Imagine sitting there, as a Leeds United fan, and hearing that you were in for a manager who’d taken two sides to the World Cup finals. Just imagine that eh after what you’d just had!
Well that’s what Whites supporters had to sit through over this summer as Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani looked to wipe from their memories the debacle that last season quickly became. From sparkling football and table-toppers, Leeds sank to football that even damp squibs would shy away from being associated with.
On the managerial/head coach front, here were reservations about Thomas Christiansen before his Leeds United kicked a ball. After he’d been relieved of his duties after a terrible run of form, there were further reservations about whether his replacement Paul Heckingbottom would be able to rescue things.
He couldn’t. In fact, even MacGyver wouldn’t have been able to pull off a rescue act. Leeds United fans looked enviously at the ‘Garry Monk’ season and a 7th-place finish as their current charges sank to a sedentary 13th place in the table. Life as mid-table dwellers beckoned unless changes were made.
Thankfully Marcelo Bielsa was one of those changes. Forget the name, forget the achievements and forget the reputation. Forget, forget and forget. The biggest thing that Bielsa has brought with him is an over-arching philosophy and football ethos, and one that he insists is battened down at all levels of the club.
High-press, high-intensity football with fluid transmission between defensive and attacking duties is what symbolises Bielsa Ball. It’s what Leeds United supporters have been enjoying at all levels of the club as it permeates down from the first-team to the youth set-ups. It’s also refreshing, football that has blown away the cobwebs of despair.
What is most refreshing is that Bielsa is doing all of this with the ‘remnants’ of what Christiansen and Heckingbottom left him. An example of this is Spanish magician Samu Saiz, a skilled player who became something of a 50/50 man last season, a player whose form closely followed that of the side themselves. When Leeds started the season glowing, so did Saiz; when the slide set in, few slid quicker than he.
But Bielsa has found Samu’s chispa, his spark. Under the Argentine’s style of play, Leeds’ attacking midfielder is flourishing. His swagger and verve is back to where it was at the start of last season, yet under Bielsa it looks more natural and not forced. The welcome return of his spark has been clear as day to see in the way he’s performed in the opening two league fixtures, impressive wins against Stoke City and Derby County.
Last night against Bolton Wanderers in the Carabao Cup Saiz was, well, imperiously and outrageously fantastic. There’s really no need to dress it up in the fineries of language though, everything about Saiz’s display was excellent.
The turns were there, the drag-backs and changes of direction that fool defenders, it was all there. The switches of acceleration that create space and distance, those low centre of gravity pirouettes, they were all there too. He was such a handful for the Bolton players that they were left with just two choices: try tp lay him and watch him dance away or just bring him down.
At times, and this is a little waxing lyrical, it was like watching a Premier League player on loan at a Championship side. His movement was one thing, his vision was something else. Twice he lofted chipped balls over and behind the Bolton rearguard and lay goals on a plate for Jack Harrison and Patrick Bamford, only for those players to kick the plate and leave the ball behind.
Then there was his goal. Leeds mopped up a Bolton long throw-in and cleared the ball to Lewis Baker who strode away upfield with Saiz haring after him. Baker played Saiz into the area, he checked back inside onto his favoured right foot and somehow managed to thread the ball through six or seven Bolton players and into the bottom right corner.
There are some who say that Bielsa has found his enganche in Samu Saiz, others who say that he’s unearthed his trequartista. Whichever, and whatever, Marcelo Bielsa has done, and technical terms aside, Leeds United fans are just glad that the Argentine coaching legend had elevated Saiz back to the level that fans know he is capable of.