The Argentine’s unique philosophies are already taking hold at Elland Road as Stoke were dismantled in a terrific collective performance
Marcelo Bielsa began life at Leeds United with a minute’s applause to mark the passing of former club legend Paul Madeley. It set the tone for the entire match: the Whites faithful’s hands were almost worn out in continuous ovation as the eccentric Argentine instantly made his presence felt in a stunning 3-1 win over Stoke City to kick off the Championship in perfect fashion.
The arrival of the former Argentina, Athletic, Marseille and Lille boss in Yorkshire was one of the shocks of the summer. Even before a ball was kicked on Sunday, ‘El Loco’ had made his presence felt. Having discovered the average Leeds fan must work for three hours in order to pay for a ticket at Elland Road, he sent his first-team squad out to pick up rubbish around the club training ground for that same time to teach them the sacrifice and passion that emanates from the stands.
After all, if there is one thing that typifies this cerebral, methodical, often exhausting student and cult hero of the beautiful game, it is passion.
Having struggled to impose his trademark all-action, thrilling football in an abortive Lille spell last season the jury was out on how Bielsa would fare in the notoriously physical, no-nonsense English second tier, often as much a war of attrition over the course of the gruelling 46-game season as of fine football. But while it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions, the first glimpse of El Loco was overwhelmingly positive.
Even playing against a Premier League stalwart in the shape of Stoke, desperate for an instant return to the promised land, Leeds were always on top. The hosts’ plan was straight from the classic Bielsa playbook: two roving full-backs in Luke Ayling and Barry Douglas stretching the Potters throughout, while Macedonian No. 10 Ezgjan Alioski pulled all the strings as Leeds’ stationary conduit outside the Stoke box.
Further back the veteran Pablo Hernandez marshalled the Leeds midfield, spraying the ball around in the guise of a West Yorkshire Xavi. In possession Elland Road marvelled at every slick triangulation that cut apart their distinguished rivals, while once the ball was lost Stoke’s beleaguered charges were harassed and harried by a hive of intense collective pressing. Often such an animated presence on the bench, Bielsa was content this time to sit back and let his new team do the work; and they did not disappoint.
The opener came just 15 minutes in, former Real Madrid trainee Samuel Saiz dancing around his disorientated markers and sliding a perfect pass through to Mateusz Klich who drilled past the exposed Jack Butland.
It was no less than Bielsa and Leeds deserved after a frenetic start to the match that left Stoke shell-shocked. And while the Whites enjoyed no small fortune when Butland let Hernandez’s long-range effort slip under his body for the second to double the lead on the stroke of half-time, the 2-0 lead was the least Leeds could hope for after pushing for goals throughout the first 45 minutes.
There was, of course, the occasional scare. Tom Ince rattled the bar with a cracking effort, while James McClean squandered the chance to hit back on one of the rare moments Leeds’ high pressing fell apart. Just five minutes into the second half a hideous mix-up in the Leeds box while playing out from deep allowed Stoke to pull one back from the penalty spot, to Bielsa’s obvious distaste as he made himself comfortable as always perched on top of a cooler, eschewing the comfort of the substitutes’ bench.
It was a momentary blip, rectified shortly afterwards when the fantastic Douglas’ corner was met by the head of Liam Cooper to make it 3-1 on the hour. While allowing for the surprising incompetence of a ragged Stoke team that appear to be still in mourning over the loss of their elite status, it was a scintillating all-round performance that serves as a warning for the rest of the Championship.
Leeds still have a long way to go, and tougher opponents surely await in this most competitive of leagues. Bielsa, too, will have to manage his team with exemplary precision, as the physical drop-off that is a hallmark of his squads after Christmas will be all the more pronounced in such a demanding division. Whether Leeds can maintain the intensity and aggression shown in these outstanding 90 initial minutes is a question that will need to be answered further down the line.
For now, though, Leeds’ new bespectacled Nutty Professor is the toast of Elland Road. Bielsa fever has hit hard, and one thing is for certain: supporters can expect an exhilarating season under El Loco.
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