Anarchic spectacle leaves Bielsa’s and Guardiola’s heads spinning | Jonathan Liew

Anarchic spectacle leaves Bielsa’s and Guardiola’s heads spinning | Jonathan Liew


here would be plenty of time for handshakes and benedictions. What Marcelo Bielsa wanted to do above all, as the full-time whistle blew at Elland Road, was think. He wanted to process what he had just seen, and how he felt about it. As he sank to a crouch and bowed his head, the raindrops studded his jacket like diamonds.

Was this ultimate order or ultimate chaos? On a night of greasy, lawless entertainment, the temptation was to err towards the latter. Bielsa and Pep Guardiola are frequently described as coaches whose teams like to dominate. Here, every fresh attempt to do so seemed to bury the game in fresh lashings of anarchy, from skittish start to frenetic finish. Guardiola admitted he needed “time to process” the game. Bielsa declared there were “no tactical aspects which were significant”.

Was Bielsa right? Was this simply one of those games that defied the chalkboard, that surfed along on a wave of high energy, high emotion and high caprice? Well, yes and no. Certainly as the chances began to pile up, as the ball began to slingshot from end to end, it became increasingly hard to tell what was choreographed and what was chaotic, what was adaptation and what was pure, brutal instinct.

And besides, is it really chaos if both teams have willed it so? It was a game that had been pegged in advance as a high-scoring fiesta of attacking football. Yet what transpired was something far more nuanced and interesting than a cartoon slugfest. It seemed to evolve and mutate at a supernatural rate, as if by machine learning: games within games, games around games, games spawning games.

Benjamin Mendy went from inspired to insipid in the space of 45 minutes. Kalvin Phillips seemed to go through all the seven stages of grief in a single evening. Ederson, so assured in the first half, had turned to pariah by the hour in fumbling the cross for Rodrigo’s equaliser, and back again in making a brilliant fingertip save from the same player. Kevin De Bruyne seemed both the most and least important player on the pitch at once.

So first to that pulsating opening in which City tried to grasp the game at source, targeting the goalkeeper Illan Meslier, cutting off the supply to Phillips in midfield, taking the lead and threatening to win the game within half an hour. Leeds didn’t help themselves: too many aimless long punts, too much feverish hollowing of the midfield. Both teams played with pace, aggression and urgency: only City added reason. You don’t have to chase the game if you already know where it’s going.

Next, the response. Phillips peeled into wider areas to escape the press; the full-backs pushed higher; Ian Poveda came on at half-time to run at the winnowing Mendy, with Hélder Costa switching to the left. This was Bielsa learning on the job, delving into his monstrous mental library and picking out a solution that made sense to him. Rodrigo’s equaliser on the hour was deserved.

You realised in the middle of all this that what the coaching ideologue craves above all – in this anarchic game of ours – is order. Often we talk of managers such as Guardiola or Bielsa as “perfectionists”, as if perfection is a fixed destination or final state. Instead, it’s a ceaseless process of adjustment and adaptation, a roof that always needs fixing, the thankless ordeal of trying to hold back entropy with your bare hands.

And so now, Guardiola responded. On came Bernardo Silva for the befuddled Ferran Torres, allied to a switch to a more direct style. Fernandinho was introduced to bring some sanity to midfield. City might very easily have won the game in the last 15 minutes, whether through penalty decision or sheer weight of pressure.

Yet somehow, Leeds held firm. By accident or design? By dint of luck or by the resilience of a plan? Perhaps the most important thing we learned here was that for all the meanings we like to impose on football, very often it’s a distinction that means very little. And as Bielsa and Guardiola embraced on the touchline, you suspected that neither could tell us the answer either.