Sometimes things happen on a football pitch that nobody wants to see, so people form a shield to block views, cameras pull away, adults cover children’s eyes. That’s how it should be for Leeds United’s confrontation with Premier League reality this autumn.

A graphic showing Firpo tackling Mane while Phillips looks on
Artwork by Eamonn Dalton

The high of promotion is only just giving way to hangover now, fifteen months after the fact, after a helium interim when United’s football was the single joy of a deadly monotonous pandemic. Some of the emotion was held back, so it wasn’t too strange to hear Gaetano Berardi’s name being sung at only the second sell-out league game since before promotion. And some of the story was out of shot of the television broadcasts, that we assume are all-seeing, but are selective both in editing and atmosphere. There wasn’t any atmosphere in the Premier League’s empty stadiums last season and without an audience to provide a chorus and without a full pitch view, we only saw the best football Leeds have played for twenty years, and it seduced us in our homes. What we saw was never really what it was like, but we liked what we saw.

Back in the sunless chill of the West Stand, watching Leeds playing Liverpool in the Premier League again after almost twenty years, I was taken back to the adventurous Champions League era, the title-chasing Super Sundays, when superb footballers like Mark Viduka and Olivier Dacourt would end games defeated, barracked by Leeds fans for not being good enough or strong enough to do what we wanted them to do. One month after topping the Premier League in 2002, Leeds were beaten 4-0 by Liverpool at Elland Road. We had Nigel Martyn in goal and Rio Ferdinand in defence, Batty and Bowyer in the middle and Kewell and Fowler up front. It’s hard to think of a better Leeds line-up this century. Ferdinand scored an own goal and Emile Heskey got two in two minutes. But given time, games like that fade from our memory, as the one we replay — constantly, at the start of the pandemic — is the one when Viduka scored four, in a team we forget was not so good. Eirik Bakke, Jacob Burns, Danny Hay; not Robbie Keane on the bench, but Gareth Evans.

The best of the current Leeds United team can, with a bit of favour, be compared with that one. Bamford on his best days for Viduka or Smith. Raphinha for Kewell. Harrison, certainly, for Jason Wilcox. Meslier for Robinson, Firpo for Harte, Ayling for Kelly or Mills. I don’t think we have a Ferdinand or Woodgate but we have a crop of Matteos in Cooper, Llorente and Koch, maybe something even better in Struijk, and they’re all better than Duberry. Dallas lacks Lee Bowyer’s explosion, but the way Kalvin Phillips played against Liverpool this weekend, he could have taken over from Dacourt or Batty and improved the side. I’m not sure where Rodrigo would have fit in back then. Or now. So I guess he’s Seth Johnson.

What the current side have in common with our memory of David O’Leary’s is the blessing of nostalgia, but unlike O’Leary’s, it’s steadily becoming a curse upon them. Few people are going to go back through the football of 1999 to 2002 to decide whether the era was better represented by the 4-3 over Liverpool or the 0-4 beneath them. The small screen will stick to rerunning the best of the 4:3 ratio clips, thank you very much. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, though, are going to be exposed every week to the scrutiny of fans who remember them from the last year-and-a-half at home as heroes in high definition. The problem now they’re off the screen is that they’re only human, and can’t live up to a video ideal of themselves that we don’t normally build for players until after their retirement.

Bielsa spoke last week about the modern idea that fans only want to see highlights, and something of that is afflicting Leeds. The games played behind closed doors, only shown on pay television, took on the feel of highlights partly through the presentation — the Premier League will always make the loudest statements about its own quality — and partly through the relief from monotony Bielsa’s style represents. After the first lockdown, everybody was glad to have football back, if only on TV. But imagine if we’d had to watch Burnley every week. Instead, what we got was wonderful, like a dream. But like a dream it was impossible to maintain after we woke up and went outside.

I don’t know about second season syndrome but what we’re getting from Leeds now is what their first Premier League season probably should have been like. A Championship side grinding out draws against established Premier League clubs, getting blown away by the top four. Last season was a fantasy when we couldn’t see Luke Ayling and Kalvin Phillips arguing off the ball about misplaced passes, or Raphinha sitting sulking on the grass after Leeds concede. A mistake watched in silence, or amid the indifferent hum of crowd noise from a tape, hits different when you hear 36,000 groaning at Liam Cooper, but it’s not as if those mistakes didn’t happen. God, how I adore the memory of that first Premier League game, Leeds doing us proud at Anfield. They conceded four that day, though. At least this weekend they only conceded three.

Another oddity in the stats: at Anfield last season, Leeds had three shots on target — all scored — and three off. This weekend Leeds had four on target of nine. Last season’s Super League match at Elland Road was the best of United’s performances against the Reds, and wasn’t so different from this weekend’s match, conceding midway through the first half, while withstanding a battering. That day Leeds equalised with three minutes to go. This time Liverpool got a scruffy second just after half-time, then the game was brought almost to a halt by a horrible injury to Harvey Elliot and a red card for Pascal Struijk.

