Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 1 November 2020

Leeds look for middle ground after a week of footballing highs and moral lows

On Saturday Bielsa's side pushed champions Liverpool all the way; on Wednesday he picked a goalkeeper banned for racism as his captain

Leeds United's Kiko Casilla during the warm up before the Carabao Cup match against Hull City. Reuters
Leeds United's Kiko Casilla during the warm up before the Carabao Cup match against Hull City. Reuters

The problem with perfectionists is that they are never satisfied. Leeds United earned rave reviews for their Premier League comeback as they scored three times against the champions at Anfield. They surpassed many an expectation, but not their manager’s.

“I think the team could have elevated their level further on certain occasions,” said Marcelo Bielsa. The frenetic excitement of that 4-3 loss to Liverpool brought mixed emotions. “A positive performance always gives a certain amount of optimism and a defeat generates sadness. This week the two of those things combined.”

His quest for Leeds’ first top-flight win since 2004 continues against Fulham. “Every game is a new story,” said the Argentine and this offers the possibility of a happier ending. And yet Leeds’ second match of the season was something of an unsavoury tale for many. Leeds’ reputation was enhanced on Saturday, but damaged on Wednesday. After the goodwill, the bad news.

Bielsa’s obstinacy is apparent in his belief in his methods, but stubbornness manifested itself in less commendable ways. A weakened team exited the Carabao Cup to Hull City. Leeds were lacking the “natural leader” Liam Cooper and his regular deputies Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas but in their stead Bielsa made Kiko Casilla captain.

The goalkeeper served an eight-match ban last season for racially abusing the Charlton Athletic forward Jonathan Leko and, while Casilla protested his innocence, the English Football Association's verdict was damning. Bielsa’s decision to give him the armband annoyed some supporters. He claimed he listened to the dressing room and was unapologetic.

“You guys may not know what percentage of these fanbase actually didn’t want Kiko as captain because the opinion of the masses should always be heard,” he said. “Surely those who judge Kiko ignore a lot of things his teammates see in him. They think he deserves to be the captain and we have to listen to those messages. Surely the public won’t have all the information that his teammates will have.”

Perhaps not, but if it felt an avoidable mistake at a time when Leeds had gained new admirers, it also suggested Bielsa did not understand the gravity of the offence his goalkeeper was convicted of.

There should be no such controversy on Saturday. Cooper, who was injured for the trip to Anfield, is fit to return. Bielsa’s description of the defender’s leadership qualities highlighted why Casilla was an inappropriate choice.

Kiko Casilla converts for Leeds in a penalty shootout defeat to Hull City. Reuters
Kiko Casilla converts for Leeds in a penalty shootout defeat to Hull City. Reuters

“He is very well respected by all his teammates, without exception,” he said of Cooper. “The captain has the obligation to bring everyone in the team all together. The captain should care about everybody and try to integrate everybody and he is a leader of this nature.”

Cooper’s return will mean at least one alteration to the starting XI but Bielsa often favours unchanged teams and otherwise could pursue a policy of continuity. Leeds’ record signing, Rodrigo, came off the bench at Anfield to concede the penalty for Mohamed Salah’s winner. The £27 million (Dh128m) arrival then played against Hull, scoring his spot kick in the shootout.

“He is already ready,” Bielsa said, but a caveat followed. “He won’t start the game at the weekend but he is in a good condition if we want him to.”

It means Patrick Bamford will retain his place. His well-taken goal against Liverpool was just the striker’s second in 28 top-flight matches, even if most were as a substitute. “I think he has the required level to play in the Premier League,” added Bielsa. “But you have to show these things rather than declare them.”

There was a time when controversy at Leeds revolved around Bamford’s capacity to miss chances and remain in the team. Not in a week of footballing highs and moral lows.

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Updated: September 18, 2020 08:27 AM

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