Mention of “burnout” around Elland Road has come to rankle many a Leeds United fan, adamant their savior, Marcelo Bielsa, has disproved the theories suggesting his teams run out of gas in a season’s latter stages. “El Loco” had, after all, succeeded in returning the Whites to the top seat of English soccer after 16 years in the Football League wilderness, so surely those notions of tiring legs would, as they suggested, wilt away?
The harsh truth is it very much depends on the squad, league and opposition, each of which have at least some fresh feel about them this term. Leeds have made it back to the Premier League, but Bielsa’s preference for an all-out offensive may not work to the same effect over time as it did in the Championship.
Signs pointing to survival—the very least Leeds fans will hope for—are strong after the opening two games. Saturday’s 4-3 win over a fellow promoted side, Fulham, followed their loss to defending champions Liverpool by the same scoreline, and it didn’t surprise to hear Jurgen Klopp voice appreciation of Bielsa’s team dynamic given certain similarities with his own:
Fast pressing without the ball and a rapid tempo with it, one can see where the comparisons are drawn between the two. The glaring difference is Liverpool are supported with a squad built to last at this level, whereas Leeds are only just dipping back into Premier League waters, albeit backed by significant investment from majority owner, Andrea Radrizzani.
It makes sense that Bielsa’s side pushed the reigning kings of England so close to the brink, only missing out on a Week 1 result at Anfield thanks to Mohamed Salah completing his hat-trick with an 88th-minute penalty. They finished 10 points clear of the competition en route to winning the Championship in July, and writer Paul Hayward hailed them as a rare quantity among promoted teams:
But the question at hand is whether they’ll be capable of providing such powerful performances in the closing months of the campaign, so often the most telling phase in any year. Leeds led the second tier in average possession (59.6%) and shots (755) last season, while only Barnsley and Birmingham City managed more tackles, per WhoScored.com. The table-toppers stood out at times as clearly far above the average, though there were patches where their humanity was exposed.
It’s to be expected that Bielsa’s unrelenting style comes with higher risk of injury and is wearisome for not only the body but the mind. Argentinian Juan Manuel Llop, who played under Bielsa when he got his managerial start at Newell’s Old Boys, described the effects of his former boss’ methods in Jonathan Wilson’s “Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina”:
“It's a method that provokes a certain level of tiredness. Not just physical tiredness, but also mental and emotional tiredness because the competition level is so high that it's difficult to keep up with it after a period of time. Not all human beings are the same, or think the same, or react in the same way. And the style of Bielsa, his training sessions, demand continuity and it's difficult.”
Constant running and closing of enemy channels are Bielsa trademarks, and at Elland Road he has unearthed a corps of players willing to dive to the desired depths in dedication to his cause. Desire speaks to the mental preparedness of his players and has no upper limit, so to speak, but the condition of one’s body is a different, more fragile matter.
This is especially the case in a season that’s come directly after a shortened pre-season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the long-term effects of which are still unknown. A combination of less rest under one of the most intense managers in the sport could take a devastating toll unless Bielsa adapts.
His team won 28 times across 2019-20, the most managed by Leeds in any campaign to date. It’s true the COVID-19 suspension gave every team in England the same length of time off between March and June, but that break was perhaps particularly valuable to a Leeds team that won one of its first eight games in 2020 before losing just one of nine matches after the restart.
The significance of Leeds’ summer squad additions will come to tell as the season progresses. Rodrigo Moreno and Diego Llorente have joined for a combined sum totaling more than $55 million, while former loanees Jack Harrison, Illan Meslier and Helder Costa have returned, the latter two on permanent deals.
The Peacocks have been the most proactive of any promoted team in beefing up their resources for the Premier League plight, a solid step in the team not becoming overly reliant on select individuals. This is in some ways a contradiction as Bielsa historically prefers to lean on a tightly knit group, but it was inevitable the squad median would require upgrades to keep pace.
Speaking after the recent win over Fulham—Leeds’ first in the Premier League since April 2004—Bielsa responded to a question on why he didn’t adopt a more defensive approach after going 4-1 ahead, doubling down in commitment to his style of play:
At this stage of his career and given the success of last season’s Championship title, it’s at least partly a matter of pride for Bielsa to not waiver in his ways, ever focused on ensuring it’s the opponent under pressure. Soccer romanticists may disagree, but it’s that dedication to his beliefs that may limit the former Chile, Argentina and Athletic Bilbao coach’s accomplishments this season.
Then again, there will always be the lingering doubt that despite his late arrival to England’s elite, this is Bielsa’s realm and we are mere spectators, happy to be along for the ride. Forcing Klopp’s titleholders to sweat on home soil was a valiant opening act, but an incredible amount of work is required to ensure that kind of display becomes the standard, not just a party trick for the fancier occasion.
It worked against Fulham despite a late comeback attempt, but it's a certainty that clubs will develop some familiarity with Bielsa’s ways and how best to combat them. It happens in the early months of nearly every campaign for one newly-promoted outfit, and few sustain that form throughout the entirety of the grueling Premier League season.
Leeds were backed to make a run at mid-table in a lot of pre-season projections, but improper management of their exciting approach amid high expectations could lead to dire disappointment.