For a long time the defining phrase of Leeds United’s campaign was ‘lack of efficiency’. In the days before Marcelo Bielsa, we might have called this an ‘abundance of Billy Paynter’.
At Huddersfield Town, Leeds were ruthless. A set-piece and a counter-attack and a win. Another one. Another comfortable margin and another clean sheet. And no lack of efficiency.
It was achieved despite a £20m midfielder being absent through suspension, and replaced by a £20m defender; then Liam Cooper’s injury meant Ben White was stepping ahead of a defence of full-backs, two of whom were wingers, although they were often playing in midfield anyway. Such are solutions under Bielsa, and while the seamless interchange of his players is a trademark, on this occasion the disruption showed.
Some credit should be given to the managerial double-act in charge of Huddersfield, the Cowley brothers. The hours of damp fanboying over videos of Bielsa’s Leeds in the back bedroom they share at their mum’s house brought them as near to disrupting the Peacocks’ progress as anyone. Even so, I’m not sure it really takes two faux-intellectuals musing on the touchline about deep completions to inspire Huddersfield Town to gerrin’ to ’em and play for set-pieces, when Neil Warnock used to do exactly the same.
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But even without Andy Booth as a focal point that was basically the plan; to stop Leeds from playing by valuing free-kicks above passing, and to take advantage of United’s shuffled and ruffled defence by banging the ball forward and piling on the press. They’re the one team this season able to target Ben White as a potential weakness, and we’ve found one thing he isn’t completely brilliant at yet: he’ll need a bit more practice before his Kalvin Phillips impression is perfect.
Huddersfield’s attempts at roughness were well-met in the usual quarters. Gaetano Berardi outjumped everybody for everything; Mateusz Klich and Stuart Dallas committed themselves to covering Phillips’ absence and White’s inexperience in midfield; Pablo Hernandez roved all over the pitch to ensure class was always near. Up front Helder Costa continued his match by match improvements, and is beginning to play like someone coming through the other side of a Bielsa adaptation process, realising how much better he might be after this reprogramming.
But it’s the hours Pat Bamford has been putting into watching old videos of John Fashanu that are really paying off. He threw himself into the game: not the fun parts like scoring goals, but the scraps and the battles that drove Town’s defenders to distraction. Bamford has become a much more useful player since he focused his moaning and concentrated his whining, and mastered the art of getting kicked and looking like it. Give him a yard of space and he might or might not score, but give him a tap on the ankle and he’ll definitely win a free-kick. If you risk not tapping him, you risk giving him that yard; and if you let him wind you up, you’ll never calm down again.
Eddie Nketiah came on as a late substitute for Bamford but, as against Middlesbrough, he didn’t really impose himself; you start to wonder, if Arsenal do recall him in January, whether it’d really be that big a deal. Nketiah has won points for Leeds with clinical finishing in the box; roaming the rest of the Championship’s pitches, so unshaven you want to check for Bailey’s on his breath, Bamford might be what promotion needs.
By half-time at Huddersfield, despite Klich shooting against a post from a short corner, United were showing more signs of frustration than Town, but they didn’t mess around when opportunities came in the second half. A half-cleared corner was fully volleyed in by Ezgjan Alioski from the edge of the box, and his celebrations put everybody into full cringe; his physical joke about team manager Matt Grice’s Movember moustache inadvertently hinted that Fawlty Towers repeats are still a big hit in North Macedonia, and required a quick explanation in the post-match interviews.
Meanwhile, Leeds forced Huddersfield to abandon their plan and follow a classic script. Hunting for an equaliser, they were picked off by a sublime counter-attack that crossed the pitch from right to left; White to Berardi to Costa to Nketiah to Jackie Harrison, then a deadly cross to the back post that Hernandez headed in. The move started by defending a free-kick into United’s penalty area; when it ended Leeds had five players in Town’s. Football is beautiful when a goal this difficult is made to look so easy.
There should have been another goal between those two, when Dallas crossed for Bamford but they were wrongly ruled offside, and a third might have been handy. Huddersfield were not demoralised by going behind, and attacked with the sort of nowt-to-lose attitude normally associated with a one-off game like, say, a cup final. For weeks United’s defence has been so good that Kiko Casilla has had little to do except collect his clean sheet bonuses; with his usual protection missing, he paid that back with saves, including one from a close range header that was brilliant.
Overall Leeds were not brilliant. Possession was down to 59% compared to 68% against Middlesbrough; passing accuracy was only 74%, not 82%. Against Boro Leeds made eight clearances; here they needed twenty, and it was Huddersfield who only needed nine. Leeds had more shots, but Town had more chances.
But Leeds won anyway. Whatever the problems the Peacocks might have during a game, whatever changes are forced by injuries or suspensions, that always seems to be the outcome now. Another efficient Leeds victory, words we didn’t expect to be using just a couple of months ago. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)