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Monday, May 16, 2022
Home Sports SOCCER »What Would Bielsa Do With O'Leary's Squad?

»What Would Bielsa Do With O’Leary’s Squad?


Wednesday 4th April 2001. 8:09 pm. Alan Smith is fouled and Leeds win a free kick on the edge of the box. César Martin the culprit. Harte steps up and rifles the placed ball into the net in front of the Kop.

The zenith of my Leeds supporting life. The sheer ecstasy of that ball hitting the back of the net made the subsequent tumble even more bitter, but if Marcelo Bielsa had been on the sideline that night, would Harte even have started?

Would Viduka’s reputed laziness have been tolerated? Would the prodigious Alan Smith’s temperament have made Bielsa reluctant to use him? Who would pivot the side in the role of Kalvin Phillips?

A tweet from David Guile – @ellandduck – meant this had been playing on my mind all evening and prompted the following.

So sit back, do not relax and prepare to disagree.

Goalkeeper

This one is a bit of a moot point as Martyn was the almost permanent incumbent of the goalkeeper position during O’Leary’s tenure. By his own admission, the England international was old-fashioned in his goalkeeping outlook and would have been reluctant to play out from the back or embark on the Monk-esque raids from his six-yard box.

However, with only the inexperienced Robinson on the bench, it’s hard to argue that Bielsa would have opted for anyone other than the man who twice broke the record for the most expensive goalkeeper in England.

Verdict: Nigel Martyn

Right Back

With both Kelly and the gritty Danny Mills on the squad, Bielsa would have been faced with a decision. The Argentine demands creativity, work-rate and dependability from his full backs and I think the nod would have gone in the direction of the Irish international.

Kelly was no stranger to the kind of raids on which we see Luke Ayling or Stuart Dallas embark and his assist rate was higher than that of Mills. The England international was a more defensive full back who would possibly have struggled with Bielsa’s more holistic approach to defending.

Verdict: Gary Kelly

Center Backs

With five candidates at his disposal for this position, Bielsa would have had quite selection headache. It is unlikely that Michael Duberry would have fitted the Argentine’s center-back mold which leaves us with Ferdinand, Woodgate, Radebe and Dominic Matteo.

A fit Lucas Radebe, club captain at the time, would have been undroppable and the kind of leader that Bielsa would have loved in his side. Passion, strength and charisma combined with the ability to move the ball intelligently.

Bielsa’s propensity to opt for youth would leave Woodgate and Ferdinand to fight it out for the second spot. Woodgate’s trial may have caused issues, but even taking Bielsa’s moral philosophy out of the equation, it’s likely that he would have opted for Ferdinand anyway.

The England international is very much a Bielsa-style center back. His ability, even then in his early 20s was evident and he was and would have been the perfect partner for Radebe.

Verdict: Lucas Radebe & Rio Ferdinand

Left Back

Ian Harte was a certainty at left back during the O’Leary era. His wand of a left foot was a potent weapon and gave us all the delirious high of taking the lead against Deportivo La Coruna that balmy night at Elland Road. Would he however have made it into Marcelo Bielsa’s XI?

The Irish international’s pace was always his Achilles heel. Famously exposed by a ruthless Marc van Bommell in a 2002 UEFA Cup game, Harte’s ability to get back and track a speedy runner was consistently called into question.

A look at Bielsa’s current full backs requires passing ability, fitness to get up and down the line and an indefatigable engine. Think Stuart Dallas. It’s possible to think he might have opted to use Jason Wilcox in this role as he has both the attributes and the versatility to adapt.

Verdict: Jason Wilcox

Holding Midfield

Known nowadays as the ‘Kalvin Role’, this position is the fulcrum of Bielsa’s team and style of play. David O’Leary was blessed with a wealth of midfield talent in different roles.

It’s tempting to just name David Batty here, as I’ve previously compared Phillips’ performances to the abrasive Englishman. He certainly has the tenacity and ability to perform the role.

Other possibilities here are Olivier Dacourt and even Dominic Matteo who played in this position on occasion. While Matteo’s defensive qualities are not in question, his range of passing does not quite match up to that of Phillips, Dacourt’s does.

