One of the most fascinating and arguably most risky appointments in English football for some years is off to a successful start. Marcelo Bielsa has his first three points as the manager of Leeds United and, more importantly, he won them his way.
The Argentine, world-renowned for demanding quick, possession-based attacking football and settling for nothing less, saw his players produce just that and beat recently-relegated Stoke City, the early season favourites for the Championship title.
Mateusz Klich’s opener, brilliantly engineered by Samu Saiz, was the culmination of an intense opening quarter of an hour when a relentless Leeds carried out Bielsa’s plans to perfection.
A second came on the cusp of half-time and courtesy of Jack Butland, who spilled Pablo Hernandez’s shot over his own goal-line. Even when a Benik Afobe penalty gave Stoke a foothold, Liam Cooper’s header quickly had a boisterous Elland Road bouncing again.
Bielsa, nothing if not a perfectionist, demanded more from his players in his post-match press conference but even he must be in some way satisfied with a dominant victory that will only raise the feverish excitement around this part of west Yorkshire up a notch.
Not that you would be able to tell as much by looking at Bielsa, though. He watched while sitting on a blue stool that resembled an upside-down ice bucket and barely ever reacted to a thrilling and at times fearsome Leeds performance.
He did at least rise to his feet during the pre-match minute’s applause for the former Leeds utility man Paul Madeley, who passed away last month, but even then only joined in half way through in a hurried manner. He had spent the first 30 seconds or so casually drinking from a coffee cup.
This could have been mistaken for absent-mindedness on Bielsa’s part but it was more likely absolute concentration, one of the four principles that define his footballing philosophy. He demands the same concentration - as well as focus, rotation and improvisation - from his players and on this occasion, he was not disappointed.
Kemar Roofe could have opened the scoring as early as the fifth-minute, but his attempt to convert Ezgjan Alioski’s cross brought a fast reaction save out of Butland. Leeds were already pressing high and forcing Stoke into errors. Elland Road liked what it saw.
Klich, a bit-part player last season, found the opener after a quarter-of-an-hour, finishing first-time past Butland, but the goal owed much to the mercurial Saiz. Though he faded through Leeds’ campaign last year, his rounding of Badou and Peter Etebo and slide pass into Klich was a reminder of the special gifts he brings to this team.
Saiz celebrated the strike with the Leeds bench rather than his team-mates, embracing several members of staff, but not his manager. Bielsa was a few yards back, motionless, watching on from his ice bucket.
The frantic pace dropped somewhat after Klich’s strike and it was at this point that Stoke could have clawed their way back in. Tom Ince, a debutant for the visitors, came within a few inches of equalising with a clean, speculative strike from 30 yards that cracked against the crossbar.
Yet having dialled the intensity down, Leeds turned it back up as the half drew to a close. Roofe went close again after another incisive Saiz through-ball but the second would come at the start of added-on time, after another spell of pressure, when Butland spilled Hernandez’s shot from the edge of the box.
It was the type of effort that should be meat and drink for England’s second-choice goalkeeper, especially one who does not plan to be playing second-tier football for too long, but the lapses in concentration that pockmark Butland’s game returned to haunt him once again.
Stoke were granted a route back in at the start of the second half when Barry Douglas, one of Bielsa’s new arrivals, tripped Ince in the penalty area. Afobe converted the spot-kick confidently and for five minutes, Gary Rowett’s side harboured hopes of salvaging a draw that at the break had looked unlikely.
Bielsa was finally off his ice bucket, offering instructions from the technical area, but he need not have worried. Leeds’ two-goal advantage was soon restored by their captain Cooper, an often-maligned presence at Elland Road. The centre-half has Bielsa’s favour, however, and repaid the faith shown in him by glancing Alioski’s corner home.
Stoke came again, particularly after calling on the services of the 37-year-old Peter Crouch, who sent Bailey Peacock-Farrell into a sprawling save five minutes from time. Leeds held on though, and largely through staying close to Bielsa’s principles. That, you feel, will have pleased him as much as the three points.
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