Pitch Side Seats
It’s Sunday the 23rd of December 2018 and I’m sat in the fourth row pitch side at Villa Park for the match between Aston Villa and Leeds United. The view is perfect, the dug outs within touching distance. Much has been made of Leeds United new head coach Marcelo Bielsa since his arrival to Leeds United in the summer. The man who is nicknamed “El Loco” has completely shaken things up at Leeds. The first signs of his unique approach perhaps when players arrived for training in the summer only to be sent around the Ashton Thorpe training facility picking up litter and working for three hours doing various tasks, Bielsa wanted his players to appreciate how hard the average fan has to work to purchase a ticket and used this working day to give players a taste of a working mans life. A classic Bielsa move, one which gives you an idea of how the man earned the nickname “El Loco” down through the years of coaching. Bielsa has put his players through far longer, heavier training sessions than before, with a meticulous programme drafted out for each individual. Everything in and around training has become far more demanding under Bielsa according to the vast majority of his first team squad who have spoken publicly about him. Bielsa is obsessed, a coach who knows what he wants and knows the work required to get it. As the rain pours down at Villa Park Leeds United emerge for their warm up. The players all arrive out as one and are quickly put through a seventeen minute warm up. The warm up is short and not to heavy, two lines with dynamic stretching followed by a possession practice and some technical base passing and receiving in pairs. This game is of particular interest to me. Aston Villa have recently appointed Dean Smith as their new manager, a man renowned for his attacking football. Smith is also known for encouraging his sides to play a very effective possession based approach with a high intensity without the ball, this game will see Smith go head to head with Bielsa, a manager with similarities in his approach.
When the game kicks off it’s Aston Villa who race into an early lead. It’s clear from minute one when Tammy Abraham wins a flick on leading to a chance for Jonathon Kodjia that Leeds could struggle physically with this Aston Villa side. Abraham opens the scoring soon after before Villa score again through Conor Hourihane. It’s one way traffic as Villa put Leeds United under pressure with a high intensity press and a very direct approach. Just past the halfway point of the half Leeds play one of the only aimless balls punted forward I witnessed for the entire ninety minutes. Bielsa explodes from his seat in the dugout and begins screaming onto the pitch. At first it seemed Bielsa was screaming because the long ball is overhit but less than a minute later as Pontus Jansson dribbles out of defence to begin a Leeds United attack it becomes clear Bielsa was demanding more confidence in the ability on the ball. Bielsa signals to Jansson with a thumbs up and waves his hands up and down as if to say more of this from his defenders. I’m sat in the seat thinking to myself “Leeds are two nil down here and in trouble, their footballing approach hasn’t worked for the opening 30 minutes but Bielsa is still demanding his players to trust in their ability to stay on the ball or move it with quality in spite of a high intensity press”. As the half wears on Villa become very predictable, Leeds are now coping with the direct approach of Villa which had yielded joy in the opening twenty minutes of the game. For the final fifteen minutes of the half it’s Leeds who have got a foothold in the game, they are retaining the ball well and persisting with their build up play.
Belief in your Approach
Many coaches and managers might have panicked seeing their side lose two goals inside seventeen minutes. Many coaches and managers may have looked to sure things up and not keep attempting to build up from the back or play total football having witnessed their side struggle badly in the opening thirty minutes of a game. That Sunday afternoon though Bielsa never turned his back on his approach and all game could be seen reassuring his players to keep playing. Despite a nervous moment at the beginning of the second half Leeds United went on to assume control of the game. Leeds playing short on kick outs, looking confident to retain possession in all areas of the pitch, moving the ball with purpose and pace upped things big time during the second half. The persistence of that belief seemed to drain Villa who couldn’t maintain the intensity of their work rate in pressing Leeds. In fact I witnessed a number of Villa players cramp up during the game or take prolonged stops in play for a breather when injured, I could see Villa visibly struggle to match Leeds United for fitness and stamina. In my opinion the approach of Leeds to retain the ball and thus force Villa to chase and hassle had drained Villa to the point Leeds looked the much fitter, quicker and more effective side during a superb second half showing.
Look Beyond the Errors to the Intention
At halftime Bielsa brought on one of a number of ‘kids’ who featured on the day for Leeds. This player went by the name Jack Clarke. The instruction for Clarke was clear. Bielsa was looking for Clarke to pick the ball up and drive at the Villa back line to commit players. Clarke done exactly that and indeed went on to score Leeds opening goal on the day. What was interesting was that twice before that goal Clarke had made a mess of two decent opportunities when driving with the ball at his feet at the heart of the Villa back line, on one occasion losing control of the ball before it trickled out of play. On both occasions following those errors Bielsa and his staff could be seen encouraging and giving the thumbs up, they were looking past the errors to the intention. Faith and belief in the approach justified as Clarke blasted home that stunning first goal that began a impressive comeback for the Yorkshire outfit on the day. Clarke’s run in the lead up to the goal was very similar to his approach play which previously led to him losing possession cheaply.
Leeds United went on to win the game 3-2 in the dying moments of the game. But it was the manor in which they done it that will live long in the memory. A dreadful opening to the game in which they went 2-0 behind and struggled to play against a high intensity Villa opening never effected their approach or belief. Leeds stuck to their identity to play and retain the ball, moving it with purpose all game. A faith that allowed their coach to adjust and identify solutions to go win the game. In the opposite dugout was a Villa staff who appeared to abandon their approach to trust players with the ball during build up, a Villa side who went with a more physical approach on the day. Although Villa started well Leeds got to gripes with their approach and the hosts struggled from then onwards. It became Predictable versus Unpredictable and in the end the team who showed belief and faith in their approach to play won the game. Bielsa once spoke about coaching by referencing a study of play. He stated that to improve a team firstly that team must decide on and build an identity. Pep Guardiola who is a huge fan or Bielsa spoke recently also about faith and belief in an identity. It seems Bielsa and Guardiola are from a similar school of thought in the sense they believe there is always a reason and a solution to a mistake, be it a pass leading to a goal from playing from the back or a mistake in shape when defending. Whatever the reason the solution should be to correct the error not allow it to change you or your beliefs……all skilled improvement involves failing along the path to greatness. Look past the error to the intention!