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Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United marching on in the Championship
Leeds face Aston Villa live on Sky Sports Football this Sunday
Last Updated: 23/12/18 12:35pm
Fears are fading over Marcelo Bielsa’s ability to sustain success as Leeds United go marching on, writes Adam Bate.
Leeds United are top of the Championship once again after winning five matches in a row for the first time in almost a decade. Marcelo Bielsa won the supporters over quickly but this was the time that the naysayers had suggested his team would fade. Instead, the bid to restore Leeds to the Premier League appears to be gathering pace.
It is a different Leeds now though. Back in those heady August days the excitement was palpable as the team's passing football invited wide-eyed wondered from supporters starved of anything resembling success. Back then, Bielsa was redefining Leeds United. Now he is tapping into the club's long tradition of toughing things out as well.
Against Queens Park Rangers, his side had to come back from a goal down at Elland Road with 19-year-old Jamie Shackleton evoking memories of yesteryear with his remark that "sometimes you have to win dirty". At Bolton on Saturday, resolve was required. According to Adam Forshaw, Leeds would not have held onto their lead last season.
Bielsa has long been cast an uncompromising idealist but effort is a prerequisite for his players and they have had little choice but to battle through this period given the club's injury crisis. The Argentine has had an entire defence missing and the surprise sale of creative spark Samuel Saiz has put further strain on his squad.
It is a cocktail designed to derail but Bielsa and his players have come up with a response. It would be easy to suggest that his intense training methods have contributed to the injury list but misfortune has been the bigger factor. Liam Cooper damaged his knee. Stuart Dallas fractured his foot. Jamal Blackman suffered a broken leg.
Critically, it is another feature of Bielsa's career that has helped to provide the solutions. His willingness to trust in youth has been rewarded. Shackleton has stepped up this month. Another teenager, Tyler Roberts, deputised when both Kemar Roofe and Patrick Bamford were unavailable, and Jack Clarke is now hinting that he could fill the void left by Saiz.
"Thanks to the academy, we have solved the absences in one way or another," explained Bielsa. "Of course we are aware of the kind of player we are losing but the solutions we are finding, they are allowing us to stay optimistic. The youngsters among the first team, they contribute a lot to the resolution of our needs. They are very important."
The club's 22-year-old goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell showed his importance when saving Marc McNulty's 89th-minute penalty against Reading, a goal that could have ended put paid to the current winning run. Peacock-Farrell told Sky Sports this week that Bielsa is "a different level of manager" to what he had experienced in his career so far.
Peacock-Farrell exclusive interview
Leeds goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell was born in the North East but after being let go by Middlesbrough as a teenager, it is Elland Road that feels like home.
Elsewhere on the pitch, enthusiastic young talent has made for willing runners more likely to embrace Bielsa's high-tempo game. But the 63-year-old coach has also had to win over the senior players too in order for the ideas imparted at Thorp Arch to really work.
Much of the direct player interaction is left to his relatively young coaching team - Diego Reyes, Diego Flores, Carlos Corberan and Pablo Quiroga are all in their thirties - and popular defender Pontus Jansson admitted he had to adjust to the limited communication.
Bielsa did subject his squad to a 90-minute meeting after their 2-2 draw against Swansea in August. It was their fifth game of the season and the first that they had not won. There have been the usual quirks too - ordering his players to pick litter for the amount of time that it would take the average fan to earn enough to buy a ticket.
They are the sort of stories that make for nice tales when everything works out. But Bielsa needed a good start and he got it when beating pre-season favourites Stoke City on the opening weekend. "That is the moment I think we realised this could really work in English football," said Polish midfielder Mat Klich, the man who opened the scoring that day.
There is Pablo Hernandez too, enjoying the best goalscoring season of his league career. At 33, four years on from a stint in Qatar, he is described by Jansson as the best player that he has ever played with. Now Hernandez talks of defending Bielsa's ideas to the death. Not that those ideas need any defending in West Yorkshire.
Leeds are more than top. They are the team with the most shots in the Championship and the most chances created. They are the team that has played the most passes and had by far the most possession. Perhaps more surprisingly given Bielsa's commitment to attacking football, they boast a brilliant defensive record this season too.
They have conceded only one goal in the last five games and are playing with the sort of control that proves beyond most teams in the Championship. The expected goals model that evaluated the quality of chances that a team creates, shows that Leeds have allowed far fewer opportunities on their goal than any other team in the division.
In short, Bielsa is conquering the Championship and every obstacle is being overcome. He even says he welcomes the traditional Christmas fixtures. Bring it on. And the best news for Leeds given that there are hurdles still to be jumped is that the cavalry are coming.
Bamford, the £7m signing from Middlesbrough in the summer, marked his return with the winner against Bolton. That will bolster the options at Bielsa's disposal. Izzy Brown, the gifted youngster on loan from Chelsea, will help too now that he is nearing his long-awaited comeback from the anterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained in January.
The clock is ticking for Leeds. Andrea Radrizzani's comments about selling up if he cannot win promotion in "a few years" show that much. But Bielsa's teams have always been in a hurry and if they can maintain anything like this form over the second half of the season then it will be enough to get Leeds into the Premier League for the first time in 15 years.
It is Aston Villa away on Sunday, a daunting test but one that supporters can approach with confidence. The coach has answered every question asked of him so far and the fear that the strong start could not continue has faded. Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United are marching on together.