There was much said about Leeds’ reckless tactics after “humiliating” defeats against Manchester United and Leicester. It was amusing how the narrative shifted from “gloriously entertaining football” to “they’ll get relegated if they don’t calm down” over the course of fewer than a dozen games. We gained admirers by refusing to respect more established sides, instead trying to attack Liverpool as if they were West Brom.
The thing about good sides is that they simply have more quality. So if you’re going to concede 10 chances to West Brom, they might score once. Concede 10 chances to Liverpool and you’re going to ship 4-5 goals. The margin for error is much more narrow. We also know that this tactical system is here to stay – we were never going to park the bus from kick-off against anyone. The approach has always been clear from Bielsa and the support he’s received from Victor Orta and Andrea Radrizzani. The system is embedded in the club and we will progress by:
a) doing the system better
b) recruiting better players
Much of this campaign has been fought with the Championship squad; only really Raphinha has come in and played regularly. The likes of Koch, Llorente and Rodrigo have suffered with illness and injury so much that we’re only now approaching having a fully-fit defence for the first time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’re defending better now that we’ve had
a) time to acclimatise to the league
b) our International-standard centre-backs return to fitness from injury
The suggestion that our improved defensive performances are a result of Bielsa adopting a more conservative approach misses those points in a big way. That’s not to say that Marcelo hasn’t demonstrated some more game management in recent weeks than we’ve seen before; going down to 10-men against Champions-elect Man City isn’t a bad time to try and shore things up. People also forget this run of games we’re in. Chelsea, Man United, Man City, Liverpool. It’s horrendous.
However across the last 6 games we have managed to find ourselves third in the form table with 12 points from an available 18. Chelsea, Fulham, Sheffield United, Man City, Liverpool and Man Utd. That’s a horrid run of games but we’ve performed brilliantly. Man Utd are top of the form league but aside from Man City, they’ve played Burnley, Brighton and us. Easy games for a title-challenging team, you’d argue.
This isn’t us changing tactics or Bielsa changing his philosophy. If we accept that improvement comes by doing the same things better and doing those things with better players, that’s all this is. Koch and Llorente coming back have helped us improve our defence. Hardly surprising. We’re adjusting to the level here too, again, hardly surprising.
When you look at the clubs who got promoted with us (Fulham 18th, West Brom 19th), the fact we’re 9th with 20 more points than the highest of those two…? Remarkable.