Leeds’ emergence from exile in the Football League means old rivalries are belatedly being renewed. Their final Premier League game of the 2003/04 season was against Chelsea. They have not been back to Stamford Bridge since. Until Saturday. “It is a traditional encounter even though it has not happened for a very long time,” said Marcelo Bielsa.
Chelsea against Leeds United is one of English football’s great south-north feuds. It is one of the more rancorous, notable for the spectacularly ill-tempered 1970 FA Cup final replay. The Premier League referee Michael Oliver watched it earlier this year and, using current interpretations of the laws, said 11 red cards were merited, two of them for Chelsea’s Eddie McCreadie. Half a century ago, there was a solitary booking.
If their last league meeting was so long ago that Lucas Radebe, who anchored Leeds' defence then, is in his fifties now, controversy was stoked more recently. Frank Lampard's penultimate game as Derby County manager was a 4-2 win at Elland Road, eliminating Leeds from the 2019 Championship play-offs. Bielsa had won three previous meetings, each less famous than 'Spygate,' the incident when a member of Leeds' staff was found observing Derby's training sessions.
Bielsa had deployed such methods elsewhere as part of his rigorous quest for knowledge. In England, however, it was deemed illicit and inappropriate. Leeds were fined £200,000 ($269,186), which the Argentine paid himself. He has not attempted a similar ploy at Chelsea’s Cobham complex this week. “I know the spirit of English football and the punishment I received according to what the authorities deemed [right] indicates to me that it shouldn't be repeated,” he said.
Rewind 21 months and Lampard was aggrieved at Bielsa’s spying, later questioning the Fifa Fair Play award Leeds received for allowing Aston Villa to score an uncontested goal. Bielsa was diplomatic ahead of a reunion. “The relationship I have with him is similar to the ones I have with the rest of my colleagues,” he said. “It’s not bad.”
Lampard has moved on since then. So, in a different way, has Bielsa, out of the Championship and into a division where Leeds have gained plaudits for their boldness. Their style of play has been a constant but their fortunes have fluctuated, along with their goal tally. Bielsa has already identified three phases in a campaign that began with twin 4-3s, later included successive 4-1 defeats and has now featured back-to-back clean sheets.
“We had a favourable start to the season where the goals we conceded didn’t really affect the result as we were scoring plenty and then there was a period where we conceded a lot of goals and weren’t very efficient in attack,” he said. “And the third period where we haven’t conceded goals and we have created opportunities to deserve to win.”
Rather than being cowed by the Premier League, Leeds have attacked it. Recent scorelines have been deceptive. Those shutouts were not secured by concentrating on defence when Leeds drew with Arsenal and beat Everton 1-0. More impressive than a haul of four points against Premier League ever-presents was a total of 48 shots, even if only one – Raphinha's winner on Merseyside – went in.
Everton v Leeds ratings
The Brazilian opened his Leeds account to clinch their first victory at Goodison Park since 1990. The signing from Rennes had also excelled against Arsenal and Bielsa said: “The characteristics of the team coincide with his way of playing. He is a dynamic player.”
Leeds are set to take that same dynamism to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were Europe's biggest spenders in the summer. They have seven wins in eight games, are unbeaten in 15 and have only conceded two in 10. Leeds still retain a contingent of players who finished in the lower half of the Championship before Bielsa's 2018 arrival but they are likely to adopt a more attacking approach than Jose Mourinho did against Chelsea last week.
Known for obsessively watching DVDs of matches, Bielsa has done a different type of scouting to prepare Leeds for the challenge. It has not entailed spying. “There have been 10 games now so all the managers become knowledgeable about all the other teams,” he said. “Every manager in the Premier League can talk fundamentally about all the other 19 teams.”