Managerless and in the relegation zone after an insipid, bottom-of-the-barrel performance at Everton on Saturday, the thrilling Leeds revival which ended a 16-year wait for Premier League football is now a distant memory.
They urgently need inspiration to spare them the ignominy of a return to the Championship. Is it time to send a desperate SOS to Marcelo Bielsa?
Leeds have not recovered from the demise of Bielsa-ball
The roots of Leeds’ misery must be traced to last season when Bielsa’s romanticism stopped stirring the soul of the Elland Road faithful. With heavy hearts, Bielsa’s fate was sealed after a series of hidings, Leeds fans split between those who could not wish their hero gone, and others who felt a new era of pragmatism was the only way to avoid relegation.
Twelve months on, every Leeds supporter must wish they had their idol sitting back on his bucket. Yes, his lack of a plan B after just five wins in 26 games was a problem. But injuries to key players such as Patrick Bamford, Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper were mitigating circumstances, and even if the club had gone down last season, would Leeds fans swap their current plight for being one of the high flyers in the Championship, heading for promotion?
Given their previous experience in the lower division under Bielsa, even if he had not stopped the rot a year ago, it is a smart bet that he would have regrouped last summer and brought them back up. Leeds have deteriorated, claiming only seven wins in the 35 league games since Bielsa left and they are now bereft of his captivating vision.
As the Elland Road board look for a leader, is going back to a refreshed Bielsa such a dumb idea? It would galvanize the fans and restore a clear tactical plan with players who understand his methods. And even if it didn’t work for their final 15 Premier League games, it would promise a joyride in next season’s promotion push.
What other style can keep them up?
In their first year in the Premier League, Leeds enthralled with their idiosyncratic and occasionally unhinged attacking philosophy, their players seemingly in such a perpetual state of overlapping one would not have been surprised to see goalkeeper Ilan Meslier dashing into the penalty area to complete a rapid – fire passing move.
When it worked, the neutrals were charmed. When it failed, it did so spectacularly, but players, fans and board members could see what the manager was trying to do. Now? The best Leeds could offer on Saturday afternoon was some tippy-tappy nonsense in midfield while hoping Everton’s lack of a potency in attack would undermine the Sean Dyche revival. Leeds did not manage one shot on target, striker Bamford still a shadow of what he was before his injuries.
Caretaker manager Michael Skubala must be absolved of too much criticism and he tried to put on a brave face after a tepid display. Whoever is in charge has a dilemma over what to do with a squad which has evolved to suit Jesse Marsch’s plan. Can they do what Marsch wanted, but better, to win enough games? On Saturday’s evidence, it is doubtful. Would the more rugged approach more typical to a relegation fight work? Unfortunately, for Leeds, they do not look like they possess players of the necessary physicality to change tack.
Everton offer Leeds an example of how to recover
Leeds resembled a team of featherweights chucked into the gladiator arena at Goodison Park, and there were times on Saturday when the fixture resembled the under-18s being asked to take on the adults.
Centre-backs Maximilian Wober and Robin Koch were able to deal with the minimal threat of Everton striker Neal Maupay in open play, but they looked vulnerable every time Everton had a corner or set-piece, lucky to escape three times in the first half when goalline clearances were required. Everton’s midfielders Amadou Onana, Idrissa Gueye, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Alex Iwobi were able to dominate, even if the lack of a cutting edge up front remains a problem whenever Dominic Calvert-Lewin is out.
Skubala could argue that a tight game was ultimately settled by a freakish winning goal, Seamus Coleman’s volley from the right wing punishing Meslier’s misjudgment. But Everton’s win reflected their general physical and structural superiority. Three weeks ago, Everton were in the relegation zone and looked lost as they were wondering where the next win would come from. Now they have switched positions with Leeds because Everton owner Farhad Moshiri stumbled upon the right plan when Bielsa turned him down. Leeds could use that quirk of fate to their advantage to lure back their ex-manager.