In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe writes about the upcoming match between Leeds United and Manchester City.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
I recently received a quote for some fairly major building works; a home improvement project that brings with it quite significant cost and much disruption. Whilst the figures will bring you out in a cold sweat and the mess will make life challenging, you have to think of the long term benefits. It would be a difficult and painful experience but we’d gain something from it, a bit like playing Manchester City away, except the ultimate positives perhaps won’t be seen in the ‘points for’ column.
But then that’s being defeatist, and we don’t do that anymore at Leeds United, particularly after the Premier League season we have enjoyed and after the first game against Saturday’s opponents back in October.
A more standard analogy used by people when facing a game as potentially damaging as Manchester City away, is that root canal surgery might be more preferable. But when football is played as carefree and as dynamically as the scholars of both Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa demonstrated in the monsoon pastures of Elland Road last year, you can’t help but drink it in. Gary Neville purred like a kitten at “a dream of a game to watch”, as both teams tirelessly traded punches like an Ali/Frazier slugfest for the 2020s.
Leeds have come a long way since then, whilst City are currently on a run of 27 wins from 28 games in all competitions. Leeds are themselves enjoying their equal best run of the season, three league games unbeaten, and the first run included that 1-1 draw with Guardiola’s Champions elect, rescued with a Rodrigo equaliser. This game comes after two consecutive wins against relegation-threatened teams that will feel like pre-season friendlies compared to what is lined up for Leeds now.
The City game is the first of an epic trilogy that immediately caught the eye when the fixtures were released last summer, and which Leeds fans promptly brushed under the carpet and forgot about, much like the homework you didn’t want to think about and left until 9pm on Sunday evening the day before the school holidays ended.
If Bielsa developed his strategy for the 2020/21 season around a plan that Leeds wouldn’t need anything from these three games, it was a brilliant idea and has been perfectly executed. Except we aren’t now approaching these games with any of the trepidation we felt before a ball was kicked this season.
We may be pushing it a little to suggest our opening game at Anfield made a dent in Liverpool’s bid to retain their title, but certainly there were worrying traits for the Champions which have festered all season, and this was before they could point to any injury disruption. For Leeds, the rush of relief that we could at least cause a stir at this level was overwhelming, and manifested itself in a post-match reaction of blessed and gushing liberation when you had to remind yourself we had actually lost.
Scoring three brilliant goals and losing to an unfortunate late penalty somehow set the tone for the season, and at times it has felt like Leeds could conceivably have navigated every game in identical fashion since, winning plenty of plaudits but zero points. Undoubtedly we have a fuller squad now and have more savvy experience of the top flight, and I would expect us to give Liverpool a similarly uncomfortable evening, particularly given their sheen of invincibility has long since disappeared.
The final game of the ‘big three’ is Manchester United at home, and whilst this fixture needs no contrived aggrandising, there is an unmistakable air of vengeance surrounding it. The pre-Christmas defeat at Old Trafford was harrowing and perhaps marked a nadir in the hyperbole of misconception surrounding Marcelo Bielsa’s methods. Whilst not everything has gone right since, it did feel like lessons were learned and a lot changed from that dark December night onwards.
So the City game arrives first, and as a measure of progress it might be one that Leeds fans prepare a place behind the sofa for, but that’s certainly not the mentality of the players or manager, and nor should it be. Doubtless the media will continue to squeeze every last morsel of life out of the Guardiola/Bielsa student/teacher narrative and will be desperate for it to unravel in some kind of ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ plot, whereby Bielsa can’t control the fruits of a process that he created at his remote ranch at Maximo Paz in 2006.
Such a storyline ignores the level of mutual respect that exists between both camps. That was evident in the first game and has been again in the build-up to the return fixture. Guardiola referenced Leeds weeks ago as the worst possible opponents to face between two pivotal Champions League ties against Borussia Dortmund. He defended his policy of squad rotation and bemoaned a fixture pile-up that has given his team no mid-week off all season, when it is hard to envisage how an all-out assault on four trophies can possibly be accommodated otherwise, particularly in a truncated season that no one in the world could possibly have predicted or planned to avoid.
The obvious solution would be to consider not winning every game, but whatever team City put out and however many changes they make, the default position is that they are likely to win. In this week’s pre-Dortmund press conference Guardiola talked about a need for fresh legs, and with Leeds on the horizon at the weekend, it was more important than ever. There is an element of kidology about that because just a cursory glance at City’s bench for the 2-1 win against Dortmund was enough to send Leeds fans scurrying to bed to hide under the pillows until Saturday’s game is all over, but maybe there is more to it than we appreciate?
All season the stats have shown that teams put more mileage into games against Leeds than almost anyone else, and Leeds themselves have faced plenty of ‘Bielsa burnout’ accusations, albeit they have floundered on stony ground in recent weeks, like trying to fly a toy kite on Scarborough beach on an Antarctic Easter Monday. For a club who historically enjoy only a fleeting acquaintance with cup competitions, the burnout question is simply a convenient mis-truth, but it does highlight the demands Bielsa puts on his players, and this extends to anyone we play against.
So whilst a few months ago we may have asked City to go easy on us at this stage of the season, it feels more like we should ask them for a test. Let us show how far we have really come, let us demonstrate the relative strength of our squad and our bench. It might just help form our plans for the summer and for next season, and let’s face it, we’re going to go on a full adrenaline, white knuckle Blitzkrieg at the Etihad regardless of how Leeds fans might dread the prospect of poking City’s hornet’s nest. We know by now that Bielsa cares little for fresh legs or faint hearts, neither his own team’s nor his opponent’s, and perhaps, after all, Pep Guardiola knows that better than anyone.