In the end, reality caught up with Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United. You can play fantasy football for so long, but when a devotion to style over substance begins to threaten your existence as a Premier League team, time and patience start to evaporate for even the most celebrated of coaches.
When Bielsa was fired by Leeds on Sunday in the wake of a 4-0 defeat against Tottenham at Elland Road, nobody could say that they hadn't seen it coming, but it was conclusive proof that romance really is dead when it comes to football.
Leeds have conceded 20 goals in their last five Premier League matches, and three defeats in six days against Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs saw Bielsa's team concede 14 goals and score just twice in reply.
Two wins in their last 12 league games means that Leeds, promoted back to the Premier League after a 16-year absence under Bielsa's guidance in 2020, have dropped to 16th in the table. They sit just two points above third-bottom Burnley having played two more games than Sean Dyche's team.
So the alarm bells had been ringing inside Elland Road for long enough to realise that Bielsa's remarkable four-year spell as manager was coming to an end. Yet, when the inevitable happened at the weekend, there was more sadness than relief among the club's players and supporters who have come to regard the 66-year-old Argentine as a Leeds legend and, to some, the man who brought the club back to life.
Leeds players Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford all posted thanks to Bielsa on social media, but they were not the kind of PR-scripted messages that often greet a squad's reaction to a manager's dismissal. These were heartfelt notes of regret and gratitude to a man for his impact on both their professional and personal development. Club chairman Andrea Radrizzani said that firing Bielsa was the "toughest decision" he has had to make in his role at the club, while the Leeds United Supporters Trust published a farewell message to Bielsa that was more a love letter than statement, thanking him for "1,353 incredible days" during which time he became a "club icon" who "changed lives."
But as Leeds conceded four against United, six against Liverpool and then another four at home to Spurs, there was a real sense that the club were going to allow their love affair with Bielsa to end in relegation until pragmatism finally shook the Leeds hierarchy into action.
The tale of Bielsa's time at Leeds is ultimately a harsh lesson that coaches who are so stubbornly wedded to their tactical philosophy, sometimes with an evangelical zeal, will always fail if they refuse to compromise their beliefs when their Plan A stops working. Bielsa joins a list that includes the likes of Louis van Gaal, Jorge Sampaoli, Maurizio Sarri and Arsene Wenger during his final years at Arsenal as a coach who simply wouldn't change his ways while the game changed around him.
That is why the true greats are the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp -- coaches who will play with style, but also with substance, when they need to win. Jose Mourinho, for all of his critics, always put winning before style because trophies count for more than plaudits to all but a small minority of purists whose perspective will never change.
Leeds have at least woken up from their romantic dream while they have time to stop it from becoming a relegation nightmare. The club's fans have adored Bielsa for his high-energy, pressing, fluid style of football, but even during two seasons in the Championship, its weaknesses were exposed by well-organised opponents. But in the Premier League, having benefited from the surprise element of being a newcomer to the top flight last season, Leeds have now been found out and beaten heavily on countless occasions because Bielsa has refused to make allowances.
His hand has undoubtedly been weakened by long-term injuries to Cooper, Phillips and Bamford. Those three players provided the spine of Bielsa's team last season, but having lost them, he carried on regardless -- same tactics, same cavalier-attacking and same gaping holes at the back. As a consequence, Leeds have the worst defence in the Premier League this season, conceding 60 goals -- five more than bottom team Norwich City -- in 26 games.
But for all of his faults, Bielsa has brought joy and optimism back to Leeds United. He has been the same transformative figure that Kevin Keegan was at Newcastle United in the 1990s -- a coach who has re-energised a city as well as a club. Keegan's Newcastle team became known as "The Entertainers" because they were so good to watch, but guess what? They didn't win anything because Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United knew that toughness and pragmatism are as important as eye-catching football, and they won the Premier League, and everything else, instead of Keegan's team.
Bielsa and his team will still be remembered by Leeds fans in 25 years, just as Keegan and his side are idolised in Newcastle, but nobody wants to be remembered as the most exciting team ever to be relegated, and that's where Leeds were heading under the coach they love more than any other.