Going for it

Leeds United 2-2 Brentford: to the end

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Photographs by: Lee Brown
Luke Ayling is saluting the Kop out of the scrum of players celebrating Tyler Roberts' goal against Brentford

For fifteen minutes after Tyler Roberts scored the game’s first goal, Leeds United were the team we were expecting in August. For fifteen minutes after Kalvin Phillips joined Liam Cooper by going off injured, Leeds were the team we’ve been watching the last few months instead. For fifteen minutes before the final whistle, Leeds were the team that will, in the end, get themselves out of trouble this season.

During that last spell of United’s attack versus Brentford’s timewasting and defence, Leeds were a team with few peers. I’m not sure how many other sides would be left as open to conceding a third. But without that risk, combined with fitness and desire, other teams don’t get the vital late goals and late points Leeds get in winter with Marcelo Bielsa: from Aston Villa and Blackburn in 2018; from Luton, Reading and Birmingham in 2019; from Everton in 2020 or, moving into spring, Manchester City in 2021. Now Crystal Palace and Brentford, in a week, have been forced into giving up what they wanted to hold, by a team that never settles for what it has.

(Even when it’s winning, but we can discuss that aspect more when that’s happening more.)

My sympathies lean Leeds anyway, but even more so when the long awaited returns of Luke Ayling to the eleven and Pat Bamford to the bench are matched, inside fifteen minutes, by the loss of Cooper then inside an hour by Phillips. It was time for grim laughter when Cooper went down after an innocuous clearance, then actual laughter, from Mateusz Klich, when with his toes on the touchline he was told to turn back because Bielsa had changed his mind about which sub to use. Jackie Harrison was hurriedly dressed and sent on instead, without a single instruction, visibly confused but getting stuck in anyway while Bielsa made his chess moves yell and point by yell and point, making the big grass board look like the inside of his head.

The change didn’t just leave Klich sitting down, but obvious replacement Charlie Cresswell, suggesting Bielsa had seen enough in the first end to end fifteen minutes to think more attackers would mean more goals. The players, if nobody else, seemed at ease with the madness. People do, as I’m sure the players are aware, call their coach El Loco. From the change until ten minutes after half-time, Brentford didn’t have a shot, after taking three before Cooper had to leave. In the fifteen minutes before the break Leeds went over 75% possession. Unconventional as it seemed, this was Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, not the Wish.com knock-off.

Harrison didn’t touch the ball for United’s goal but his presence on the left wing can’t have pleased Brentford’s defenders once they realised Raphinha had gone over there too. One winger at a time, please! Raphinha was out there after failing to swat Charlie Goode on his way out of defence, Tyler Roberts taking over by intercepting their pass on halfway and letting Adam Forshaw bring Raphinha back in, so he and Harrison could get Brentford sweating. Raphinha’s first cross was brilliant, but Pontus Jansson headed it back onto his toe, and now Roberts had arrived as architect in the box, Raphinha delivering the low cross Roberts pointed he wanted, only asking Tyler to finish his end of the bargain. A sliding finish, a calm celebration, just what everybody needed.

Dan James with his arm around Tyler Roberts after the first goal; we're looking at them from the back, towards the West Stand. It's cute, James is so lickle
Photograph by Lee Brown

United’s domination continued for ten minutes into the second half, clearly a better team than Brentford, ready to win to nil. Which makes what happened after Phillips felt his calf twinge even more frustrating. While Phillips was on the sidelines working out whether he could keep going, Rico Henry went around Stuart Dallas in the corner and his cut back deflected to Shandon Baptiste, right where Phillips would have been marking him. Even his shot into the bottom corner looked spawny, but there was a basic truth involved: marking player for player is harder with one player gone. After Phillips was off and Klich was finally on, Leeds couldn’t resettle, not helped by Ayling spending time off the pitch after blocking a shot with his nose, coming back on, and giving Brentford the ball for an attack that Sergi Canos ended up heading wide at the back post by a Benteke margin. Brentford took advantage of a Junior Firpo mistake when the pressure was mounting. The ball was finally out of United’s box when Firpo gave it back to Brentford by nutmegging Forshaw, and what followed demonstrates why Bielsa loves those high turnovers so much: no sooner had Canos given the ball to Baptiste than he was in the box with Bryan Mbeumo’s pass, shooting past Illan Meslier, as easy as that time he headbutted Gjanni Alioski in the back like a coward and got away with it.

I don’t know how many teams reach this point of defensive disorganisation, then take off another defender and claim a point from there. Off went Firpo, though, replaced by Bamford, to give Brentford’s three huge centre-backs someone bigger than Dan James to deal with. James and Roberts played either side of Bamford, Harrison and Raphinha were on the wings, Dallas and Ayling were overlapping, and Klich was going side to side giving the ball to all of them: the defence was Forshaw, Diego Llorente, and whoever could run back fast enough to help. The attack was led by Raphinha, demanding the ball at all times everywhere, and Harrison and Klich, trying to get over any cross they could, in hope of Bamford. Leeds had three-quarters of the possession but Bamford could hardly get a touch. Those crosses never did find him.

Instead Dallas, sending one from deep, forced goalkeeper Alvaro Fernandez to flap the ball away from Ayling in the 94th minute, out for a corner. This should have been routine. Leeds are not good from corners. Brentford have three enormous centre-backs. Meslier had come up, but that was desperation. It all worked though, didn’t it? Raphinha’s corner, Ayling’s front post challenge, a flick on, and Bamford’s second touch in more than ten minutes was everything you want from a striker: a reaction, sending the ball in off his knee, its crossbar kiss the perfect chef’s smacker to fill the void of comprehension while 35,000 people in the ground, and more cringing at home, tried to work out if that ball was really in the net or not. If it wasn’t, then why was Bamford risking his dad’s wrath by whipping his shirt around his head, sliding on the grass, chased by his goalkeeper? Bless Tyler Roberts, emerging from the celebrations and summing up the confusion. “Pat,” he asked, “Was it yours?” Bamford’s “Yes” got a smile and a hug, and that was from all of us.

Pat Bamford's on the grass, Illan Meslier is sliding on his back, Leeds United have scored a goal
Photograph by Lee Brown

Delighted with a point? No. Leeds should have beaten Brentford, the difference in quality was clear. The need for league points, at home, was clear too. “Before the game,” Bielsa said afterwards, “it [a draw] wasn’t a good result, after the first half it wasn’t as well. But when the game was finishing we need to value what we got.” It’s possible to absorb the disappointment of Brentford’s two goals because the reason for them was so clear: one scored while Leeds were a player down, the other because reorganising without Phillips, while Ayling went off for a bit too, took too long, despite being a much simpler change — Forshaw dropping back — than the first. “It shouldn’t have been this way,” said Bielsa, but at least that’s a situation with a name rather than a symptom of spiralling relegation. The other aspect is the fightback. It’s hard to win when you’re out of form, but if you can’t win, it’s a good idea to draw. And to draw when others would have looked at Brentford’s timewasting and tactics, when it needs an overload of attackers nobody else would risk, when it takes playing until the very last second without losing hope to do it? That’s a very good attitude for Leeds United to take into their upcoming games. ⬢

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