A complete, compelling and convincing Leeds United victory over Derby County on Friday evening was overshadowed by pre-match controversy following the revelation that Marcelo Bielsa had sent a spy to watch the Rams train before the highly-anticipated fixture.
The arrival of Bielsa has thrown up a dynamic in Championship football which has sent its entertainment value through the roof. Widely analysed and dissected by football hipsters and the general spectator, Biesla is pigeonholed as an enigma within the footballing world, and that labelling never felt more apt than in the hours leading up to Leeds’ clash with Derby at Elland Road.
Bielsa revealed that not only had he spied on Derby prior to the fixture but that he had also sent spies to watch the opposition train before every single Leeds fixture this season. Honesty is the best policy.
The consequence: a media storm which was unprecedented in its nature. Arguments will rumble on until the FA make a decision on how Leeds should be punished, but talk of a potential points deduction and/or anything beyond a fine and a warning regarding future conduct is verging on ludicrous.
Frank Lampard is new to world of management but even he will be aware of one of the most fundamental managerial tactics: deflect attention away from poor team performances at all costs.
In the case of Derby’s defeat at Leeds, his perfect excuse was served up on a plate in the shape of ‘spygate’. Lampard did not shy away from the fact that his side were far from their best but he used the pre-match narrative to suggest that preparations had been sabotaged somewhat by the training ground incident.
But is that enough to suggest that Lampard has a leg to stand on by suggesting the FA should “reverse the three points we [Derby] lost!”? Players weren’t threatened, food wasn’t poisoned and Derby didn’t suffer any lasting mental scarring from the incident. It’s nothing more than a convenient excuse for being outplayed by the better side; for being tactically outclassed by a manager with a wealth of experience beyond Lampard’s comprehension.
If this was say, for example, Burnley’s Sean Dyche, would the controversy have been profound across the British media? There’s no way to answer that question with utmost certainty, but it’s incredibly unlikely that onlookers would be calling for severe punishment; with Leeds top of the table, this is a perfect opportunity for rivals to unsettle the Whites in their bid to return to the top-flight.
This is not to say that Bielsa was well within his rights to send spies to scout the opposition, but in a digital age offering access to endless hours of videos on the opposition and incomprehensible levels of statistical information at the fingertips of top-level football professionals, how much extra can one actually gain by watching the opponent on the training ground?
Of course, football is a game of fine margins and spying on the opposition could offer a chance to make up that extra margin needed for victory. However, with no rule directly in place to combat what Bielsa has done, the FA’s punishment shouldn’t represent much more than a firm slap on the wrists.
In the context of footballing immorality, which includes the likes of diving and feigning injuries to con the referee – both of which are examples of cheating which directly influence the pattern of play – spying is a relatively minor offence.
It will be interesting to see, though, how Leeds perform without the information sourced from pre-match spying for the remainder of the season, based on the premise that, surely, the saga will put an end to Bielsa’s controversial and culturally entwined endeavour…
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