Marcelo Bielsa, even through the prophylactic of an interpreter, inspires an emotional devotion but he is a deeply practical and candid man. Knee-jerk reaction to defeat typically identifies the usual suspects, the absence of industry and bottle. On Monday night the manager addressed this, saying: Of course the team has limits but that has nothing to do with any mental aspect. I would almost say the opposite. This team has hidden many limits with a huge effort.
He is right. They are not falling apart. Every single outfield player he inherited from a team that finished 13th last year and won only four of 22 games after Boxing Day has been significantly and conspicuously improved by the coaching of Bielsa and his staff. Eight of them started at Griffin Park and for most of the campaign it has been nine – only Barry Douglas and Jack Harrison of the summer signings have played more than half the games and Douglas, the left-back bought from Wolves, has suffered four injuries, three medium-term and one season-ending.
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Brentford 2 Leeds United 0: Phil Hays player ratings as Marcelo Bielsa suffers damaging Griffin Park defeat
Bielsa has made some of his charges, who looked frankly League One standard last year, into decent Championship players and transformed mid-table Championship ones into top-three quality. He has a Rolls Royce system without Rolls Royce parts and that has entailed every one of them playing at the very extremities of their impressively enhanced stamina and capability to reach this far. It is not heart that they lack but at times their collective and individual composure, concentration and class have been found wanting.
“That doesn’t mean Kalvin Phillips couldn’t have played in a game like this and it doesn’t mean Adam Forshaw can’t play against two number nines. But in the second half of the game against Wigan, Forshaw’s performance convinced me and I decided to put him in.”
It is not easy to establish such domination of possession – 63 per cent v Brentford, 77 per cent v Wigan, 73 per cent v Birmingham, 69 per cent against Millwall and 71 per cent against Sheffield United. And it is far from sterile, they used it to have 18 shots against Brentford, 36 against Wigan, 28 against Sheffield Wednesday and 17 against United.
The 23-year-old is a contender for United’s player-of-the-year award and was named in the EFL’s team of the year after blossoming under Bielsa but Adam Forshaw took his place against Brentford having replaced Phillips at half-time during Friday’s 2-1 defeat to Wigan Athletic.
Yet against Reading at the Madejski, when Leeds were 3-0 up, he missed a hatful of chances by snatching at shots and misjudging his angles. It was a game for Leeds to nibble away at the superior goal difference of Norwich and Sheffield United but they could not find the clinical dispassion to convert the chances they strived so hard to create. This past month, he and some of his colleagues in the box have been undone by the extra touch.
“We all know that Kalvin played many games with very good performances,” Bielsa said. “If we have a look at the player who started the season, what kind of player he was then compared to the kind of player he is now, the evolution is very important.”
The sin of over-elaboration does not betray laziness or arrogance, a desire to walk the ball into the net, but hesitancy and doubt. The only teams they have comprehensively whacked, Norwich away, Derby twice, West Brom at home, Reading away, have given them space. Everyone else has restricted it with defence and midfield working in compact synergy and then hitting Leeds on the break.
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If a team cannot find the efficiency up front, it needs supreme concentration at the back and too often a positional lapse or a picked-off pass – Sheffield Uniteds winner, Birmingham Citys, both Wigans and Brentfords – have proved their undoing. This is what you get if you play Bielsas way without consistent precision, a good side but one that is also flawed.
The terrible conversion rate has blighted their chances more than the injury epidemic that last night claimed Gjanni Alioski. Leeds United lead the charts for chances created – 577 – but are only fifth in the table of goals scored, behind the two teams above them and West Brom and Aston Villa, the two below them. As well as trying to dribble and pass their way to goal once inside the box without the incisiveness such difficult work demands, they shot with abandon but scored just twice from 82 efforts in their last three matches against Brentford, Wigan and Wednesday, a conversion rate of 2.5 per cent.
