Leeds flying high under Bielsa - Interview
Friday, 7th Dec 2018 10:36 by Clive Whittingham
Leeds are prone to winning the league in August before falling away but our regular man at Elland Road Ben Phelps says it could be different this year because of one man.
Leeds are never short of pre-season optimism, or good August form, but promotion pushes haven’t materialised from bright starts made in the last two seasons. Why is that and why will it be different this time?
Preseason optimism was new to us last year. Since we had finished so close to the playoffs with Garry Monk, we were hoping to build off of the momentum to make a proper playoff push in the 2017-18 season. A busy summer led to a myriad of signings, only a few of whom turned out to be any good, and we started hot out of the gates. Looking back on last season and the final table, we beat very poor teams at the beginning of the year. I remember feeling ecstatic when we beat newly-relegated Sunderland away 2-0 and Nottingham Forest away by the same scoreline thinking we were going to be difficult to beat. We just hadn't played a decent side apart from Fulham (0-0 home draw) who started very slowly if you'll recall.
I'd say this year we had cautious optimism when Marcelo Bielsa was announced as head coach. We knew his propensity for obsession and I'd have to admit we were all shocked to hear he was still interested after watching 51 games from the previous season. If anything will be different from years previous, it will be due to him, no questions about it. There is a different feel about this year. The three games we've lost have been followed with strong performances and it seems like anybody he puts on the field can do the job he asks.
Bielsa seemed like an incredible appointment in the summer, how much of his famed style of play and extreme methods has he been able to bring into the Championship?
The most important trait Bielsa has, in my opinion, is to raise the level of play of an individual twofold. He then makes those players understand their roles in the squad in great detail, which in turn elevates the team exponentially. Kalvin Phillips for example, arguably Leeds' player of the season so far, had been the bearer of supporters' frustration in the past few seasons. Perhaps one can see why he's never quite settled -- he's played under seven managers and he's only just turned 23 on Sunday. Bielsa moved him to a defensive role, operating as a deep-lying central midfielder who can slot in between centre halves, and he has shone very brightly in the first 20 games.
In his long-winded pressers, Bielsa details his footballing philosophy in much more sophisticated words than I could ever muster, but it boils down to playing quickly with the ball, build from the back, stifle defensively, and run your bollocks off. There have been questions surrounding this philosophy and his preference of a small squad but there have been no signs of slowing down and the club have a "next man up" mentality, utilising talented youth players when injuries occur.
He’s also known for being quite explosive, argumentative, doesn’t stick around very long at a lot of clubs, while Leeds get through managers at a fast rate – how’s the relationship holding together?
The relationship seems to be working just fine. Radrizzani and Orta wooed him over weeks of travel between three continents so they knew they would be leaving a lot of the decision making up to El Loco. With his reputation, the owner and his team knew they would be committing to a minimum of two years of blind trust. Even if we were not winning at this point in time I think they would be satisfied with staying above relegation and having a proper go in year two. They've invested a lot of money in his appointment -- not only in his salary but that of his coaching staff and improvements/modifications to Thorp Arch -- and they would not be doing this project justice by cutting it short no matter how this season turns out.
Stand out players and weak links in the side?
Standouts: Pablo Hernandez is one of the smartest players in English football and can hurt you if given the chance. Mateusz Klich, given new life by Bielsa has been instrumental in the midfield this year. Kalvin Phillips is a half-season of consistency (and hopefully a promotion) away from forcing his way into the England set up.
Weak links: We have three players that have been used as centre backs out with injury (captain Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling, and Gaetano Berardi). Young Finn Aapo Halme slotted in ably in the Yorkshire derby last weekend although he looked shaky at times. If Bielsa opts to start Halme next to Pontus Jansson, he could be targeted by QPR, although my gut tells me Phillips will drop in at centre half. Goalkeeper has been a worrying position for some, although it is hard to say this coming off of three straight clean sheets. Bailey Peacock-Farrell is an excellent shot stopper and good with his feet, but struggles with crosses. If Ezgjan Alioski gets the nod over teenager Jack Clarke at left wing, your right back should have no problems keeping him at bay as the Macedonian has hit a severe dip in form, having been replaced by Clarke at halftime in the last two matches.
Any talk/expectation of January business being done to get you over the line? Names mentioned?
There have been a few names tossed about, mainly for cover at goalkeeper since the season-ending injury to Chelsea loanee Jamal Blackman. One name out of nowhere has been Besiktas' Dutch winger Jeremain Lens, but he is on the wrong side of 30 and on high wages since moving from Sunderland, having signed a new four-year contract this summer. A name that seems more likely is 28 year-old Basque Ibai Gomez, an Alaves attacker who worked with Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao. He could go for free in the summer or Alaves could cash in on his six remaining months early in January. Interestingly, I have not heard any defenders mentioned in transfer rumours.
You’ve not been short of controversial/useless/disliked chairmen in recent times, how’s the latest incumbent done so far?
The chairman is a popular figure since installing Bielsa as manager. He has also brought in minority owner Paraag Marathe, president of 49ers Enterprises, which seems to be a business-related move and one that has drummed up interest on my side of the pond. Radrizzani has been involved in several off-pitch initiatives such as LUFC Foundation and the Rainbow Laces Campaign, as well as being quite outspoken at the disparity of TV revenue between the top two leagues in England. I'd give his popularity an 8/10 at the moment.
The Twitter @BenPhelps17, @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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