Marcelo Bielsa had turned introspective. “What I’m unsatisfied with is my own performance,” said Leeds United’s manager. “We were too far away from Manchester United and Liverpool to compete equally. The results were fair.”
It was last Sunday and Leeds had just lost 3-0 to Liverpool at Elland Road. After four Premier League games, including a 5-1 thrashing at Old Trafford, they were still without a win and Bielsa’s demeanour seemed in marked contrast to Steve Bruce’s defiance a day earlier.
Newcastle United’s 4-1 defeat at Manchester United last Saturday left Bruce’s team with one point from four league games. In all, 12 goals had been conceded but the visiting manager remained very much on the front foot, blaming north-east media “negativity” for exacerbating the club’s problems and reacting angrily when asked to confirm he had taken a controversial four-night holiday in Portugal during the international break.
An incandescent Bruce was adamant Newcastle’s preparations for facing Cristiano Ronaldo and co had been “meticulous” and claimed his side played “very well”, filling the role of gallant losers.
Although that performance was admittedly good enough to prevent travelling fans from chorusing “We want Brucie out” until deep into the second half, he knows the atmosphere will turn infinitely more toxic, and far earlier, should Newcastle struggle when Leeds visit St James’ Park on Friday night.
As he addressed the media again on Thursday, Bruce insisted he was not the root of the club’s problems. “We want to be up amongst the big boys competing at the other end of the table and, unfortunately, that’s not possible at this moment, is it?” said a manager disappointed to be, once again, without the injured Callum Wilson in attack.
“That’s the frustration. Do you not think I want better players? Do you not think I want a better squad and to have the ability to go out and compete at the top end of the transfer market? That’s not possible, so I have to accept it and get on with my job as best I can. In these difficult moments I hope my experience can steer us along the right path. The situation’s not great – I understand that – but that’s where we are.”
If those comments represented an unusually bold dig at the club’s owner, Mike Ashley, after a summer in which the former Arsenal midfielder Joe Willock was Newcastle’s sole first-team signing (albeit for £22m), they also risked provoking St James’ Park regulars. Some supporters believe Bruce’s squad is far better than advertised and he is simply not making the most of certain players, perhaps most notably Sean Longstaff.
Others feel a manager now on an apparent collision course with Ashley was short-changed during this summer’s transfer market but still suspect that, tactically, he is not fully up to the job. “I’ve said since I walked through the door two years ago that I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but, with my experience, I hope to keep the club just ticking along, make sure it stays where it is and maintain our Premier League status,” Bruce said.
The manager is expected to replace Freddie Woodman with Karl Darlow in goal on a night when home fans are preparing to demonstrate against the Premier League’s blocking of Newcastle’s £300m Saudi Arabian-led takeover. “We should be better than that,” Bruce said. “I know, for a lot of people, that’s the frustration. But that’s where we are at the moment – where we’ve been for a while.
“I want Newcastle to be top of the league too. I know the frustration’s there but, when it gets tough, I don’t think: ‘Walk away Steve, the noise is too bad.’ My family think I’m a bit sick because, when I’m up against it, I never really think about those things [the abuse]. It’s a challenge at the minute. It’s always difficult and I’d be sick if I said I enjoyed it but I have to accept that results have not been good enough. The frustration is that, if you don’t get results, the manager bears the brunt. But it’s not in my nature to walk away when we’re in a fight.”
While Alan Shearer, the former Newcastle centre-forward and manager, turned BBC pundit, has dubbed his old club “hollow and empty”, Bielsa has devoted the past three years to breathing new life into Leeds. Not that a manager evidently still smarting at being outmanoeuvred by Jürgen Klopp is about to rest on his laurels. “I clearly saw the plan of the opponent in the last game had a superior effect to the one I proposed,” he acknowledged, frowning, on Thursday. “It is very clear it is the manager’s fault.”
If Newcastle fans would appreciate similar humility from Bruce, they will be encouraged by Bielsa’s need to camouflage the vulnerabilities of a defence lacking three key components in the injured Diego Llorente and Robin Koch, and the suspended Pascal Struijk.
“It all adds up to a really big night for both teams,” agreed Bruce. “We need a big performance – and to win.”