The Championship table would suggest that, at the moment at least, Leeds’s is the right route to take but the truth is that in football there is no right or wrong way to play, just the way that works for you. Under new management, the Bluebirds are showing signs of belatedly rediscovering theirs, so it is a good job their hosts go into today’s game full of the confidence victories bring.
After a sequence of matches which has seen Leeds and West Bromwich Albion matching each other win for win, exchanging pole position in the Championship like racers in the cartoon Wacky Races as the television schedulers kept them apart, the Whites took the initiative in midweek, squeezing past on goal difference. Their head coach, Marcelo Bielsa was yesterday named as the Championship’s manager of the month for November.
Once again, though, the leadership could be short-lived. The Baggies’ match at Birmingham City has been selected by the broadcasters for an early kick-off, and anything but a Blues’ win will see Leeds kick-off in second place.
Bielsa’s is a style which has influenced the likes of Pep Guardiola, based on possession, patience and passing. He places importance on the beauty of the beautiful game.
Built on foundations laid by the Argentinian’s Elland Road predecessor Neil Warnock, it is fair to say Cardiff do not. Bielsa calls it very “British”, although it is not a term he uses pejoratively, as some do.
If the Leeds way is partly about romanticism, pragmatism is the name of the game in South Wales. It took Cardiff into last season’s Premier League but they are now ninth in the second tier, Warnock having passed the torch to former Millwall manager Neil Harris.
Few of their supporters would have been complaining too loudly about the style of football as they advanced on the top flight while Leeds stayed mired in the Football League, but combine the refinement of Bielsa’s football with results, and you have a special combination. Leeds have won seven matches on the trot and despite the disappointments that have scarred them over the years, there seems to be genuine expectation, not just hope, when supporters sing, “The Whites are going up.”
“When I used to watch English football in Argentina and other countries I used to admire how the authorities stimulate the supporters’ love for football,” comments Bielsa, who has managed in Spain, France, Italy, Mexico and Chile as well as his homeland.
“In my humble opinion the most important thing is to make the supporter value the play – not just the result, why the result happened.
“Supporters have to be patient and you can strengthen this patience. The patience that you need to wait for the results is stronger if the supporters love the play more than the results. When you teach the supporter the result is more important, he starts to lose love for the play.”
It would be stretching it to say Leeds fans have been made to be patient this season, but the team is certainly reaping the rewards of the groundwork laid in the opening part of the season, Bielsa’s second in charge.
In the opening months of the campaign, the Argentinian had to rely a little on the goodwill earned by Leeds’s football, which was easy on the eye without blowing teams away as it ought to have done. During a seven-match sequence in which they scored only five goals, the Whites stumbled at Charlton Athletic, and at a Millwall side Harris had just left.
In November, Leeds slipped into top gear, culminating in the dismantling of a startled-looking Middlesbrough. December has started with two derbies which have been more about determination than decadence against teams who, like Millwall, favoured a direct approach, but the winning sequence is a formidable seven, the longest by any Championship team this season.
Meanwhile, Cardiff are showing signs of being back to their belligerent best. Defeat at Brentford on Wednesday ended their winning streak at three.
“They have changed their results,” says Bielsa. “It is a very British team in its way of playing. They really know how to play the model of football they have so it is not easy to face them. But that applies to us as well.”
The question is whether Leeds are better than the team denied in last season’s play-offs. It might seem to go against Bielsa’s romanticism, but their improvements have been more about being harder to beat than harder to keep out.
The question frustrates the head coach, not least because he knows it can only be answered by May’s end-of-season league table.
“You don’t have to talk about the improvement, you have to show it on the pitch,” he says for what seems like the millionth time recently.
“I always believe it is better to try to anticipate what is going to happen than describe what has happened.
“More than say what is going to happen, try to do what you want to happen.”
Even that, though, requires a bit of looking back.
“The objective is not to consider the past or the future, we have to just focus on the present and what is next,” stresses Bielsa.
“The best teams are the ones that understand they can always improve.
“When a team stops growing and developing, the consequence is that they get worse.
“The great teams play similarly in every match and build the desire, this is part of the development, to play with consistency. Now we have to prove we can sustain the level (of the last seven matches) for a long period of time.”
For Leeds fans desperate to see their club back where they believe it belongs, it requires another five months of patience. Thank goodness Bielsa has made it an enjoyable ride for them.