Nine games left. Just nine games. Less than a fifth of the season.
When Leeds United lost to Queens Park Rangers at the end of February, it was their sixth defeat in 11 games. We’d seen this pattern before.
This is what Marcelo Bielsa teams do. It’s what his Athletic side did, it’s what his Marseille did, it’s what his Newell’s Old Boys did between the golden campaigns of 1990 and 1992, winning just nine games in the whole of 1991 (and remember, at the time there were two Argentinian championships every year: a season there was half as long as a standard European season). Bielsa sides have historically not been able to keep it going until the end of the season.
He himself acknowledged that a few months ago, when he corrected an interviewer who had said he knew how to win titles by gently pointing out that his career actually suggested precisely the reverse. And yet when, after the defeat at Loftus Road, he was asked about his side running out of energy, Bielsa was uncharacteristically snappish. The stats, he insisted, showed just the opposite. The journalist who had asked the question, he said, didn’t know what he was talking about.
And perhaps the stats did show that. Bielsa, after all, is nothing if not intellectually honest. Certainly, subsequent results have suggested Leeds are still in extremely good condition. They have won their last three games without conceding, meaning they have five wins in their last six in the league, and the battle for the two automatic promotion slots now looks a straight fight between three teams: Leeds, Norwich City and Sheffield United, whom Leeds face on Saturday.
Leeds, undeniably, are playing well. But is that enough? Just because the defeat at QPR wasn’t part of a fatigue-induced decline doesn’t mean fatigue has been deferred forever. Bielsa’s stats may show that his players are running as far and as quickly as ever, but that’s not the only way weariness can manifest.
The intensity of Bielsa’s method, the former Newell’s midfielder Juan Manuel Llop said, “provokes a certain level of tiredness. Not just physical tiredness, but also mental and emotional tiredness because the competition level is so high that it’s difficult to keep up with it after a period of time.”
Perhaps his players run just as hard as before, but do they make the right decisions about where to run, do they use the ball with the same efficiency when they get there? Those issues are much harder to gauge with statistics – as Bielsa must be aware. His irritation at Loftus Road, perhaps, is best seen as an indication of his own sensitivity over the issue. He knows his sides are prone to exhaustion and is desperate that this season should prove he has worked out how to counter that.
Is there any reason this season should be different? Bielsa has praised his conditioning staff and perhaps he has at last found a way to balance the demands of his philosophy with the capabilities of his players, but he is 63 now. Although he, with his rigorous self-analysis and brutal self-awareness, is less likely than almost any other coach to become set in his ways, it would be remarkable if, after almost 30 years as a coach, he has suddenly found a way to avoid the late-season downturn.
The last three games, though, have suggested Bielsa was right at QPR, that his players are still fresh enough. That, frankly, is remarkable.
The Championship is a gruelling league. Leeds may not, as Athletic did, have had European competition to worry about, and they went out of both cups early. But Leeds have still played 40 games this season.
Marseille collapsed after 32 games of the 2014-15 season as an unfortunate 3-2 reverse against Paris Saint-Germain precipitated a run of four successive defeats (although in truth their season had been slowly decaying from the end of October). Athletic’s real stutter began around now, in the middle of March 2013, by which time they’d played 43 games.
Bielsa’s impact on Leeds was extraordinary. He has inspired a level of hope and devotion that the club arguably hasn’t known in half a century. Even by August he had created a movement. And yet beneath it all lay the knowledge that even the best of his sides run out of steam
Even a good Bielsa season follows a familiar route. A good start, a huge surge of enthusiasm and then a wobble followed by collapse. Leeds have gone through the first three of those stages. Their desperate hope is that the fourth will be staved off. Sheffield United on Saturday feels like the crunch.