Leeds United are yet to click into gear.
Tuesday’s 2-0 away Carabao Cup defeat to Arsenal means the Yorkshire club still only have two wins inside 90 minutes this season in any competition – against League One Crewe and Watford, both at Elland Road.
Marcelo Bielsa has spoken before of bad moments being the making of a manager. This is a sticky patch but with lowly Norwich next up, live on Sky Sports, this is an opportune moment to get the Whites firing again.
“As a manager you’re always obliged to win football matches, and right now we aren’t,” Bielsa exclusively tells Sky Sports. “In this league, with this club and this institution, the pressure is always there.
“I’m always looking at the table, analysing the position and the performances after every game has finished. There is still three quarters left of the season, so it’s not an evaluation that I could provide with any conviction to say we’re in trouble but clearly the results to date don’t give you any assurances.
“At the end of any given season, there are sides who have remained in the bottom half of the table and in the bottom places throughout the campaign but historically there have been plenty of teams who have abandoned such lowly positions.
“Drawing any conclusions with any great certainty isn’t possible after nine games, but what is concrete is that we’re 17th in the table and we need to improve that reality.”
Do Leeds lack same physicality of last season?
The Argentine has taken his fair share of blows this season, but Leeds’ dramatic 1-1 draw with Wolves last weekend felt like a lot more than a point for Bielsa, whose side must now build on the strong finish to that game.
Speaking afterwards, Wolves captain Conor Coady reflected: “It’s such a different way of playing, how Leeds play, how they do things, so we were trying to not get caught up in a real basketball match, chasing bodies all over the pitch. We were trying to stay organised and compact. They make it tough, with how intense they make it.”
When the England defender’s evaluation is put to Bielsa, the basketball analogy is not something the 66-year-old is au fait with – at least not when it comes to assessing his own team.
“I don’t know exactly what it means to create a basketball match,” he admits. “It’s not something that I believe reflects the type of game we want to produce. I insist, this way of valuing our games is not something I see reflected in us and our process in trying to win.
“Regaining the ball high up the pitch is a vital component of our game and something we always seek to do. Being aggressive in this way is fundamental to how we play.”
What is clear is that Leeds were woeful at Southampton on their last away outing. As a team, they covered 107.41km on the south coast while Saints on the other hand covered 110.66km; a whole three kilometres more.
“If there’s any team in the league who’s going to analyse it and put it right, it’s us,” club captain Liam Cooper said following the defeat at St Mary’s.
It was the first time since promotion that an opponent had outrun an 11-man Leeds, and Bielsa will demand his side copes with Norwich’s physical exertions as a bare minimum.
Leeds’ ability to physically dominate teams that boast superior quality than the Canaries has been their greatest leveller back in the top flight, but the manager is working night and day to ensure results improve.
“The preparation for every game is identical,” Bielsa adds, followed by a whooping cough he is also currently nursing. “The opposition you face in every game is different, but I’ve not changed the way I go about trying to win matches.
“Any question that invites criticism from the public on my team’s performances, of course I reject.”
Returning Phillips a timely boost
Leeds will be without Patrick Bamford for a seventh successive match and Luke Ayling is still working his way back from minor knee surgery.
The good news for Bielsa is that Kalvin Phillips started Leeds’ Carabao Cup fourth-round defeat at the Emirates Stadium, his first appearance since October 2 owing to a calf injury.
Phillips has been integral to the team’s success since promotion was gained with Leeds having won 49 per cent of all Premier League games in which he has played, compared to a 17 per cent win rate without him.
Bielsa hopes the England international’s injury troubles are now behind him as he joins the group in making the trip to East Anglia.
“Kalvin is now healthy having completed the last game [against Arsenal] and clearly he is a very influential player for us,” he says. “He makes a big difference to the way we play so of course his return gives us a big boost and increases our belief.”
Greater responsibility has fallen on Jack Harrison to provide the required drive from midfield and when asked to evaluate the contribution of the winger, Bielsa said: “You ask me a question where you know that I can’t praise his performances up until now.
“But what’s happening to Harrison is happening to all our players in the squad, where they have better or worse moments and nobody is able to maintain a regular consistency in their performances, especially when they are playing in attack.
“Harrison will continue to shine or will shine again in proportion to the faculties that he has and it’s my job to put him in situations in the game where he’s able to shine and to make him as important as I feel that he is.”
Gelhardt making his mark
Injuries have provided a window of opportunity for youth and Joe Gelhardt could well be in line to benefit from Leeds’ misfiring forward line in Bamford’s absence, with no precise return date set for the striker.
