. This doesn’t have to mean that the sky is falling in.