Paddy Davitt: Spying, pink walls and the coach driver’s revenge. The drama within the drama binding Farke, Bielsa and Wilder
Norwich lead Sheffield United and Leeds ahead of the final push for Championship promotion. Paddy Davitt looks at the contrast of styles between the leaders.
The jousting is all but over. Now we are about to see who has the staying power in the race for Championship promotion.
Daniel Farke, Chris Wilder and Marcelo Bielsa would have you believe it is all down to their players. Which of course it is. Teemu Pukki’s goals, Emi Buendia’s assists or Tim Krul’s saves will be the elements that decide whether Norwich prevail in these final eight league games, or whether they leave the door ajar a touch for the likes of Leeds and Sheffield United.
But this is also a tale of which manager, or head coach for that matter, can keep their cool.
Who gets more decisions right than wrong. Who gets the selection policy right and who is able to intuitively alter the ebb and flow of a game down the stretch.
The tension and the nerves are inevitable by-products when the prize is so big. That applies as much to those prowling the technical area, or sitting on a cool box in Bielsa’s case.
The Argentine is a vastly-experienced operator but it is worth reiterating none of this managerial trio knows what it takes to operate in the Premier League.
Nor have they been involved at this end of the Championship. This is virgin ground.
But what is abundantly clear is how differently all three appear to approach the task; how they are blending the characters and the contrast in playing styles that offers a fascinating sub-plot to this unfolding drama.
The public persona all three project could hardly be more marked.
Bielsa is circumspect, almost aloof, aided in part one suspects by the language barrier. Bar a bizarre interlude when that spying storm raged and he sought solace in discussing the minutiae of his pre-match preparations with wide-eyed journalists.
Farke is reserved and respectful while Wilder is a spiky, pugnacious operator who has few friends in these parts after a Championship meeting last season that colloquially became known as the ‘coach driver’s’ revenge.
Every barb and insinuation directed towards City’s perceived gamesmanship in a 1-0 away league win at Bramall Lane was caught on film. That appeared to set the tone for every subsequent, evenly-contested meeting.
Farke took that critique in the same manner he has dealt with most issues, whenever pressed for a public pronouncement or a right of reply.
The most recent Carrow Road episode ended in deadlock but smiles as Wilder revealed the lengths his backroom staff went to disguise the pink walls of the Carrow Road away dressing room.
It is not just the demeanour of those two individuals that is different. You can also see two teams cast in very different images.
The Blades are defensively resolute to the point of obduracy, as they demonstrated so visibly in eclipsing Leeds at Elland Road prior to the international break. There is a hard-edge, a streetwise veneer to how they have maintained their promotion push.
City, under Farke’s stewardship, favour finding a way around the wall rather than opting to career through it. The football is more pleasing on the eye, the philosophy more cultured but perhaps given both are now locked together in a quest for automatic promotion one should also accentuate the similarities.
There is a bravery and a unifying desire to impose their distinct styles on opponents. Wilder has persevered with a defensive three-man formation that can be a strength and also a weakness in wide areas.
Farke has sought to defy the perceived wisdom you can achieve very little by blooding such inexperienced young talent.
It is far easier to try and deconstruct his work or Wilder’s template than to understand the enigmatic Bielsa.
Leeds continue to frustrate and thrill.
There is a contradiction to a team who can be so slick in the final third yet so vulnerable defensively. Two home league defeats to their main rivals since the turn of the year prompted the likes of Neil Warnock to question their soft underbelly.
Given Bielsa’s need for translation services when he communicates to the public one must query whether the messages are always getting through, when you see the manner they came up short against Norwich and their Yorkshire rivals.
But the reality is we only ever see a glimpse into the character of all three leaders. It is the interaction with their players that counts, not the media or their fanbases on any given weekend.
In that regard, the biggest clues will remain what their players produce between now and May.