For all the mysticism surrounding Marcelo Bielsa’s methods – the tactical ingenuity, the artistic attacking, the idiosyncratic superstitions – football under one of the game’s greatest philosophers boils down to the most basic principle: run, then run even harder, then keep running until the opposition can no longer cope.
It has been reflected in the way Leeds United won the Championship under Bielsa in 2019-20. The season arguably featured fewer obvious high points along the way than Bielsa’s first campaign, or it has at least felt that way now fans have grown more accustomed to the sight of his football. Instead, it was characterised by an intensity to endure the 46-game slog – matching their rivals blow for blow, both physically and mentally, until they were the only team left standing.
Likewise, rather than rely on outstanding individual seasons such as those of Kalvin Phillips and Pablo Hernandez in 2018-19, Leeds’ title win has been a testament to a collective effort in which there was no obvious Player of the Year but rather half a dozen names who all maintained the high standards which Bielsa demands.
Luke Ayling is certainly among those names and was rewarded this week by being named the PFA Fans’ Championship Player of the Year.
It’s easy to forget that Bielsa’s appointment seemed as likely to end in explosive failure as it did long-awaited glory. Few characters sum up the Leeds squad’s dedication to embracing Bielsa’s demands as much as Ayling.
At the age of 18, he left Arsenal for Yeovil in the hope of proving himself good enough to work his way back into the Premier League. By the time Bielsa had been appointed, the right-back had spent as much time in League One as he had the Championship, been deemed not good enough for Bristol City by Lee Johnson, and had been part of two demoralising collapses in his first two years at Elland Road. He had, in many respects, failed.
But he has risen to the challenge of thriving under Bielsa. Already one of the fitter players in the squad, Bielsa’s daily body-fat tests have seen Ayling trim down even further. He is now as thin as six o’clock, so much so he appeared worryingly gaunt when he spoke some home truths after Leeds lost 2-0 at Nottingham Forest in February, a result that saw the Peacocks blow the last of what had once been an 11-point gap to third.
The reaction from supporters ultimately misread Ayling’s intentions. His admission that Leeds “played some nice football again but no cutting edge, so same old story” was not exasperation that the side had run out of ideas but a drawing of a line in the sand, an order to his team-mates that things had to improve.
As his frame has got thinner, his shoulders have only broadened. Despite generally shying away from interviews due to a stammer, Ayling had told members of Leeds’ media department: “If there’s post-match press to be done, I’m fucking doing it.”
Ayling’s actions backed up his words. The 28-year-old led by example after Leeds got back on track with a much-improved performance in a draw at promotion rivals Brentford. He scored the winner against former club Bristol City and the opener in a 4-0 victory at Hull City as Leeds won five games on the bounce before football’s postponement in England. He was part of a defence that kept five consecutive clean sheets in that time. He even scored a flying volley against Huddersfield Town that was emphatic enough to register on the Yeboah-scale.
While that may have been Ayling’s most eye-catching moment of the season, it was not his most important.
Four long months had passed by the time Leeds travelled to Swansea City with promotion edging ever closer. Swansea were themselves battling for a play-off spot and forced Leeds to bang their heads in frustration at the Liberty Stadium, failing to create much in the way of clear-cut chances and seemingly on their way to settling for a point that would have left them four points clear of third with three games left to play.
Bielsa has instilled an unwavering belief in the players to stick to the process no matter how much desperation the situation may require. In the 88th minute, Leeds sniffed out a Swansea attack down the left-hand side of their penalty area. Kalvin Phillips received the ball and calmly rolled a pass across his six-yard box to Ayling.
Watching the moment back now is enough to send shivers down the spine of any Leeds fan. When Ayling looked up, he didn’t see an option to hoof a long ball, he saw space to run into. With his head down, he began to sprint, as if he had spotted promotion waiting at the opposite end of the pitch. He ran, then ran even harder, then kept running until the opposition could no longer cope.
By the time he passed the ball to Mateusz Klich and continued his run down the right wing, the two Swansea players hoping to track him had been left too far behind, unable to keep up with that final wringing of the energy left in his muscles.
Klich moved the ball on to Helder Costa, who kept it moving to Ayling on the overlap, by this point reaching the Swansea byline. Where he had hoped to find promotion, he instead found Pablo Hernandez with a cut-back. Hernandez squeezed the ball agonisingly into the far corner.
Seventeen seconds had passed since Ayling collected the ball at the opposite end of the field. As Swansea players lay exhausted, broken on the floor, Ayling calmly jogged behind the goal towards the chaos of his team-mates celebrating.
They had to wait a few more days before it was confirmed, but Leeds had their promotion moment.
🙌 Who's watched this about 50 times already? Pablo what a guy! pic.twitter.com/L2itoudLTl
— Leeds United (@LUFC) July 13, 2020
“For me he’s a very important player for the team,” Bielsa said in February 2019, when Ayling was being criticised for a rare patch out of form. “He’s a player who is an example for his team-mates, the public and the fans.”
He added: “Maybe I’m not objective because I have a very special respect for him, for what he gives to the team.”
Bielsa, as ever, was right. And it was telling that in the footage of Leeds’ squad celebrating promotion, it was often Ayling leading the chants of Bielsa’s name. But for all of Bielsa’s inspiration, it would never have led to such success without the attitude of the players encapsulated by Ayling.
Leeds will take on the Premier League in the same way they attacked the Championship. It remains to be seen who will be able to keep up when Ayling puts his head down and prepares to sprint off.
By Rob Conlon