Football Features

“Forget thrill a minute, this was thrill a second!” – Winners and Losers as Pep vs. Bielsa ends all square

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:09, 3 October 2020

In a pulsating night of football, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United drew 1-1.

Elland Road played host to arguably the best game of the season so far as Guardiola and Bielsa went head to head for the fourth time ever and it ended with a thrilling draw in the rain just like their first one eight years ago. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Rodrigo

Marcelo Bielsa’s system thrives in part because it is one without stars. Everyone presses, everyone tracks back. This has made it hard for El Loco to attract top tier talent or manage elite clubs, and it’s why he was such a disaster as Argentina national team coach at the 2002 World Cup. But it means when he does find a club that suits his methods, like Chile or Athletic Club, the results are spectacular.

Bielsa’s Leeds side doesn’t really have stars, but they signed Rodrigo from Valencia for big money this summer. The wing-forward is a Spanish international with Champions League experience. By the reputation of the rest of Leeds’ squad, that makes him a superstar.

Yet he started today on the bench.

But when he came on? He was absolutely flying and instantly turned the game in his side’s favour. Two minutes after coming on, some great skill saw him blast a shot at goal, forcing a superb save and winning a corner. And then from that corner he took advantage of a goalkeeping error to score before torching City repeatedly, creating chances for his team-mates as Leeds took control.

An incredible impact from Leeds’ superstar.

Loser: The goalkeepers

Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola insist on passing the ball out from the back, it is fundament to both of their footballing philosophies. For that to work, you need a goalkeeper who is exceptional with his feet. Ederson and Illan Meslier are both good with their feet (usually) but the thing is, both are also goalkeepers prone to error, as we saw at Elland Road.

Meslier’s passing under City’s press was a bit ropey and he, more than once, just straight gave it away; the lead-up to City’s opening goal can be traced to an awful Meslier pass straight into midfield. Ederson returned the favour, however, by failing to claim a corner and instead knocking the ball down to Rodrigo who stabbed home an equaliser.

It doesn’t matter that both goalkeepers (especially Ederson) played so well besides their mistakes. As a goalkeeper you are in a unique position where any mistake can be fatal to your side and both goalkeepers made costly ones.

Loser: Raheem Sterling

In many ways, Raheem Sterling is such a confusing figure. The magnificent wing-forward is a dazzling talent and one of the best players in the Premier League; but he could be so much more? Sterling’s movement, pace and dribbling puts him into positions where he really should be one of the absolute undisputed best players in the division on the same level as Mohamed Salah and Kevin de Bruyne.

And yet, he isn’t.

As we saw today, Sterling opened the scoring for City with a superb strike from near the edge of the area. That’s the kind of brilliance he has in his boots, and we’d do well to remember that because the rest of his display was absurdly frustrating as his finishing was sloppy and he dithered too much on the ball. These flaws were exemplified by his missed chance, where he was put through 1v1 by Riyad Mahrez and scorched away from his defenders but then didn’t even attempt a shot as he dithered and just sort of ran into Meslier.

Missing easy chances is becoming a hallmark of Sterling’s. Think back to City’s elimination from the Champions League where he skied the ball from five yards, or countless other moments where no matter how well he plays, he just cannot finish. Guardiola has always talked up Sterling’s talent as being able to be one of the world’s very best players scoring not just 30 but 40 or even 50 goals. But that will never happen until Sterling learns to bury each and every one of those sitters he gets.

Loser: Benjamin Mendy

Benjamin Mendy is one of the few people to have been coached by both Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola (Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Javi Martinez are the others) and he would have been desperate to impress both his former and current coaches with a huge performance today at Elland Road and it’s sad to say that he got nowhere near doing that.

In fact not only was Mendy not good, he was actively bad. His passing was sloppy, his dribbling average and his end product in the final third non-existent. Obviously he’s had serious injury problems but he looks a million miles away from the player that terrorised France and Europe (including City) at Monaco.

Today Mendy gained possession just twice whilst losing it a massive 16 times – his pass completion was an abysmal 56.5%. He created 0 chances and once Ian Poveda came on, Mendy looked like he trying to run up a down escalator. The young winger torched Mendy and hammered him to the point where Pep actually took him off for Nathan Aké and it massively improved City.

Winner: Pep Guardiola

Manchester City have started the season with just 4 points from three games. That’s not a good total, yet you couldn’t say Guardiola coming away from Elland Road with a point wasn’t an impressive achievement given the circumstances.

Just a week after their collapse against Leicester, where they took the lead and yet still lost 5-2, City led against Leeds but a fightback from their opponents could have seen City collapse yet again. But with new boy Ruben Dias in defence next to Aymeric Laporte, City remained steady. Guardiola made changes to solidify the side and his men took over.

The final 10 minutes of the game were full of City pushing for a winner, and with a little more luck they might have got it. A draw is never good given the scenario, but the performance in this draw, getting a point against such an intense opponent, can be taken as good.

The way Guardiola made positive changes, the way his squad responded well to adversity instead of collapsing as they did against Leicester, was very promising. This was less a game of football as it was 90 minutes of relentless poetry being played out in real time, set to rock music, everything crashing together. And to survive that, to thrive in that as a mentally fragile City did, is impressive.

All in all, this game puts City back on the right track to try and mount a title challenge.

Winner: Marcelo Bielsa

The real winner of tonight is Marcelo Bielsa. In his first month of management in the Premier League the Argentine has had to take his squad full of Championship players (with just a handful who are Premier League level) against the two best teams in the country in Liverpool and Manchester City, and whilst he only has one point from both those games, the performances have been out of this world.

Bielsa’s showdown with Guardiola carried much hype with it, given the role Bielsa played in Guardiola’s coaching development and the absurd standard set by their previous encounters in 2012. Tonight’s match was 14 years removed from their day-long meeting at Bielsa’s ranch, talking tactics and philosophies over grilled meat – but it carried with it that exact same energy.

Leeds started the game a bit overawed, but soon grew into the occasion and began giving as good as they got. Leeds had more passes and possession than Manchester City and dominated the game for vast swathes. Kalvin Phillips was magnificent in the heart of the pitch, a Championship player elevated by Bielsa to the point where if he showed up in the Champions League you wouldn’t be shocked.

Today both coaches were constantly changing things, making adjustments to alter the tempo of the game. If only Bielsa had more guys like Phillips, more players closer to the level of City’s where Guardiola was able to finally take control at the end by bringing the astounding Bernardo Silva, Nathan Aké and Fernandinho off the bench, El Loco may have won the game.

Even though it was only a draw, it was a pulsating draw. A hurricane of a match, with whirling action everywhere on the pitch. Precision, pace and absolute fury. Forget thrill a minute, this was thrill a second! A heart-stopping tie that enthralled anyone who had the good fortune to be watching it. Marcelo Bielsa can never, ever be doubted again. He’s taken the Premier League by storm, showing the division’s very best sides exactly what he is always about. There is no opponent he cannot take on, nothing he cannot do. Never doubt El Loco ever again.