West Brom v Leeds United: Bielsa and Moore bring offensive swagger back to grand old clubs

SHOULD Darren Moore and Marcelo Bielsa care to indulge in a post-match glass of Malbec and discuss the rudiments of football this evening, they are likely to share a fair bit of common ground.

On the front foot: Marcelo Bielsa wants his Leeds team to retain their offensive identity at West Brom this evening. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Both, in their respective ways, have brought unity, leadership and, above all, hope back to West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United and applied balm in the process too.

And a fair bit of verve as well, judging by their team’s goal-laden exploits in the first half of the Championship season so far.

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Watching their heroes is no longer a chore for previously tired followers of the Baggies and the Whites – many of whom were weaned on stylish fare in the swaggering Seventies when the likes of Gray, Lorimer, Giles, Regis, Cunningham and Cantello ruled the roost. Days that had seemed long, long ago.

At the heart of the renaissance are two one-time defenders in Moore and Bielsa, whose aesthetic pleasure is delivering attacking football from the soul which belies their former status as ‘stoppers’.

Moore was an imposing centre-half who excelled for the likes of Albion, Bradford City, Doncaster Rovers and Barnsley, while Bielsa was viewed as a technical defender who lacked pace during his playing days in Argentina’s lower leagues before electing to quit the game early and concentrate on coaching.

In their ‘second’ footballing life in the dugout, the pair’s adherence to offensive, eye-catching football had marked their sides out as the Championship’s great entertainers and while this evening’s meeting has plenty riding on it, expect polish to prevail over pragmatism.

It brings together the division’s top scorers in West Brom, who have plundered a jaw-dropping 33 Championship goals so far this term, averaging over two goals per game, and Leeds, who are not too far behind having breached opposition defences 28 times.

West Brom's manager Darren Moore. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Albion may have seen their mask slip in recent weeks during a four-game winless streak which has seen them score just twice, but the sagacious Bielsa is not overly fooled.

Teams who score 33 goals by this stage of the season will always be viewed as serious contenders and just as Leeds will not change their forward-thinking instincts, neither will the Baggies. And why should they.

Their form may be a touch flaky, but as far as Bielsa is concerned, class is permanent.

Minded to sense danger, the Argentine observed: “I think the best offensive players of the Championship play in West Bromwich.

“I might not have expressed myself very well. They might not have the best player in each position.

“But if we take, as a whole, number 15 (Harvey Barnes), number 10 (Matt Phillips), number 19 (Jay Rodriguez) and number 16 (Dwight Gayle), they are the best offensive players.

“If we take them as a whole, then you will not find any other team with players as good as them.”

It is some statement and tribute from a coaching grandee whose thoughts resonate not just among his own supporters but across the Championship per se.

It all makes for one of the most fascinating second-tier occasions of the season so far in the West Midlands this evening, with home manager Moore seeking to get the better of another world-renowned name in football management.

Last season, Moore orchestrated victories over two former Champions League winning managers in Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez in their own back yards and also took a point off one of this year’s finalists in Liverpool.

Now he pits his wits against Bielsa, arguably the most venerated name to ever manage in the Championship.

It is the sort of challenge that any manager or head coach worth their salt will only embrace.

Nothing much passes Bielsa by and he is, as you would expect, acutely aware of the attacking arsenal at the disposal of West Brom, likely to welcome back eight-goal top-scorer Gayle – with the striker having missed the club’s last two games.

But it should surprise few that he believes that the best way of combating the hosts’ offensive strength is not by employing overly-cautious tactics.

Should United prevail in their own footballing image and it may just represent another landmark moment in what is shaping up to be a season of distinction.

“I think the exam we are going to pass this coming Saturday in the defensive segment will strengthen our conclusions,” said Bielsa.

“But it is also very important for us to keep our offensive identity even if we have to take into account the offensive capacity of the opponent and we have to take some precautions regarding this aspect.

“There is an old sentence that says the best way to defend is to attack. And if we want to refresh this sentence and if we want to give importance to the value of possession, in order to attack you need to have the ball.

“So we will try to have the ball and in order to strengthen this concept, it is important to prevent the opponent from counter attacking. Because possession is important only if you prevent the opponent from counter attacking.”

Away from his own side’s key appointment, Bielsa’s attention is also likely to be drawn towards the looming first leg of the Copa Liberatores final which pits together fierce Buenos Aires foes Boca Juniors and River Plate, whose rivalry is arguably the most fierce in world football.

A footballing obsessive, Bielsa is likely to be aware of today’s game’s significance and standing in not just South American, but world football, too.

Bielsa, who reached the final of the competition with Newell’s Old Boys way back in 1992, added: “It is the dream game. Everyone dreams of this kind of game because you have the aspiration of winning this game.

“In this kind of game, you have emotions that you want to leave.”