Marcelo Bielsa in test of faith with Leeds entering unknown territory | Leeds United

Marcelo Bielsa would have made an awful politician. One of his more refreshingly idiosyncratic traits is his habit of never pointing the finger of blame at somebody else when he can point it at himself. There are times when this appetite for self-criticism takes on an almost monastic hue: a live Zoom flagellation, a reminder that no external judgment on Bielsa could ever be as scathing or searching as his own.

Injuries, individual errors, referees, fixture pile-ups, financial disparities: in the world of Bielsa none of this really seems to register. “The position of [Mateusz] Klich was an error on my part,” he said after last Saturday’s 3-0 crushing at Everton, after an appalling performance by the Pole in midfield.

On Friday, he was asked about the misfiring Tyler Roberts, who has attracted some criticism from Leeds fans. “It is necessary that I take on more responsibility,” Bielsa said sagely.

In a sense Bielsa’s self-incrimination is a kind of protective shield around his players and staff, a reassurance that ultimately the buck stops with him. It is also a recognition no other Premier League manager enjoys his level of unquestioned authority. And yet it is a stance that often obscures as much as it reveals. After all, when you are 15th in the table before this weekend’s matches after conceding more goals per 90 minutes, excluding penalties, than any other team and have no recognised senior striker, the problems clearly go beyond one maverick coach.

Leeds face Manchester United on Sunday in an unusually precarious position. They have a six-point cushion on 18th place but tough fixtures – Liverpool, Tottenham, Leicester and Aston Villa – to follow. Beneath them, Everton and Newcastle are buoyant under new management. Watford should improve under Roy Hodgson. Norwich have already improved under Dean Smith. Burnley have two games in hand. For the first time in six seasons, Leeds are looking down rather than up.

To a fanbase still high on the giddy joyride of promotion, still accustoming itself to the tactile thrill of Premier League football after 16 years and a pandemic, relegation remains the great unspeakable. Nobody has the faintest clue whether Bielsa will commit to a fifth season. Nobody knows when Patrick Bamford, last season’s top scorer, will return from injury. A transfer window that ended with no signings has only heightened the sense of drama, an acute discomfort you suspect will pursue Leeds all the way to summer.

Patrick Bamford
Nobody knows when Patrick Bamford, last season’s top scorer, will return from injury. Photograph: Malcolm Bryce/ProSports/Shutterstock

Leeds did try to do a little business in the window. There was a persistent approach for the midfielder Brenden Aaronson, persistently rebuffed by RB Leipzig. There was some tentative interest in Kenedy at Chelsea. By all accounts, the funds were available if the right target emerged. But nor did you ever get the sense that Leeds were desperate to reinforce, even with an injury crisis to negotiate and survival in the balance. So what, exactly, is the strategy here?

It is a frequent trope of punditry and commentary that signings are analogous with ambition, that by investing in the playing squad a club is showing its support for a manager. At Leeds, weirdly, the reverse seems to be true: that in refusing to sign players that do not fit the broader plan the club is demonstrating its commitment to Bielsa’s vision. Ambition, meanwhile, is defined not in material outlay but in the urge to redefine expectations, to push the current squad to the very limits of its own ability.

At which point, a pertinent question presents itself. What if those limits have already been reached? Leeds have the 19th biggest wage bill in the league and the bulk of a squad that came up with them from the Championship. What if, after lavishly overachieving for the past three seasons, there are no more marginal improvements to be mined? What if there is no beyond? What if the well of miracles has finally run dry?

Certainly, the baseline numbers suggest a sharp decline from last season’s ninth-place finish. But the really interesting part is which areas have declined and which have not. Shots on target – for and against – are largely similar to last season. Their passing statistics – completion rate, progression, passes into the final third – are down, but not by much. According to they still top the Premier League in defensive pressures, tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes, which suggests the furious workrate that has defined all Bielsa teams has not markedly dropped.

But the most dramatic changes have been at either end of the pitch. Last season, Leeds were fourth in the league for shot accuracy per 90 minutes; this season they are 18th. They were second in save percentage match; now they are 16th. What this suggests is that the fundamentals of this Leeds side remain sound: from penalty area to penalty area, they are almost as good as they were. The difference is that last season Bamford was reliably putting away his chances and Illan Meslier was reliably stopping them. Now, for various reasons, neither is doing so.

Perhaps Leeds are convinced that their injuries will clear up, Bamford will return, Meslier will find his form and Leeds will soon be heading up the table. But there are no guarantees of any of this. Nobody can say how a fourth-season Bielsa team will cope late in the season because none of his previous jobs got that far. Everyone here – from the fans to the club hierarchy to Bielsa – is in largely unknown territory.

The future of Bielsa will not be resolved before the summer, with talk that the former RB Leipzig coach Jesse Marsch is being sought as a replacement. All of which merely underlines the courage required to commit so fully to a vision and a philosophy that may not even be around in a few months’ time. But in many ways the defining quality of the Bielsa era at Leeds has been a certain faith: faith in the process, faith in the system, faith in the squad, faith in the man himself. The coming weeks, you feel, will see that faith tested like never before.

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