The gulf in class between Bielsa’s Leeds and Liverpool yesterday was bigger than the three-goal margin suggested. Being beaten that comprehensively has to be a collective effort.
But the Whites were off colour from the start.
It did not look much like Bielsa wearing a Rodrigo shirt who hit a glorious opportunity straight at Alisson in the fifth minute. Who knows how that might have changed what turned into a pretty miserable afternoon inflicted by the first truly heavyweight visitors to play Premier League in front of an Elland Road crowd since 2004?
It was not Bielsa’s unwise pass infield from right-back in the seventh minute and he did not tell Rodrigo to produce a poor touch from it or for Jack Harrison to be on his heels when Trent Alexander-Arnold was not as the ball came loose.
It was Harrison, not Bielsa, who gave the ball away for Saido Mane to have a shot deflect wide. He was not booked for pulling back Liverpool forwards, that was Liam Cooper and Diego Llorente. He did not produce some poor kicks from the goalkeeping position to give up possession or allow Joel Matip to stride out of defence unhindered to create the opening goal as Rodrigo did.
Patrick Bamford, not Bielsa, failed to make the most of Rodrigo’s pass with too heavy a touch. Bielsa did not miss a good chance late in the first half after rampaging forward from right-back. He did not make it easy for Fabinho to score at the second attempt from a 50th-minute corner.
They were just some of the lowlights before that second goal effectively decided the game.
There is no shame in losing to a team of Liverpool’s quality when the Reds were as much on their game as they were yesterday, or in being winless four games into a Premier League season where Leeds have already played two Champions League sides. But the Whites need to be better and whilst the coach can up his game, the players have more work to do.
You could blame Bielsa for his loyalty to Rodrigo, a midfield passenger after his fifth-minute miss of a good chance, hit straight at Alisson. Leeds probably needed a bit more defensive muscle as their third midfielder but Bielsa stuck to his principles and went with Rodrigo, then Tyler Roberts, in preference to Mateusz Klich.
Bielsa is not infallible but has a stubborn determination to cling relentlessly to his principles, which produced an open game better suited to the visitors than his own team. He is right more often than he is wrong, more often than the armchair and professional pundits so how much slack do you have to cut him? He does not cut himself any.
“Evidently the way I planned the game didn’t allow for our forwards to shine,” he self-flagellated. “The opposite happened in terms of what the opposition manager (Jurgen Klopp) planned because they managed to get their forwards into the game to create danger.
“In the first half every time we lost the ball the opponents created danger. We did have some balls in the first half which we thought would have created more danger or risk for the opponent.
“What I chose didn’t allow our very good forwards to create danger and shine in the game.”
Leeds have just not hit their stride this season. At Old Trafford on the opening weekend the interchanging and speed of Manchester United’s central and left-sided forwards caused problems they could not cope with without Kalvin Phillips. Yesterday, even with Phillips playing well, it was much the same.
Illan Meslier made some good saves, starting with a one-handed effort to stop Diogo Jota opening the scoring and concluding with one from Mane, to keep the score down but Liverpool were not to be denied.
They had a period where they seemed to have forgotten the offside law but Salah got it right in the 20th minute, coming back from an offside position to feed Alexander-Arnold then staying just behind the ball to ensure his 100th Premier League goal was not disallowed, as Thiago’s would (eventually) be six minutes later when the Egyptian had clearly strayed into an illegal position.
At that point it looked like Liverpool would blow Leeds away but it took until the 50th minute for a second goal. That was when Fabinho scored at a corner conceded when Pascal Struijk – a substitute for the injured Llorente – brilliantly tackled Salah.
If that was effectively game over – Mane spun onto a third in stoppage time – Struijk would again pay a high price for winning the ball in a tackle, although this time contentiously so and his disappointment paled into insignificance alongside the damage to 18-year-old Harvey Elliott’s dislocated ankle.
What part Struijk’s follow-through unintentionally played was up for debate. Referee Craig Pawson decided there was no foul, only changing his mind when he saw the shocked reaction of Elliott’s team-mates, or perhaps the unnatural angle his foot was pointing at. Video assistant referee Peter Kirkup saw the replays the public could not on grounds of taste and upheld the decision.
Bielsa backed Pawson, although questioning why he took so long coming to his decision is about as critical as he gets.
His willingness to shoulder all the blame is laudable too but should not act as a smokescreen. Leeds need to start playing better. There is no need to panic and they certainly have it in them but until they do, they will not get anywhere in this unforgiving league.