Leeds United have a proud history, not so much in the FA Cup though where the 1972 triumph against Arsenal still represents the only time we lifted the cup. It’s about time then, on the way to Premiership survival, that a good cup run would have cemented Leeds United’s position back at the top of English football. Much of Thursday’s press-conference ahead of this weekends FA Cup fixture against Crawley was concerned with how seriously Marcelo Bielsa took the famous old competition. As a Copa Libertadores and Copa del Rey runner-up, Bielsa has history in cup competitions and it was clear he understood the importance of the FA Cup.
For me, it represents English football in its purest form. It allows you to link with the history of the clubs in England. That's why I'm very happy to be in this competition.
It was also clear that he respected Crawley and was aware of the dangers they posed; “They have two interior midfielders who have creativity and forwards and wingers with the capacity to unbalance a team.” It was good to see then that despite seven changes to his starting eleven, Bielsa still named a strong team to face the West Sussex side. Captain Liam Cooper came back into the side with Kalvin Phillips, Gjanni Alioski, Pascal Struijk and Rodrigo retaining their places. Pablo Hernandez, Jamie Shackleton and the exciting Ian Poveda also started. Strong at the back with Spain’s No. 9 in attack, what could go wrong?
In spite of what the UK casino sites predicted, the first half was fairly even, Leeds dominating possession without creating too many chances. But there were early signs Bielsa was treating the match as if it were a Under 23s game. Jamie Shackleton once again played right back, with most fans screaming for him to get his chance in the middle of midfield. Kalvin Phillips also switched to central defence as Pascal Struijk took on the defensive midfield role. A switch that felt like Bielsa was looking ahead to next weekend when Struijk will no doubt deputise for the suspended Phillips, rather than the best option to get something out of this afternoons game.
Crawley were not out of the game at half time and Leeds needed to take advantage of their dominance early in the second half if they were to secure the win. Instead Bielsa took off his club captain and international striker along with Struijk, replacing them with two Under 23 players and playing a winger up front. At that point it felt clear Bielsa was not taking the game seriously, it was still there to be won at half time but the changes felt like we had given up. It became a chance to look at some of the younger players and try Harrison up front, there were no clear tactics to take it to Crawley, no clear desire to win the game.
Only five minutes after the break Crawley embarrassed Leeds as ex-Spurs youngster Nick Tsaroulla took advantage of Leeds United’s unfamiliar, disorganised defence to beat five men and stick the ball past Kiko Casilla. The lead, and Leeds United’s embarrassment, was doubled just three minutes later as Casilla bungled Ashley Nadesan’s effort, the ball slipping underneath the Spanish keeper. Crawley were emboldened, Leeds look dejected and clueless. Nothing was clicking for them, either at the back or up front.
Bielsa’s response seemed conflicted, Greenwood and Raphinha coming on for Davis and Poveda. Raphinha would provide the skill and quality to open up Crawley but Greenwood played behind Harrison, Bielsa still persevering with a winger up front. It didn’t help things as Crawley extended their lead with just twenty minutes to go, embarrassment complete, all hope of a comeback banished from the minds of Leeds United fans. Crawley town now added to the list of Leeds United FA Cup embarrassments along with Histon, Sutton and Newport.
Could a team with so many changes, with three Under 23 players on the pitch at the end of the game, with players playing out of position have expected to get any more from the cap? Should Leeds United fans expect more? Is it too much to hope that at long last we might actually go on a bit of an FA Cup run? It feels like the fans were taking this seasons FA Cupm seriously, sadly Marcelo Bielsa appears not to have done.