If any club could do with a circuit break to this season, it is Leeds. With 10 players out injured or ill, three defeats in a week and 14 goals conceded, it really has been the nightmare before Christmas for Marcelo Bielsa and his side.
Too good to go down? Not this bunch. That they remain as high as 16th is largely thanks to third-bottom Burnley having played three games fewer.
Make no mistake, unless Leeds strengthen in next month’s transfer window they are in grave danger of their long-awaited return to the top flight lasting just two seasons.
Manager Marcelo Bielsa has that sinking feeling after his Leeds side lost 4-1 at home to Arsenal
The defeat was a third straight loss as part of a run of one win in eight Premier League matches
That much was obvious during their latest humiliation at the hands of Arsenal on Saturday.
Afterwards, the home faithful stayed on their feet until every player had trudged down the tunnel, twirling their white scarves and chanting ‘We all love Leeds’ on repeat.
It was a remarkable show of defiance from the fans, ‘a big act of love’ as Bielsa described it. But love is a two-way street and the players on the pitch need to start giving something back.
‘It’s unbelievable to know they’ve got your back through the tough time we have at the moment,’ said midfielder Adam Forshaw. ‘The least we can do is show attitude and desire, be as aggressive as we can and play the Leeds United way.’
Yet what if the Leeds United way — or, more accurately, the Bielsa way — is actually what is wrong in the first place?
The numbers do not look promising for Leeds as they bid to turn around a faltering campaign
Yes, that high-intensity pressing and man-marking worked wonders for three seasons, lifting them from 13th in the Championship to ninth in the Premier League. But if Leeds’ unique style of play caught top-flight teams off guard last year, opponents have found them out this term.
Against Manchester City, in last Tuesday’s record 7-0 humiliation, and then Arsenal, Leeds’ defenders were stretched all over the pitch, allowing acres of space for the opposition to exploit.
The chief beneficiary for the Gunners was Gabriel Martinelli, who has flourished since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was exiled. The Brazilian forward twice strolled into the box inside the opening 28 minutes to lift the ball over an otherwise-inspired Illan Meslier.
England pair Bukayo Saka, just before the break, and Emile Smith Rowe, just before full-time, also got in on the act, leaving pundits pointing the finger at Bielsa like never before.
At 15, Archie Gray (left) is a symbol of promise and the circumstances Bielsa is operating under
‘I think we should be talking about the manager and whether the football will be accepted by fans going forward,’ said Graeme Souness. ‘They play like they’re in the school playground. If they continue to play like this, they’re bang in trouble.’
Indeed, given their recent defensive woes — only Newcastle have conceded more than the 36 goals they have leaked this season — most managers would be trying to shut up shop.
Not so Bielsa. His style is non-negotiable, as he admitted earlier in the campaign when he said: ‘It’s very difficult to imagine the game in a different type of way.’
It is a high stakes gamble, which has led to Leeds hitting the jackpot but, right now, their chips are down.
FACTS AND RATINGS
Leeds (4-2-3-1): Meslier 7.5; Drameh 4.5, Ayling 5, Koch 5, Dallas 5.5; Klich 5 (Greenwood 78, 6), Forshaw 5.5; Raphinha 6, Roberts 5.5, Harrison 5.5 (Summerville 31, 6.5) (McCarron 81); Gelhardt 7.
Scorer: Raphinha 75 (pen).
Booked: Dallas, Gelhardt.
Manager: Marcelo Bielsa 5.5.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Ramsdale 7; Tomiyasu 7.5 (Soares 64, 6.5), White 6.5, Gabriel 6.5, Tierney 7; Saka 7.5 (Smith Rowe 78, 7.5), Partey 7.5, Xhaka 6.5, Martinelli 8; Odegaard 8 (Tavares 85); Lacazette 7.
Scorers: Martinelli 16, 28, Saka 42, Smith Rowe 84.
Manager: Mikel Arteta 7.
Referee: A Marriner 5.5.
Perhaps Bielsa’s magic only lasts for so long. After all, this is the first time in his long managerial career that he has entered a fourth season with a club.
Or perhaps his methods only work when he has his first-choice players available. It is one thing asking senior stars like Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford to press and mark the way he wants, it is another to expect rookies like 20-year-old right-back Cody Drameh, who endured a torturous first league start against Arsenal, to do the same.
As Danny Murphy said on Match of the Day: ‘You have to adapt to the players you’ve got. To ask those players to play that way against such good opposition was too much.’
Or as the Argentine’s chief critic Souness commented: ‘He’s asking players who are not good enough to play like Barcelona from 10 years ago.’
Outsiders have also wondered whether Leeds’ unprecedented injury crisis is down to Bielsa’s famously punishing training methods. He countered that accusation even before it could be put to him on Saturday, insisting: ‘They are not injuries linked to being tired or due to an accumulation of activity. The team continues to run as always.’
The irony is, had Covid cases and not pulled muscles been the reason for the Leeds list of absences hitting double figures, Saturday’s match would have been called off.
Instead, the Whites have almost been punished for having one of the best vaccination uptake records in the league, having to play on and pick seven teenagers in their 20-man squad, including 15-year-old Archie Gray.
Of all the absentees, the loss of midfielder Phillips, who is out until at least February, is particularly damaging. In the six games he has missed this season, Leeds have lost five and drawn one. In the 12 games he has played, they were only beaten three times.
But even if Leeds’ injury list is down to rotten luck, Bielsa has to take some of the blame for wanting to operate with a small squad, a management method he has repeatedly defended.
He has just 19 first-team players and relies on Under 23s to fill the gaps. But that is all well and good when everyone is fully fit, not so when Thorp Arch is more akin to an A&E ward than a training ground.