It may be the toughest of calls, but I’m opting for the Frenchman.

Verdict: Olivier Dacourt

Center Midfield – No. 8

Another pivotal role in the Bielsa midfield, the no. 8 is charged with keeping the midfield moving while also appearing late in the day to notch a few goals in the process.

Mateusz Klich is the current protagonist, but O’Leary’s candidates would have included Erik Bakke, Stephen McPhail and even Lee Bowyer could have staked a claim for this spot.

With a young Bowyer’s pace, work-rate and dribbling ability, his attributes are shifting me to include him on the wing rather than in the middle and McPhail may have struggled to cope with the intense physical demands that come with the role.

Erik Bakke had the engine and the knack of appearing late to pick up a goal and would be most suited to this position.

Verdict: Erik Bakke

Center Midfield – N0. 10

This role has been performed for Bielsa by two Spaniards, initially Samu Saiz and then the cultured Pablo Hernandez. They are charged with unlocking the defense, playing that splitting pass and finding the penetrative magic to create opportunities.

In O’Leary’s squad we look to Bowyer and Harry Kewell, or possibly Mark Viduka, who have the creative flair to shoot fear into defenders’ hearts, but the former pair have the potential to be devastating from wide areas and the latter’s finishing could be used elsewhere.

To fill the role I’ve opted for Stephen McPhail. The Dubliner was capped 10 times for Ireland and but for injury, the number would have been much higher. George Graham called McPhail’s left foot the best since Liam Brady’s and back in 2001 he was brimming with potential.

That gifted left foot and creative vision would have seen McPhail have the ability to cut defenses open and create chance after chance for the finishers.

Verdict: Stephen McPhail

The Wingers

Tasked with both racing at opposition defenders and tracking back towards their own defense, the modern winger has their work cut out. Bielsa’s high demands mean Leeds United wingers are under even more pressure.

Bielsa’s wingers need to be able to beat a man and get a cross in, but also have the option to come inside, wreak havoc and nab a few goals. A tough brief, but one for which O’Leary’s squad had the tools.

Jacob Burns and Jamie McMaster were left kicking their heels in 2001 and rightly so given their competition.

Lee Bowyer and Harry Kewell would have slotted into Bielsa’s tactics perfectly. Both had little inhibitions about taking on a full back and both had the ability to find the net with great regularity.

While Kewell’s legacy has been irreparably tarnished by events following his departure, on the pitch in that era he was at times unplayable. Bowyer’s mental strength and passion would have surely appealed to Bielsa and while Kewell was not naturally compelled to track back in the manner of, say, Dallas, his attacking ability would be impossible to ignore.

Verdict: Lee Bowyer & Harry Kewell

Striker

We are all acutely aware of our present attacking woes. Bamford just cannot score while Eddie is making copious hay with the brief rays of sunshine that break his way.

Back in 2001, Leeds were spoiled for striking options. Robbie Keane, on loan from Inter Milan, was lighting up another boyhood club. Fiery local hero Alan Smith was delivering genuinely thrilling performances. Mark Viduka seemed to find the net without having to break sweat while Michael Bridges had his moments when injury-free.

Who would Bielsa have opted for? Looking at the role played by Bamford and, last season, Kemar Roofe, it’s a tough one.

Bridges injury woes aside, his game was a poaching one and Bielsa demands more from his attacking pivot. The energy required would suggest a hyperactive Robbie Keane, or the exuberance and aggression of Alan Smith but I’m going to opt for a sometimes maligned Australian international.

Mark Viduka often had to deal with the assumption that he was a lazy player, but footballing intelligence and ability oozed from the pores of his pirouettes, flicks, aerial prowess and devastating finishing.

His unforgettable Elland Road performance in the 4-3 victory over Liverpool in 2000 was Viduka at his peak and my feeling is that Bielsa’s influence would have yielded his level on a more consistent basis.

Verdict: Mark Viduka

So there it is, my point at the XI Marcelo Bielsa would have picked had he had O’Leary’s squad at his disposal. The thought of those kind of riches under El Loco’s spell makes me genuinely tingle.

Anyone fancy doing the 3-1-3-3?





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