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Some of the chances they have missed have almost beggared belief, Bamford in particular guilty of missing sitters with his head and then redeeming himself with sensational strikes. Thats what £7 million buys you in this market, talent with pitfalls.
In January they had a chance to deepen the squad during the transfer window and bought the goalkeeper Kiko Casilla and thought they had agreed a loan deal to sign Swanseas flying Daniel James with a proper transfer guaranteed in the summer. Swansea backed out at the 11th hour after James had agreed terms, passed his medical and been photographed in his new strip but one cannot help thinking that the structure of the deal – presumably dictated by cashflow – gave Swansea the opportunity to reclaim him. If James was the one outfield player Bielsa wanted to enhance Leeds Uniteds promotion chances and Swansea were willing to sell, could not the money have been found to push it through?
“It's about finishing and putting the ball in the back of the net and we didn't even look like we believed we could [against Brentford]. “That's the only way to win games, doing that at that end, and if you can't do that then defend properly, and we did neither. “It's like a surrender comes out [during the game]. "I'm not being funny but if it was Sheffield United down there [on the Griffin Park pitch] they'd be kicking people, fighting, scrapping. “We've got nice players, we can play when it's nice, but when something's against us every now and again, we need someone absolutely horrible in that side to get us going. “I'm not sure who that person is, or if we have that person.” Leeds will host Aston Villa at Elland Road on Sunday before visiting Ipswich Town on the final day of the season, as they hope for a turnaround in their automatic promotion hopes.
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The breakdown of that transfer is one reason why comparisons with their last successful promotion campaign from this level, in 1989-90, have been wide of the mark. Howard Wilkinson was not just given the funds to sign Gordon Strachan from Manchester United in March 1989, he also bought Chris Fairclough from Tottenham. In the summer he signed Liverpools Jim Beglin, Vinnie Jones from Wimbledon and Mel Sterland from Scottish champions, Rangers.
Follow @insidefutbol Noel Whelan feels that while Sheffield United fight and scrap for every point when the odds are against them, too often Leeds United bring the white flag out. Defeats to Wigan Athletic and Brentford in a span of three days have seriously dented Leeds’ hopes of earning automatic promotion to the Premier League this season, giving the advantage to Sheffield United.
In January when his attack was misfiring he went out and purchased Lee Chapman from Nottingham Forest. They were all top-flight players and he did not stint in taking others off his second division rivals – notably John Hendrie and Chris Kamara – who made vital contributions. Leeds United are no longer able to afford such a transfusion of skill and nous but James, whose value has rocketed since January, must have been attainable.
There is no need for the sackcloth and ashes yet though this authors experience at play-off finals in 1987, 2006 and 2008 compel me to keep them close at hand. Some on social media have pointed out Leeds fans hubris when their automatic promotion fate was in the clubs own hands, but they cannot all be Dougal Mcguires with Careful Now banners. Football fans are going to revel in their moments on top, even prematurely, often oblivious to the shakiness of the ground on which they stand.
Leeds United are third in the table and have been engaged in the most enjoyable season they have had for years, Easters events notwithstanding. It is perfectly possible for a season to contrive to be both a triumph and a disappointment simultaneously. And maybe that will be its epitaph. But Leeds still have just under five weeks to tilt the balance firmly towards the former.
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Leeds have confirmed that winger Ezgjan Alioski will miss the remainder of the season with a torn meniscus.
The Macedonia international was forced off after just 12 minutes of their 2-0 defeat at Brentford on Easter Monday.
Alioski is due to have surgery, ruling him out of the final two rounds of Championship games and the play-offs, should Leeds be involved in them.
“He has shown his quality throughout the year. He is a popular figure who always puts his team-mates first and sets an example for the younger players.”
Alioski, who joined Leeds from Lugano in 2017, has featured in every one of their 47 games this season, scoring seven goals, and is expected to be sidelined for six to eight weeks.
Leeds are third in the table, three points behind second-placed Sheffield United, and play in-form Aston Villa at home on Sunday before travelling to relegated Ipswich on 5 May.