Robin Koch’s backheel flick proves Leeds will never lose faith in Bielsaball
It’s always about the win, and his players will back him to the hilt.
That might not have been immediately obvious in Leeds‘ miraculous smash-and-grab win away to the Premier League champions-elect on Saturday, given how the game went, but it remained the case.
Even before Leeds skipper Liam Cooper was shown a straight red card shortly before half-time, Pep Guardiola’s side had put the visitors under pressure.
But afterwards, with a lead to protect after Stuart Dallas’ well-struck effort against the run of play, the game became a training exercise of attack versus defence.
John Stones strode forward to build wave after wave of attack, with all of Leeds’ maroon shirts camped around their 18-yard box, denying the hosts’ space.
On the surface, this didn’t look a great deal different to the men-behind-the-ball, batten-down-the-hatches approach that Sean Dyche’s Burnley or Steve Bruce’s Newcastle might have deployed at The Etihad. The stats certainly bore a close resemblance to those kind of games.
Leeds registered just 29% possession, two attempts at goal, and seven touches in the opposition box – by far their lowest tallies of the season on each count. Man City registered 2.24 xG while Leeds registered just 0.23.
“We deserved to win but the just or fair thing would have been for City to win,” Bielsa told BT Sport in his post-match interview, with his glasses askew and a big beaming smile across his face.
“It’s very difficult but it’s what I think. We made a big, big effort but it is true that City dominated the game and had the better options.”
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Bielsa – and Leeds fans – know all too well the frustration of being on the losing end of that kind of match, and it can feel like a cruel joke from the football gods.
For two years, Bielsa’s Leeds consistently dominated games in the Championship like a second-tier City; failing to take their chances cost Leeds promotion in 2018-19 – in games such as an infamous 2-1 defeat at home to 10-man relegation-battlers Wigan Athletic. And while they comfortably went up in 2019-20, the underlying numbers demonstrated a side that could and should have broken the 100 points barrier.
The style in which Leeds played under the legendary Argentinian tactician quickly became a point of pride, with promotion made extra special by achieving it on their own terms with a non-negotiable front-foot modus operandi.
It wasn’t Neil Warnock, nor Garry Monk, that took Leeds up. It was Marcelo Bielsa. That made it magical. But when you become wedded to an ideology, there can be difficult, searching questions of identity.
If Leeds’ usual approach is ‘playing the right way’, does that make the way Leeds won at City ‘wrong’?
This tactical approach could be seen as the antithesis of Bielsa’s ethos but it’s hard to argue that it’s not occasionally effective. For example, Leicester did this to great success when they won the league. Do we treat yesterday as an anomaly or something to build on? #lufc
— 𝕋𝕠𝕞𝕞𝕪 (@tommy_lufc) April 11, 2021
The stats and the 30 solid minutes of sustained pressure in Leeds’ half before Ferran Torres’ well-worked equaliser certainly indicated Leeds had abandoned the principles that have made the club what it is today.
But Bielsa, humble as ever, suggested that their backs-to-the-wall defensive masterclass had nothing to do with him.
“Nada. Never,” he responded when asked if he ever prepares Leeds for such scenarios in training.
“Nothing that happened today had any influence from my part. But I will bear it in mind to train like this!”
Take a closer look at how the game unfolded and you’ll see little evidence of Bielsa compromising his win-at-all-costs mentality.
Yes, Leeds were pegged back, but that is what Guardiola’s expensively assembled gang of superstars invariably do, especially when they have a man advantage. There’s a reason they went into the match with 26 wins from their last 27 outings and will be worthy champions.
Responding to Cooper’s dismissal, Bielsa brought off centre-forward Patrick Bamford and brought on centre-back Pascal Struijk, and later another defender, Koch, to help shore things up at the back.
With no Bamford, there was no out-ball in which to pump it up long to with hit and hope clearances. If they wanted to break into City’s half, Leeds would have to play it out as they always do. And so they did.
When Leeds won a free-kick on a rare foray into the final third in the 79th minute, there was no question of dawdling, wasting time and keeping their shape. Up went all three centre-backs – Koch, Struijk and Diego Llorente – leaving considerable space at the back.
When the set-piece was cleared by City, Leeds came charging back like a pack of hyenas to deny their counter, and Helder Costa committed a necessary tactical foul straight out of the Fernandinho playbook.
That set the tone for a frantic, back-and-forth final 10 minutes.
Leeds might have spent the last 35 minutes defending stoically, but if they had a chance to regain their lead, they weren’t going to let it pass them by. Stuart Dallas’ injury-time winner had been signposted.
Take a look at what Kalvin Phillips did as he cut out the ball. After winning back possession, he got his head up and play the ball towards City’s goal. His first two attempts were misplaced, but each time he was on hand to sweep up again, eventually getting it right and able to sweep forward.
The best was yet to come.
Soon after, Koch executed a perfect tackle on the edge of the box to rob the ball from Raheem Sterling, who remained on the floor as his England team-mate Phillips scooped the ball over him and back to Koch, who audaciously flicked it with his heel back to Ezgjan Alioski, who volleyed it onto Dallas.
Pressed by Fernandinho, Dallas didn’t panic, instead casually turning back to find Llorente, who played it out first-time to Raphinha, who was able to start driving into the green space ahead of him.
Not only did they break City’s press, but they did it with flamboyance and total confidence in their own ability.
When you see Leeds’ supreme self-belief in what their manager has drilled into them, playing it out from the back like that, you can see how Dallas was able to go and win it for Leeds. It was no fluke.
Leeds might have demonstrated a steely defensive grit they’ve seldom shown – or needed – under Bielsa, but the victory over City was still in the manager’s image.
The faith in the plan, resilience, fitness and intensity were all there as ever. The sheer nerve to go to The Etihad, playing the second half with 10 men, and still go searching for a winner with 10 men.
Marcelo Bielsa, compromising his beliefs? Don’t be daft.