Chelsea v Leeds United - Players aware of what this means to fans, says Marcelo Bielsa

Leeds United’s 2020-21 season is only 10 games old but already it is into its third phase.

Leeds United's Raphinha: Instant impact.

Two matches in and it is far too early to jump to conclusions, but this is looking like the best so far. That will be put to the test tonight against a Chelsea side which has been on an upward trajectory, having found its feet following a summer overhaul.

If phase one was exhilarating, phase two was the comedown. Since November’s international break, things have been pleasing.

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“We had a favourable start to the season where the goals we conceded didn’t really affect the result as we were scoring plenty,” reflects coach Marcelo Bielsa, who until this point has been extremely reluctant to draw conclusions about the campaign.

Back in the fray: Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips gets away from Everton's Richarlison. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

“Then there was a period where we conceded a lot of goals and we weren’t very efficient in attack. In the third period, we haven’t conceded goals and we’ve created opportunities where we’ve deserved to win.”

Leeds exploded into life back in the Premier League with consecutive 4-3s – one lost, one won – which were great for the entertainment levels but they did not want to mirror Norwich City the previous season in becoming lovable losers. Back-to-back 4-1 defeats in phase two raised the possibility.

Since returning from the latest international lay-off, though, they appear to have struck the right balance. Kalvin Phillips is back from a shoulder injury and on top of his game, providing the security the back four lacked without him and ingenuity on the ball. Two clean sheets have followed.

Although Rodrigo has not featured much since contracting Covid-19 in October and Pablo Hernandez not at all thanks to muscle injuries, Raphinha has quickly marked himself out as a key player, ensuring the greater security has not come at the cost of creativity. Leeds had 48 shots against Arsenal and Everton.

At the best of times, Bielsa likes to ease players into his team, ensuring they are fully indoctrinated in his idiosyncratic ways before they are let loose. For a player coming from a different league, speaking a different language and living a different culture, the transition can be tough. Rodrigo, the club’s record signing, is proof the Argentinian coach likes to take his time.

Sometimes, though, a player bursts through in a way that cannot be held back.

Helder Costa, who became a stalwart once he established himself last season, has had to watch the last two matches from the bench as a 23-year-old Brazilian signed in October has grabbed centre stage. Raphinha marked his coming of age with the only goal of last week’s 1-0 win at Goodison Park.

“He’s a player with the capacity to unbalance a team individually,” says Bielsa.

“Every one of his physical qualities are good. He’s a dynamic player and it’s not difficult for him to go forward and come back, or to get in behind a defence. The characteristics of the team coincide with his way of playing.”

There are, though, always things to learn. No member of the Leeds squad has ever played against Chelsea, so many will be blissfully unaware of the historic rivalry between the clubs. The animosity born before they were in the brutal 1970 FA Cup final still lingers and for the first time this season the Whites will be playing in front of a crowd tonight. Just 2,000 people will struggle to create a bearpit atmosphere in a 40,000-seater stadium, but may still show what they think of Leeds.

“For us, every game in the Premier League is very attractive and every opponent creates difficulties,” says Bielsa when asked about the history between the clubs. “In the case of Chelsea this happens, without doubt. There is the added point that it is a traditional encounter, even though it hasn’t happened for a very long time.

“I don’t think there’s a professional player who hasn’t lived through a time where they face an opponent who doesn’t increase or multiply their spirit for a certain game.

“Many of the players in this squad have been here for almost three years and know the fans well. This allows them to live what the fans want. From what I know, the players that arrived this season came here because of the fans, the way the fans live their football.”

The sides may not have met since 2012, but English football is always able to create new rivalries, and Leeds have their own with Chelsea manager Frank Lampard. This will be the fourth meeting with him since, but still memories of ‘Spygate’, when Bielsa’s Leeds were caught spying on a training session taken by the then Derby County manager have not died, with a number of journalists returning to it in Thursday’s press conference over Zoom.

“I know the spirit of English football and the punishment I received indicates to me that this shouldn’t be repeated,” says Bielsa. “This can be deemed something I learned.”

Even the great professor of football is learning as he goes along. Phase three of the season suggests his team are taking their lessons on board rather well.

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