Daniel James can make real Marcelo Bielsa’s dreams of upstaging Liverpool
Imagine a procession of supermodels sashaying down a catwalk. One has been described as “capturing the essence of Leeds United” and is instantly identifiable. The artfully messed-up hair and the barely-there makeup scream natural beauty but, having taken ages to perfect, seem strangely emblematic of Marcelo Bielsa’s apparently spontaneous yet supremely well-drilled team.
When Leeds kick off against Liverpool at Elland Road on Sunday afternoon and Bielsa’s players start interchanging positions with bewitching, sometimes bewildering, kaleidoscopic rapidity it will be easy to assume they are passing and moving off the cuff.
Junior Firpo knows different. The £13m left-back, signed from Barcelona this summer, revealed his game was subjected to more detailed video analysis inside his first fortnight in West Yorkshire than during his two-year stay at Camp Nou.
Like Bielsa, Rafael Benítez believes the devil really is in the detail but Everton’s famously meticulous manager says that, next to his Leeds counterpart, he looks almost slapdash. “Marcelo makes me appear normal,” Benítez said.
The consequent hours of training-pitch drilling, classroom analysis and relentless fitness conditioning at Leeds’s training HQ near Wetherby have not only transformed Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford into England internationals but imbued Jürgen Klopp with a certain nervousness as he aims to deny Leeds their first Premier League victory of the season.
“Leeds press high and intensively,” he says. “They go for it. They’re good in possession. Marcelo Bielsa’s style and philosophy is different. It’s man-marking all over the whole pitch so you have to know about it. It’s special. And, for sure, they’ll think they have a good chance against us.
“Games against them are always tricky, always really exciting. They are very, very flexible, very brave and dynamic in possession. The ground will be full and everyone tells me the atmosphere will be absolutely outstanding. We have to be at our best to get anything there.”
As the architect of gegenpress, Klopp is an expert on high tempos and high defensive lines. He expects surrendered possession to not only be retrieved swiftly and aggressively, but to serve as the springboard for ruthlessly fast-paced counterattacks.
Bielsa’s blueprint shares several characteristics – not least an emphasis on emotionally intelligent man-management. Yet there are some key divergences in their mutual addiction to attacking fluidity. If Liverpool’s football is heavy metal, Leeds’s is glam rock.
Whereas Klopp’s teams place increasing stress on passing rather than pressing these days, tending to restrict the latter art largely to the opposition’s half, Bielsa’s press almost anywhere on the pitch. The Argentinian’s commitment to total football seemingly runs deeper. His deployment of individual players is often more experimental, with Stuart Dallas regularly fielded in assorted starting positions.
It is unclear whether the Wales winger Daniel James will be on the bench, the right, his preferred left or in an inside role on Sunday, after his £25m transfer from Manchester United. James may be seen as the man who made way for Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford but he has been high on Bielsa’s wishlist for nearly three years.
“James can play on either side and combines his ability to unbalance the opponent,” says Bielsa, the idiosyncrasies of his language amplified by speaking through an interpreter. “He passages into empty spaces, considering his speed.”
After one season back in the Premier League, Leeds still await a statement home win against one of England’s elite sides and hopes are high James can help achieve that watershed. Although Bielsa’s team held their own against last season’s eventual top six, winning at Manchester City and Leicester and holding City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool to draws at Elland Road, their supporters are anxious to see a major scalp taken in West Yorkshire.
If Phillips’s anchoring of midfield and Bamford’s goalscoring are likely to prove pivotal, this landmark victory could well be conjured on the flanks. It is no coincidence Bielsa has invested most heavily in wide players, with James, Raphinha, Jack Harrison and Firpo costing a collective £66m.
James recently said he had started to play safe at Old Trafford but there appears little danger of that continuing on the other side of the Pennines. “Hopefully, I can adapt quickly to the system, but I think it’s going to take me a little while,” the 23-year-old says. “It’s very tactical but the manager has a way of playing I think will suit me.”
In January 2019, James came so close to joining Leeds from Swansea that he found himself sitting in the Elland Road boardroom eating a Chinese takeaway, only for the deal to collapse at the 11th hour. Now, though, Bielsa can teach him precisely how to light up football’s catwalk.
“What excites me a lot is making it possible for Leeds players to become players who have the quality to compete with the best players,” Bielsa says . “When Sunday’s game arrives with Salah, Jota and Mané playing for Liverpool, I dream that Raphinha, Bamford and Harrison are going to be better than those three. That is always my dream.”