Bielsa's Leeds lose another must-win game - what now?

Comments()
Getty Images
It's going to be a long international break as Leeds United grapple with the question of what might have been with only 24 points left to play for

If the game is finishing with a one-legged centre back in goal – to cover for a goalkeeper who’d just been sent off – then it’s fair to assume that the plan has gone astray somewhere.

That’s the situation in which Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United found themselves on Saturday as they surrendered what might well be a fatal three points to direct rivals Sheffield United in their quest to escape the Championship.

Kiko Casilla has spent the past three seasons picking up Champions League medal after Champions League medal with Real Madrid but fell right into the trap Billy Sharp set him in injury time.

Article continues below

It’s not certain if such a striker exists in Spanish football but the barrel-chested Sheffield United captain is the type of player who typifies the Championship: relentless, aggressive, streetwise and with sure feet when needs be.

If you could bottle up what he’s got and sell it, every team in the division would buy it. Sharp nudged the ball past Casilla on the break and over he went. Red card.

By that stage, the ground had turned from slick to sodden; the rain having fallen in Leeds all morning. With Pontus Jansson hobbling around up front – due to an earlier clash with Chris Basham – Leeds had little option but to offer Casilla’s sodden shirt to the Swede.

Nothing could have epitomised more accurately how the outcome of this game was slipping out of Leeds’ grasp.

Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper – two of Bielsa’s most dependable players – had contrived to cough up the chance for Sharp on the break. Leeds had been where they usually are; outside the opposition area, probing for the final pass which would count as the breakthrough.

When they find that first goal, they are unstoppable. Their record of 18 wins from 18 when scoring first is unmatched anywhere in Europe’s top five leagues with the second tiers in those countries thrown in for good measure.

But when that goal doesn’t come, there is always the potential of Leeds suffering what they suffered on Saturday.

Sheffield United have now kept seven clean sheets in a row in this Championship season. That is a remarkable record in a division renowned for its difficulty. In truth, their goalkeeper Dean Henderson – who made the mistake to allow Leeds score the only goal of the first meeting between these two teams – was relatively untroubled.

The Blades blunted Leeds through their tenacity, their organisation, which you can’t help but admire. Sure, they rode their luck at times – not least when Tyler Roberts hit the post – but they had enough of the game to earn something from it. Leeds simply had no answer, no matter what Bielsa did on the sidelines.

Crouched down after being hand-delivered a trademark coffee to the edge of his technical area at the start of the second half, the Argentine grew frustrated.

Jack Harrison – who blasted Leeds’ best chance of the first half over the bar – was first called ashore. Left-back Barry Douglas replaced him and went to left back. Gianni Alioski was permitted to move further forward – to the left wing – which suits his No.10 shirt better.

A penny for Bielsa's thoughts when – shortly after that change – Basham ran clear down the right-hand side of the Sheffield United attack to open the scoring. Douglas was caught on his heels – too far behind the play – permitting a straightforward finish for Basham, who played so badly in the first half that his manager wanted to take him off after 25 minutes.

The goal owed plenty to Sharp – the Championship’s great untameable force – who hassled Cooper into making an error before laying it on a plate for Basham. It was the only shot on target for the entire 90 minutes.

Leeds had Sharp once upon a time during their wilderness years and he scarcely had an impact. But he is at home under Wilder – in tandem with David McGoldrick – and benefitting from the solid, structured running that goes on behind him.

And it’s that type of system that Bielsa simply hasn’t got to grips with. Try as they might, Leeds controlled the possession without controlling the game.

Teams like Sheffield United – who operate this resistive football on a very high level – are kryptonite to Bielsa’s passing game. Once a move breaks down, Leeds’ soft belly is exposed and a Blade cuts through it.

Basham should have opened the scoring in a similar fashion right at the end of the first half but had neither the composure nor technique to take the chance. That came during Sheffield United's first sustained spell in the game having survived a spin on the Leeds carousel for 40-odd minutes. They rained corners like bombs into the six-yard box at the end of the half and had Leeds begging for the whistle.

The irony is that Bielsa’s football – and these players – might well be good enough for life in the Premier League. The problem would appear to be in leaving behind this cursed division and teams like Sheffield United.

For their part, teams who play like Wilder’s team do can rise through the Championship on the back of clean sheets and knockdowns but find life in the upper tier an altogether trickier prospect.

Bielsa said a few days ago that Jansson and Cooper would have got into his teams at both Athletic Bilbao and Marseille. That is a compliment of the highest order and a sincere one since Bielsa can only speak the truth. How those teams would have found the relentless purgatory that is a season of Championship football is another matter.

But Leeds can’t help but get pegged back. Just like Norwich a few weeks ago, this was a must-win game that at the very least Leeds could have done with not losing. If there is one sliver of light, then, it's that nothing definitive will be settled until right at the very death of this season.

Phillips – Leeds born and bred – was the last player in white to exit here after the game finished in a washout for the home side. To get off the field at Elland Road requires passing the away section. Sheffield United’s fans showed little mercy all afternoon and delivered jeers and insults in the direction of all Leeds players as they made their way off.

Phillips took his medicine. He clapped the fans to his right – fixed a gaze on the Sheffield lot and drank in the abuse. These are the days that will stick.

These are the feeling that the Leeds players will have to conjure up and reimagine to fuel their desire to leave this league once and for all.

The Championship truly is the school of hard knocks. How Leeds can’t wait to graduate.

Close