“I don’t feel under pressure,” said Marcelo Bielsa during his press conference to preview today’s important Championship trip to Nottingham Forest.
That he had been speaking passionately for almost an hour, including a 24-minute monologue defending his decision not to include Jean-Kevin Augustin in the 18-man squad against Wigan Athletic, might cast doubt on that, but doubt is not something his players can afford.
For Leeds to win do we have to play in our own half, concede a lot of chances, counter-attack three times and hope we score two of those three chances? I cannot imagine football like that.Marcelo Bielsa
Being at Leeds United, a huge club desperate to get back into the Premier League after 16 years away, is a high-pressure job. It is not a question of whether there will be pressure, just how you deal with it.
What is important is Bielsa’s insistence the team is not suffering from a lack of self-belief, at least in possession. When you play the positive football he not only espouses but demands, that can be fatal.
Since Leeds were 3-0 up at home to Cardiff City in mid-December, results have not gone to plan. They drew that game 3-3, and have won just two of nine subsequent matches, both helter-skelter performances which suggest that whatever else might be going wrong, there is no lack of desire under the famous white shirts. Fortunately, others are faltering, too – nearest rivals West Bromwich Albion have won two of their last 10 in the Championship.
The rock-solid defence which papered over some cracks in the first phase of the season is no more – three conceded at Cardiff, four at Birmingham City, two at home to Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall were unlike what had gone before, even if only the Owls game was lost, and the Blues and the Lions slayed.
Where once goalkeeper Kiko Casilla was the comfort blanket, suddenly the looming threat of a possible suspension for a racist comment he denies making is not so daunting.
But even in this trough, Leeds are still making chances, just not taking enough of them. Nineteen attempts at the Wigan goal, an eye-watering 28 at Millwall’s, 17 at Queens Park Rangers and so on.
“When a player has doubt, he doesn’t take risks and one thing our team does is always take risks,” insists Bielsa.
“I want to be very decent and honest with you because maybe in some instance they do, like when 3-0 became 3-3. We don’t know how to play without the ball, so I will say the team has doubts when they need to do what we don’t usually do.
“We always get what we are looking for when our team tries to take risks and tries to be the protagonists, that is when we are doing what we do. When we don’t, we are forced to do what we don’t usually do.
“But also the team has grown a lot in this sense because when matches have progressed we have made less mistakes that have not been forced.”
In the slugfests against Birmingham and Millwall, where they trailed 2-0 at half-time, the Whites had no choice but to come out punching, and it served them well. Being negative is something their manager will not countenance. If Pep Guardiola is one of his disciples, Jose Mourinho is his antithesis.
“In the last match against Wigan it was impossible to concede a goal, it was impossible to not score a goal. We did,” said Bielsa. “It was impossible to lose, and we lost.
“When you score a goal it doesn’t mean necessarily that you attack well and when you concede just one goal it doesn’t mean you are defending well because it could be one shot from outside of the box.
“We crossed 30 times, 17 or 18 crosses were from outside the box and inside the box they had eight or nine players but in those conditions we created 15 clear chances. We transformed the left-back into a more offensive position and we had a second centre-forward that was Tyler Roberts.
“It is easy to say (Patrick) Bamford missed chances but if you take a picture of the goals he missed there are eight players inside the six-yard box and yet you know which team created more chances.
“To have three chances and score twice, we are not this. Leeds is never going to be like that when I am manager. In Manchester City’s last match (against Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur) they missed eight chances, they conceded two goals from three chances, they had 70 per cent of the ball.
“So for Leeds to win do we have to play in our own half, concede a lot of chances, counter-attack three times and hope we score two of those three chances? I cannot imagine football like that.”
It was passionate stuff.
“There is no pressure, I don’t feel under pressure,” insisted Bielsa. “I want to explain when I talk. I put my energy into the communications.
“I know that communicating doesn’t guarantee anything but for me what matters and what is important that supporters know what I think. This is not a relationship between you (the media) and I, it is between me and the public you write for. But it doesn’t mean that you are going to say 100 per cent what I want.
“I need to say what I think and for supporters to listen to what I think.”
The absence of a second centre-forward is a bugbear of many fans and some pundits. It was a constant source of debate when Eddie Nketiah was scoring goals from the bench, and now he has been recalled by Arsenal, the debate has just been reframed around Augustin. Why sign a player at great expense on loan from Monaco to make a difference, and not play him, some wonder. The answer, Bielsa explained at great length, was that Leeds simply would not be able to afford or attract of player of the Frenchman’s quality if he was fully match-fit and ready to go. Patience – and trust – are needed in this difficult spell.
In Bielsa they trust, fans often say. Now is a time for holding nerves. If only Leeds could make it a bit easier.