Having emerged from the bench in the 62nd minute against Wolves, the Liverpool-born forward signed from Wigan for £1m in August 2020 had more touches inside the opposition box (11) than any Leeds player in any game all season.
“I sort of went numb when I came on,” Gelhardt said after his vibrant cameo which single-handedly changed the complexion of a laboured Leeds display. “When you hear the noise of the crowd, all your tiredness goes away. You just feel ready, and they’re like a 12th man.
“It was a tough change at first given the physicality of the league but once you get past that period, you learn so much off the gaffer technically and tactically. He just makes you a better player.”
The 19-year-old has made four substitute appearances in all competitions this term but after winning the injury-time penalty which led to Rodrigo snatching a point, Bielsa could well turn to the teenager from the start at Carrow Road.
“These aren’t things you can calculate,” Bielsa says of starting Gelhardt, who scored 11 goals in 16 apps as Leeds U23s won Premier League 2 Division Two title last season. “We’ve evaluated the interventions he made in the half an hour he played against Wolves.
“We’ll always play with a forward in his position so he’s always got a chance of slotting into the system. It’s just a matter of preference at any given time. Joe is a young player which is an important part in our considerations.
“Should he be viewed as someone who resolves the needs of the team as a substitute or can he feature in a side who are already in a position of dominance and that needs a few touches?
“He had a decisive influence on the Wolves game but he found it a lot harder against Arsenal in midweek to have an impact. The difference was that against Wolves, the team managed to dominate the second half whereas Arsenal didn’t allow us as much control after the break. He couldn’t change the course of the game himself.”
Bielsa in search of offensive consistency
One win in nine league games, Bielsa will be no doubt aware that this is the worst start the club have made to a Premier League season.
Their seven points is one fewer than they had at the same stage when they were relegated from the top flight in 2003/04.
Conceding goals has always been an issue – the 16 shipped so far this term is only fewer than Watford, Newcastle and Norwich – but Leeds had conceded 17 at the same stage last season despite gaining three wins and plenty of plaudits for their enterprising football.
Bielsa is still in search of greater consistency, with only Illan Meslier, Liam Cooper and Stuart Dallas having started all nine of his side’s league games to date.
The injury struggles of Phillips and Bamford in addition to the special treatment being brandished to Raphinha has made it hard to shake off fears of the vaunted ‘second-season syndrome’ setting in at Elland Road.
“We’ve clearly lowered the amount of dangerous chances that we’ve created,” Bielsa says. “Of course, if Bamford was here his presence would be valued, but the fact we have not been creating as many chances is not linked solely to Bamford being absent.”
Keeping Raphinha fit key to progress
The focus this week, like last, for Bielsa is convincing his players they can get back to the form of last season.
News that Raphinha has overcome the injury sustained during the draw with Wolves should certainly help them lift the level of performance.
Romain Saiss caught the Brazil forward on the ankle with a forceful lunging tackle last weekend, forcing him off injured but Saiss only saw a yellow card for the challenge after being penalised for handball.
Raphinha left the stadium on crutches but has since made a full recovery and is available for the trip to Norwich.
“The rules are there to offer players protection,” Bielsa continues when asked if Premier League referees should clamp down on offensive players being on the receiving end of robust treatment.
“Players of great imagination on the ball such as Raphinha who have the capacity to play with such balance are clearly more likely to be targeted with strong challenges and the only means of protection comes from the rules and the referees.
“Clearly, the injury could’ve been a lot worse given the nature of the challenge so he was fortunate.”
Bielsa not underestimating Norwich response
Daniel Farke’s Norwich side have collected just two points from their opening nine league games – only three teams in Premier League history have had fewer at this stage of a campaign.
Their return to life at this level hit a new low last weekend with their 7-0 thrashing at Chelsea, but Leeds are another team scrapping for results.
“When teams lose so heavily they multiply their effort so a similar defeat does not happen in the next game,” Bielsa concludes. “You can’t really evaluate what happened at Chelsea as every game is different and difficult in itself given everything that’s in play.
“They played part of the second half with 10 men so closing the gap on the bigger teams is made a lot harder in these conditions. No one becomes a football manager in the Premier League without losing games by a heavy amount.
“We only have to remember the games we’ve lost by a big margin in this division to find examples where teams have given a strong response. In this regard, we can use ourselves as a reference for what we can expect this weekend. Each opponent deserves the same level of analysis because this is the Premier League.”
Bielsa knows that Leeds’ own reality obliges them to think this way more than ever.
How to follow Norwich vs Leeds
Norwich vs Leeds is live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm on Saturday; kick-off 2pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app.
Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle