Leeds’ Final Push – Assured or Apprehensive? Liam Tunney February 15, 2019 Leeds United By Liam Tunney Confidence is a fragile manifestation at the best of times. A throwaway comment, a misinterpreted roll of the eyes or even just enough silence to fill with contemplation can be enough to shatter the façade. The confidence of a long-suffering Leeds United supporter has all the solidity of China doll. The annual post-Christmas implosion has hardened the attitude to disappointment. The seemingly inevitable collapse almost made it easier to cope year on year as we slumped to an indifferent 15th position. When things were looking up under Garry Monk back in 2016-17, many of us were swept away as momentum grew, Chris Wood’s goals and the quintet of Green, Ayling, Bartley, Jannson and Taylor keeping the huge defensive frailties of previous seasons largely at bay. The disappointment, although later than usual, inevitably arrived and it was crushingly ruthless in its effect. To finish 7th, a position last occupied by Larry Grayson in 2011, was thoroughly heartbreaking and it was almost a relief the following season when Christiansen and Heckingbottom returned us to mid-table mediocrity. Then the Bielsaball metamorphosis took hold. The summer renaissance of Mateusz Klich. The moulding of the oddly maligned Kalvin Phillips into the David Batty role. Liam Cooper becoming the uncapped Scottish Franz Beckenbauer. Signing our first Real Madrid player and banishing the spectre of Raúl Br*vo to the more shadowy areas of our memories. The turn of the year was welcomed with a customary January and mandatory cup exit, but as our fanbase began to lose its nerve in the pressure cooker of the transfer window, are we right to be so nervous? Tough Run In their last eight games, Leeds have faced Hull City, Derby County, Stoke City, Norwich City, Middlesbrough and Swansea City. Two of those teams were playing Premier League football last season, and two seasons ago, all but Derby and Norwich were top-flight sides. For any promotion-chasing team, especially one as thinly spread and worked to the intensity demanded by Marcelo Bielsa, that is a difficult run of games. Leeds garnered ten points and finished the run of games on top of the Championship. The next eight games are Bolton, QPR, West Brom, Bristol City, Reading, Sheffield Utd, Millwall and Birmingham. There are of course no easy fixtures in a promotion race, but this is definitely a more favourable list than the previous eight. Reinforcements While the Whites were left bereft by the now-resigned Huw Jenkins in the dying embers of the transfer window, and a crestfallen Daniel James made the journey south to grudgingly happily rejoin his Swansea teammates, there are a number of positives. Kiko Casilla arriving from Real Madrid has dealt with the inconsistent form of young goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and taken some of the heat of the Northern Ireland international, while the appearance of Izzy Brown on the bench seems to bring an end to his epic journey through the U23 ranks. Bielsa drives his players hard and demands the highest of standards, and rightly so. This inevitably leads to injuries and the historic myth that ‘Bielsa teams burn out’. The Leeds United medical team have earned their proverbial corn this season, but the queue for the physio bench appears to be abating. Captain Liam Cooper returned in the 2-0 demolition of Derby, Pablo Hernandez appears to have overcome his niggling injury, while Barry Douglas appeared as a second-half substitute in the ill-fated defeat to Norwich. Brown has performed his initiation party piece and is apparently ready for action, and no doubt chomping at the bit. Gaetano Berardi, whose enforced break has seen Bielsa’s interpreter Salim Lamrani enlisted as his de-facto minder, is also nearing a comeback. Patrick Bamford, whose appearances injury has rendered infrequent, capped his comeback with a late goal in the 3-1 defeat to Norwich and followed up with two lively displays against Middlesbrough and Swansea. He even survived a six-yard box suplex at the hands of the Swans’ Mike van der Hoom unscathed. Rival Banana Skins Our eyes and grins widened in disbelief as the news filtered through from Deepdale on Wednesday night as Seani Maguire fired home a third goal for Preston North End on the way to a comprehensive 3-1 victory at home to Norwich. When fans filed out of Elland Road after our own 3-1 defeat to the Canaries, the thought of Preston turning them over would have been laughed out of the conversation. West Brom had only Dwight Gayle’s deception to thank for rescuing a point against Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane’s Nottingham Forest. The forward will now serve a two-match ban for successful deception of a match official, but the club will no doubt shrug this off, safe in the knowledge that they banked a precious point as a result. Still, they dropped points. Leeds’ Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United have had their own slip-up of late, squandering the 3-0 lead built for them by the outstanding Billy Sharp as Aston Villa battled back to salvage a draw. A conspiracist might say there is a concerted effort by certain clubs to use the so-called Spygate affair in an attempt to distract Leeds from their task, but no-one is immune to distraction or momentary lapses in concentration. Just ask Adam Forshaw. Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa Perhaps the biggest reason for believing that finally, this could be the year that the ghosts of collapse are exorcised, is the most obvious. Our manager is outstanding. When the pressure comes on and the chips are down, the general reaction of managers is to tighten up, grind it out and hope for the best. Not so for Bielsa. The 4-2 defeat to Forest on New Year’s Day had the potential to derail the most ardent of optimists, but it was the manner of the defeat that spoke volumes about this season’s Leeds United. Forest took the lead in the 5th minute through Jack Colback, and by half time, Leeds were down to ten men, Kalvin Phillips dismissed. The orthodox reaction? Tighten up the defence and hope for a goal on the break. The Bielsa reaction? Switch to a back three, throw Jack Clarke into the fray and go for broke. Leeds were a team transformed and raced into a 2-1 lead, before two late Forest goals sealed their fate, and temporarily, their manager’s job, but the Bielsa tactic of doubling down is both exhilarating and fascinating. El Loco has complete, unshakable belief in what he is doing. He is a man of conviction who sticks to his methods with steadfast assurance. He is often quoted as saying that if footballers were robots he would never lose. He is a man who names his team for all to see days in advance, who lays bare his tactical approach for all to see, not in a ‘come and have a go’ kind of way, but in an effort to share his undoubted expertise. In short, he exudes confidence. Not the bravado-led, PR-drivel of Garry Monk, or the pompous arrogance of José Mourinho in his prime, but the quiet, smiling confidence of a man totally at ease with himself and his role. And so should we. We are top of the league, one point clear of second place. We are three points clear of Sheffield United in third and ten points clear of the dreaded 7th spot that haunted us in 2011 and 2017. Elland Road is selling out repeatedly, the city is abuzz with expectation and nervous energy. Time to double down and go for it. Buckle up.