IF the fates had been different, the team bedecked in white who have wowed audiences across the land with their footballing symphony under Marcelo Bielsa could have easily been today’s opponents Swansea City and not Leeds United.
I am not surprised by their start of the season. Because the results they have got have been deserved.Marcelo Bielsa
On the surface, most would venture that the Swans’ loss emphatically appears to be Leeds’s gain, with Bielsa missing out on the managerial post at the Liberty Stadium in December 2015 following the axing of future Elland Road chief Garry Monk.
The level of interest in Bielsa was such that then Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins flew to South America to speak with the Argentinian, but a deal was not brokered.
Former Leeds striker Alan Curtis took charge for the rest of that 2015-16 season before Jenkins made the shorter journey to Italy to lure Francesco Guidolin to the Principality on a full-time basis.
The reign of the Italian proved short lived and inauspicious as did the tenures of Bob Bradley, Paul Clement and Carlos Carvalhal.
But with Graham Potter and now Steve Cooper having reprised the renowned pure footballing ethos at Swansea, which won so many admirers during the Roberto Martinez era and then in Brendan Rodgers’s near two-year spell at the helm, Swansea followers may not be casting too many envious glances towards the Leeds dug-out today and be thinking: ‘If only.’
It all makes for a fascinating footballing match-up at Elland Road between the two early pacesetters this afternoon.
For the second successive season, Leeds will sign off for the international break with a top-of-the-table home game against the side just below them in second place in the Championship.
Exactly a year ago today, it was Middlesbrough, with the obdurate Teessiders coming to Elland Road and pulling down the shutters effectively in a defence-dominated 0-0 draw in a clear clash of footballing philosophies between Bielsa and Boro manager Tony Pulis.
Today’s duel is likely to be more of a meeting of minds, which intriguingly pits the precocious Cooper – who has held the Pro Licence since the age of 26, won the World Cup with England under-17s and served as Liverpool academy manager – against a doyen of world coaching in Bielsa, who is his senior by 25 years.
Never one to miss much, Bielsa’s observations on the side his team will face today are favourable and admiring ones.
He said: “They (Swansea) are showing a good level. They have a very clear idea of how to play.
“They are a solid team. They know how to defend and they know how to attack.
“And, at the same time, they have good links in their transitions between defence and attack and their transitions between attack and their defence.
“I am not surprised by their start of the season. Because the results they have got have been deserved.
“They continued having a part of the squad from the previous year. And they arrive with some players with high-level prestige in the competition.”
Statistically speaking, Leeds may head into today’s contest on the back of a penalty shoot-out elimination in the Carabao Cup at the hands of Stoke City in midweek, but it will not affect the mood music ahead of today’s contest, quite the opposite in fact.
These days, trips to Elland Road are an enlightened pleasure for the neutral, with every game now an ‘event’; a passion play with a sense of genuine theatre.
That much was true on Tuesday when a huge crowd of 30,000 assembled for a second-round fixture against modest opposition, which owed everything to the messianic hold that Bielsa has on his adorning Leeds public.
Performance may be a watchword for Bielsa, but his professional frustration at not delivering a victory, along with a suitable performance, to home supporters is something which clearly did not sit well with him.
Bielsa observed: “It is something I appreciate a lot (Leeds support).
“These facts increase the frustration of not giving the fans a present.
“We wish we had continued in the Carabao Cup because it was a good scenario to give opportunity to all the players, the young ones.
“It was one of the keys to give them that experience and it is a positive experience too for the players who are not playing regularly because the cup is giving a demanding level similar to the Championship level.”
Having made nine changes for the Stoke tie, Bielsa is expected to revert to the side who handed a footballing lesson to the Potters four days earlier in the Championship with Kalvin Phillips and Gaetano Berardi being the only players to start both games.
Bielsa’s biggest dilemma appears to be on the left-hand side of defence, with Gjanni Alioski and Barry Douglas pitted in an absorbing battle which is likely to continue, fitness-permitting, in the weeks and months ahead.
Douglas, who returned from injury in midweek, started United’s opening three league matches, with Alioski impressing in his absence in last weekend’s polished victory in the Potteries, in particular.
“Douglas is a player that usually thinks more,” Bielsa said.
“Alioski has more enthusiastic actions. Douglas is a player who can manage very well starting the game and manages the ball very well. Alioski is a more surprise player when he attacks.
“Douglas is a very important player in the delivery of set-pieces and how he takes the crosses in the game.
“Even though he’s not one of the big players, Alioski is very good in the air.
“And at the same time he makes you feel the enthusiasm that he has.
“So referring to both players, both are very good possibilities for this position.”