Leeds United stand a brilliant chance of automatic promotion. Just how good a season has this been to watch?
It’s been terrific. They finished 13th last year and deserved to because they were a mile off the pace, particularly in the second half of the season. Marcelo Bielsa has been an absolute revelation and that’s why they threw so much money at him - they hoped he’d do this. Aside from the style and the entertainment – because there has been plenty of it – the thing I like about him and this team is the way that they hang in regardless of what’s going on. They have had poor results here and there and, particularly in the last month or so, they’ve had moments that have knocked them out of their stride. But like Sheffield United, they are just refusing to yield and won’t give in. This is the best Championship season Leeds have had since they were promoted in 1990, points-wise, and it’s by a mile the best chance they’ve had since they were relegated from the Premier League 15 years ago. It will be a massive opportunity missed if it doesn’t happen, but, having said that, when you are in as tight a race as they are, somebody has got to miss out.
Do you think the media speculation around ‘Spygate’ had an effect on the squad?
I don’t think it did and I don’t think it had any effect on Bielsa, apart from him feeling fairly aggrieved about the attention and the criticism he got. In the end, he was philosophical enough to accept that opinion was largely against him in England, certainly among his colleagues. Opinion was fairly split in the media; a lot of people didn’t think it was a massive deal, while there were some people who thought it was a disgrace.
I would say that the club were more concerned than anybody else because they weren’t entirely sure what the consequences would be; they didn’t know how far the EFL or the FA would go with any investigations.
There have been a lot of wins since ‘Spygate’; I don’t think there’s anything more to the second half of the season than just the intermittent blips you get when a season starts catching up with you. I have to say, and it’s only my opinion, I don’t think his strategy of pre-match observation – spying if you want to call it that – has made any difference to the season either. I think he’s too meticulous for the results to be based on something like that.
Both Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips were named in the Championship Team of the Season recently, though it’s safe to say there could have been a couple more given the club’s success this term. Who has been the standout performer for you?
I’d also have had Pablo Hernández in there; he’s been sensational and has had a hand in more than 20 goals this season. I’ve never seen him play this well for Leeds and I wonder if he’s ever played this well in his career because he does look a cut above 99 per cent of the Championship. But, as harsh as it is to say, he’s doing what you expect of him. He’s that good a player that you become a bit blasé about it. It’s a given that Hernandez is going to do something when Leeds need a bit of magic.
Phillips is an academy player, who was basically a generic centre-mid in his early years, but Bielsa has converted him into a holding midfielder. The improvement in his dominance in that area, his ability to play out of tight areas, has been an absolute revelation. He’s the player who, more than anybody else, has changed the way Leeds play; his improvement and his position in the team is one of the reasons why Leeds have been able to play as they do. I do think there’s an argument to say the reason Hernández has been able to play as he has is because of the platform he gets from Phillips in front of the back four.
How has Marcelo Bielsa tended to set up his side this season?
It’s pretty formulaic; he will go 4-1-4-1 against a team with one up top, which is very much the fashion these days, and he tends to switch to 3-3-1-3 against teams with two up front. Being totally honest, I don’t think the players look anything like as comfortable in the latter formation as they do in 4-1-4-1, which is very much the formation they are used to and the one they use most often. There are no surprises with them, really. He never changes his team unless he has to and essentially gives away his team a few days before anyway – he’s quite open in naming who is going to start and who isn’t. That, again, is one of the fascinating aspects of this season: everybody knows what he is doing, it’s all laid out, but very few people have managed to get to grips with it despite being forewarned.
What’s your score prediction for the game, which could be Leeds’ final league outing at Griffin Park?
I couldn’t predict a Leeds win with any confidence because I’ve seen a lot of games where Leeds have been outplayed, where they haven’t coped well. Brentford, I think, are one of the few sides with the ability and confidence to go toe-to-toe with Leeds in terms of playing the game, in terms of passing the ball and playing.
I know there was a lot said about the penalty when Brentford were up at Leeds in October but, despite that, I thought they were well worth the point at Elland Road - they troubled Leeds far more than most sides this season. It’s hard to say I’d take a draw, given the state of play in the Championship. If Leeds have got any breathing space, I’d be happy with a draw and a point is as much as I’d expect because Brentford over the years has been a difficult place to go.