Leeds face abyss and blame should not rest with just Bielsa or Marsch
The Leeds fans at the Reebok Stadium were raucous. “We’ll support you ever more,” they bellowed, because when relegation comes defiance is pretty much the only option that remains. Did they know just how long ever more would be? Did they have any idea just what a journey they would have to undertake before, 16 years later, they next played a Premier League game?
Certainly hope was scarce that afternoon in May 2004. Mark Viduka had swept home a penalty to give the away side a lead they had barely deserved, but was then booked for jabbing a heel into Emerson Thome. Then, in the space of two minutes, he squared up to Nicky Hunt and clattered Ivan Campo before finally collecting a second yellow for flinging an arm into the face of Bruno N’Gotty.
Bolton scored four goals in the second half, three of them before the 55th minute. In theory Leeds could have survived, and Manchester City relegated, but only with a goal-difference swing of 36 over two games. It was done and everybody knew it.
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Three years earlier, Leeds had played in a Champions League semi-final. That was a team that still included a number of stars: not just Viduka but also Alan Smith, Paul Robinson, James Milner and Ian Harte. But with debts at £30m as the gilded days of celebrity goldfish and £37,000-a-week contracts for Seth Johnson unravelled, it was also clear that a glorious position had been squandered and it would take an awful lot for the club to be reset.
But none surely imagined Ken Bates and the third flight, four managers with a 0% win percentage, Dave Hockaday and Paul Heckingbottom. What is happening now is not like last time. On Sunday, as Leeds go to Brentford needing a better result than Burnley achieve at home to Newcastle to stay up, there is not that curdling Leeds suffered 18 years ago, the same sense of a side playing to nowhere near its potential as confidence and focus wane and a dream falls apart.
This remains, essentially, a Championship squad enriched by Raphinha. There has been some investment over the past two years but gravity has always been against Leeds. The squad is a little deeper, but not noticeably better. This group of players would be nowhere in the Premier League had it not been for Marcelo Bielsa – and although he has gone, his legacy is likely to dominate the conversation around Leeds for several years yet.
To get Leeds into the Premier League was extraordinary. To keep them up playing football of such thrilling quality bordered on the miraculous. And yet did teams work out how to combat his man-oriented pressing? Had he permitted a larger squad might he have reduced the burden on his players? Was the spate of injuries Leeds suffered this season in part caused by the accumulated fatigue of four years of playing and training under him?
His successor, Jesse Marsch, may have been unwise to blunder into that debate – if the bloke before you is regarded as a Messiah, little good can come of public heresy against him – but the question feels reasonable enough. Football is a game of endless paradoxes and complexities: there is no formula. Bielsa brought unimagined success, but this perhaps was the cost.
Would Leeds be better off now had Bielsa stayed? It’s possible: they were, after all, three places above the relegation zone when he went. But they had just lost four games in a row, conceding 17 goals, and there was that sense of inexorable slide that so often panics boards. They have played relatively well under Marsch: the problem is that after the run of 11 points from five games before the defeat to Manchester City, it felt as though they were safe, only for Everton to start scrambling results at home and Burnley to take to the post-Sean Dyche era with a gusto nobody had expected.
And what of Marsch? He was doubted also at the Red Bull teams for New York and Salzburg but came through it. He was doubted at RB Leipzig and did not. The drift of February has been halted, although its effect is still felt in the desperate goal difference that separates Leeds from Burnley. But he is undeniably American and, through no fault of his own, that means he has to work hard for credibility within the Premier League.
He is pleasingly open, but his earnestness rubs awkwardly against the cynicism of English football culture. It’s all very well to talk about the inspiration of Gandhi but not when one of your players then gets sent off after 20 minutes for two-footing somebody by the corner flag. Going on about the great sense of community may play well to some of his Leeds base, but there is a risk it also marks him as an outsider: mate, I’m not sure what happens with your franchises, but this is just what English football is.
But if Leeds do go down, Marsch should bear only part of the blame. Recruitment has been the biggest issue, in part because the budget has been tight (so tight they did not buy Lewis O’Brien from Huddersfield last summer), and in part because Bielsa had such specific demands, so that when Salzburg rejected two offers for Brenden Aaronson in January there was nowhere else to go.
Yet that fastidiousness is also part of Bielsa’s greatness. Could the board have paid more? Could they have done more to encourage Bielsa to take a risk on certain players? Perhaps, but memories of the last time should be warning enough about the dangers of unrestrained spending.
Fundamentally, Leeds with their present ownership are simply not rich enough for relegation not to be a threat and when that is the case it only takes a couple of key injuries for a club to slide into serious trouble. And injuries, whatever their cause, are what have really scuppered Leeds this season. The consolation, though, is that whatever happens at Brentford on Sunday, the future looks brighter than it did after Bolton 2004.