That moment changed the atmosphere and the play. To call an injury sickening is a soccer cliche but it describes the stomach-shiver I felt after glimpsing the angle of Elliot’s ankle, watching him being stretchered off, imagining the damage to muscle and bone, and the pain. People also always say the reaction of the players can tell you a lot, and that cliche was definitely instructive here. Mo Salah was the nearest one, and he immediately called for urgent medical help. Other Liverpool players rushed to their stricken comrade, while Leeds players grimaced and turned away, knowing it was bad. But in a situation where I’ve seen fights break out as players seek retribution for the tackle, I didn’t see one Liverpool player accusing or blaming Pascal Struijk, or even claiming for a foul, not even Salah, who didn’t seem to see anything wrong with Struijk’s tackle when it happened, only with his friend’s ankle when he heard his cry and looked back. There was unity among players from both teams of sympathy for Elliot and understanding for Struijk, whose remorse was obvious. Virgil van Dijk made a point of comforting him. And his manager, Jurgen Klopp, alone in his thirst for revenge, seethed in the background, calmer than he was when shouting at individual fans behind the dugout in the first few moments after the tackle — when everyone else was concentrating on Elliot’s health — and calmer than he was before referee Craig Pawson mollified him by showing Struijk a red card, but not yet calm enough to end his harangue of the fourth official, or to accept his captain extending a hand of compassion to Klopp’s latest nemesis. You can tell a lot from the reactions of footballers. And from managers, too.

I don’t know how informative this is, but Liverpool only had eight of their thirty shots in the thirty-ish minutes Struijk was on the pitch. He was playing very well after replacing Diego Llorente, who got injured again and got very angry about it. There were ten more shots in Llorente’s half-hour, but he was also playing very well, frantic sometimes but emphatic and confident. I wish some of our other players had Llorente’s faith in just, like, kicking the ball, and doing stuff.

Take Rodrigo, who could have changed the match completely in the first five minutes. This was in the middle of an exhilarating passage of play when Liverpool counter-attacked through Salah, who was dropped on the edge of the area by Phillips; the crowd loved that, and within seconds Raphinha had the ball from Kalvin’s long pass, was setting up Rodrigo for a clear shot, and the noise was peaking, and if Leeds had scored at that moment the crescendo would have reached Becchio-Millwall levels, breaking decibel readers, shifting the South Stand from its foundations. But Rodrigo kicked the ball straight at Allison’s head. Within seconds of that easy save Liverpool were playing a through ball that Meslier had to intercept, so instead of a great moment for Leeds, I had to isolate those ninety seconds as a great moment given by Leeds to football, because end-to-end excitement like that doesn’t happen when I watch other teams playing.

Leeds had other chances. They were not, despite the post-match feeling, completely inept. Tyler Roberts had a similar chance to Rodrigo, early in the second half, but placed it just as firmly wide. That came after Jackie Harrison took on Trent Alexander-Arnold, and good things happened for Leeds whenever Harrison tried doing that, making his reluctance to keep going at the full-back frustrating. Leeds were concentrating on finding Bamford through the middle, a tactic that was worrying Klopp, but hitting the striker’s chest with passes twenty-five yards from goal was asking a lot of his ability for making a goal from there.

Leeds had their worries about Liverpool’s attackers, specifically all of them, and their defenders too. The opening goal happened because centre-back Joel Matip drove at the left side of Leeds’ penalty area, scrambling the marking: if someone stepped up to Matip, who marked Salah? And then if someone marked Salah, who marked Alexander-Arnold? While this was sorted out, both players got free and made the goal. Perhaps the proper question was who should have followed Matip from midfield. But what midfield?

The second goal was just a typical corner scruff-bag barely worth thinking about. The third was a stoppage time favour to Sadio Mane, who deserved one. There are two ways of looking at Mane’s role in the game. Either Leeds put on a superb defensive effort to stop him scoring until the end, last ditch blocks following gormless misses, or maybe they were lucky he didn’t score ten. The same dual view applies to the first two crucial goals. One moment of poor defending, and a characteristic flaw at a corner? Not the end of the world. But, well, what about the 28 other chances? Some of those might well have been.

It hurts to see Leeds struggling like this, but the nostalgic grace we were allowed to feel about last season couldn’t last forever. The Premier League represents, ultimately, a simple economic war, and clubs on Leeds’ side of the divide can only win battles. Even Leicester, our model club for defying the elite, lost at home to Manchester City this weekend while giving up 25 shots and getting only one of their own six on target. We’ve been lulled into a sense of security by starting so well at Anfield last season (and losing), by the reflected glory of international call-ups, and by spending £30m on a forward from Valencia or £15m on a full-back from Barcelona, big deals for us, but a weekly shop for some of the clubs we’re up against. The song from the away fans at the end was, “The Reds have got no money, but we’ll still win the league!”, and if Liverpool see themselves at the impoverished end of the Premier League, I have no idea where that leaves Leeds United. Trying to compete, I guess, in a league that’s not as easy as it looks on TV. ◉

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