With their 3-1 defeat at home to Norwich City on Saturday, Leeds United have now lost four of their last six league matches, and five of their last seven in all competitions.
So is there cause for panic? Probably not; they’re still second in the Championship, and at the very least look dead certs for a playoff spot. But is there cause for concern? Maybe.
If there is concern, it’s surely partly due to the propagation of a widely held trope about Marcelo Bielsa’s club management career in Europe. Much is made of so-called “Bielsa Burnout”, a lot of which is down to clichéd and sometimes lazy thinking about the Argentine’s history. And yet, there are certain trends that have followed Bielsa’s teams since 2011 that are hard to ignore.
A widely held belief regarding Bielsa’s recent sides is that they fall apart in the second half of the season due to fatigue. There’s no real proof of this, however, despite mileage-induced tiredness being commonly associated with Bielsa’s hard-pressing style of play. Some suggest mental fatigue is also a factor – whereby his players become so mentally exhausted by his all-encompassing intensity that they eventually crumble – but, again, this is difficult to prove conclusively.
Still, cliché or not, if you look at the details of Bielsa’s individual seasons since he arrived at Athletic in 2011 (we’re ignoring that nine-game spell at Espanyol in 1998), there might be something in all this.
From the beginning of the 2011-12 La Liga season until March 4th, Athletic lost only six of their 26 league games. They lit up the division with some electric football.
But then, from March 11th to March 31st, they lost four out of five matches. In fact, from March 11th they were defeated in seven of their 13 games to the end of the season, which is perhaps when the idea of “Bielsa Burnout” began to emerge. Notably, alongside this horrible league form they also lost in the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals.
The next season’s “burnout” was nowhere near as dramatic, but there was another significant stumble when Spring began to rear its head. Athletic’s form in the first half of the campaign wasn’t as sparkling as it had been the year before, but from February 10th to April 14th they lost six La Liga games from nine and won just five league games out of the remaining 15.
It’s worth saying that Athletic had been inconsistent throughout, so this was hardly a collapse of epic proportions. But, again, a dreadful February-March period had led to the wheels really coming off.
Bielsa left the Basque outfit at the end of 2012-13, and took a year off before returning to football with Marseille in 2014-15. Almost immediately, l’OM began to dominate Ligue 1. They won eight league games in a row during a glorious run from late August to mid November, and won 13 of 19 league matches before the winter break.
Then, in February, things started to go wrong.
They failed to register a single win in Ligue 1 in February (three draws, one loss) and, from the 28th of that month to the 25th of April, they endured a sequence of five losses in eight league fixtures. From the beginning of February to the final league match in April, they managed just two wins.
Whatever the reason, the impending arrival of Spring, again, had thoroughly derailed Bielsa’s team. Marseille, having led the league for seven months, ended up finishing fourth.
While “Bielsa Burnout” is unquestionably a bit over-egged, it’s hard to deny that when Bielsa has been in charge for a full season in a European league, the February to March period has heralded a poor – and occasionally disastrous for his club’s chances of winning a trophy – run of form. As for why, well, we have absolutely no idea.
Leeds’ form began to swing a little earlier than this, with the current run of bad results beginning at the end of December. But the Championship is a more attritional competition than Ligue 1 or La Liga, and with Leeds having tasted defeat in their first fixture of February, it would be understandable if United supporters began to worry just a touch.
There’s room for optimism, though: back in 1998, Bielsa’s Velez Sarsfield bounced back from a shoddy opening half of the bisected Argentinian championship to take the Clausura. Six years previously, with Newell’s Old Boys, he’d done exactly the same thing. That’s the staying power United supporters will be hoping Bielsa can call upon in 2018-19.