It was good to have Mateusz Klich back in the Leeds United team, and to watch him doing very Mateusz Klich things against Newcastle United. He was in their penalty area in the first couple of minutes, trying to set up Pat Bamford with an improvised spinning backheel volley, and he was in their penalty area in the last couple of seconds, coyly nutmegging Emil Krafth to set up Junior Firpo, whose low cross nearly made a winner for Bamford.
In between there was lateral movement and literal quality, always backing up the wingers whoever they were on either side, and making space in the middle for Rodrigo to have one of his best games for Leeds. There was even a disappointing shot from the edge of the area, classic Klich, and television had plenty of close-ups of him breathing heavily while leaning slightly forward, like a tall kid at school forced onto the basketball team for his height, trying to keep up while denying a few inches.
Let’s do one stat. In midfield this season, Stuart Dallas has been involved in setting up an average of two chances per game, his best total being four against Everton. Against Newcastle Klich was involved in six, same as Junior Firpo, only bettered by Raphinha’s seven. Here was United’s best midfielder, who had lost his place to a utility player and needed replacing this summer, restored to the side and restored to himself and so restoring the side closer to its best.
Klich brought something else of the old Bielsa Leeds back: the frustrating draw. Once upon a time after a match, Klich said, “It feels like the same as last season, we feel like we lost the game,” and, “It’s like last season, we created a lot of chances and we should have scored more goals, but didn’t.” That time was 10th August 2019, after the second game of the promotion season at home to Nottingham Forest was drawn 1-1. Klich could have said it after plenty of games the season before; he must have bitten his lip three weeks later, when Swansea stole a 1-0 win from Elland Road with a 90th minute goal. We’ve been wondering since the start of this season where the old Leeds have gone, but they were back at St James’ Park, having 21 shots, scoring one goal, conceding a daft one and feeling like they’d lost.
The upside is that despite dropping points while dominating Forest and Swansea (and the rest) Leeds were still promoted in the end, so the current return to frustration is taking place in the different atmosphere of the Premier League. And the lesson of that is that if Leeds can keep playing this well going forward, then the defence will improve to help, particularly when it has some defenders in it.
Newcastle were allowed back into this game partly through our injury and suspension crisis. Luke Ayling, the right-back at centre-back, and Stuart Dallas, the whatever-you-want at right-back, were pointing and panicking all night, and it was pressure down their side that let Allan Saint-Maximin cool his boots away from the action until the ball came to him on the edge of the area, unmarked, to dance across the treacherous quicksand sucking at Leeds’ defenders until he could shoot and score. He was Newcastle’s one good player and Leeds’ one big worry. Perhaps reassured by one or two big tackles when Liam Cooper had Saint-Maximin in front of him, Firpo was too happy to leave Cooper chasing him in behind, but a good save from Illan Meslier kept out the dire Joelinton, and Matt Ritchie hit the post.
It would all have been irrelevant if not for the old lament, the missed chances. Leeds’ 12th minute lead was perfectly timed to wound the home fans, who had arrived irate, and it was scored in upsetting style. Raphinha, swinging a cross in from the right wing, was helped beyond statistics by Rodrigo, who leapt over the bouncing ball with malicious glee, betraying Karl Darlow in goal and running to celebrate with his teammate. It was a mean thing to do to a goalkeeper but it was generous to Raphinha, and will remain a shadow in the game logs forever: goal Raphinha, assist Bamford, after Firpo had followed his manager’s wishes to the letter by winning a battle in Newcastle’s half and giving the ball to Kalvin Phillips. History will say Rodrigo did nothing, but he did it with a massive grin on his face.
He was smiling for the mischief of the goal, and maybe for the pleasure of finally having some room to play in. Squeezed out of the game and off the pitch at Old Trafford, Turf Moor and then by Liverpool, this week Rodrigo was being redubbed ‘The Rodrigo Experiment’ as if Marcelo Bielsa had grown him in a jar from leftover Pablo Hernandez DNA, but only got the worry lines and not the magic wand. Even El Mago, though, needed space, and Rodrigo was given it at St James’ Park and used it well, dictating attacks from all the deep-lying positions we were assuming he could never play well from. He might not always get this much room in the hectic Premier League, but there are enough charitable midfields coming against Leeds to give him a chance of playing up to this form again.
Later Rodrigo put a shot just wide, and so did Phillips, and Klich had one saved, all from the edge of the area, all much better in the net please lads. A penalty when Dan James had his ankle trampled would have been helpful if Mike Dean or VAR would have been so kind. Then there was the big moment at the end of the first half, after Newcastle had equalised, when a quick-slow-quick break by Firpo and a chip across the penalty area set up Raphinha to bury a shot past Darlow: this emphatic, belligerent, brilliant player inexplicably hesitated and tried shooting through a crowd of bodies instead, meaning James had to try but scuffed it, and Firpo had to try but skied it, and as the ball hurtled south towards the Quayside, it travelled with the power of bloody hell Leeds will regret that.
Perhaps the game turned away from Leeds at that moment, but it wasn’t the last: muse on James doing better with a chance at the back post early in the second half, Darlow tipping over an OG attempt by Joelinton, on Klich moving Firpo’s pass along to Raphinha in space instead of shooting, on Bamford shooting into the net with international confidence when Rodrigo’s through ball rolled into his stride like a dream. All that could have been enough, but all that was also that, until the final seconds when Firpo and Crysencio Summerville combined with Klich to get close to Bamford in the six yard box, as the final twenty minutes disintegrated into angst. Leeds started the game without Jackie Harrison, being comforted through a bout of Covid-19 by his enormous pet dog, and might have begun without Raphinha, who departed for Summerville’s debut shortly after Tyler Roberts had replaced James. Roberts did two things well and five things badly, while Summerville, once warmed up, looked bright enough for a debutant with happy tears in his eyes. But by now Leeds were too far from a first choice attack to be fluid up front. At the back, meanwhile, Ayling was torturing himself through an ankle injury that gave up a chance for Saint-Maximin before Jamie Shackleton finally relieved him, so Leeds ended with a side closer to the one that might start in the Carabao Cup against Fulham. Assuming we’re feeling brave enough to risk any of these precious legs for that one.
Winless after five games isn’t good, overworked medical staff are arguably worse, but for reassurance we shouldn’t ignore Leeds returning to the infuriating version of their best selves. Much of the dismay of the last twenty minutes against Newcastle was because we know the feeling. We recognise the attacks we won’t score from, we’re always anxious about the counters that might cost the match, we’re used to ticking off the big chances and the unfair calls that would have made the game ours at the right time. I hope there’s nothing else quite so upsetting in your life as loving this Leeds United team and their 38 shot end-to-end soul-shakers, and if you’ve been wondering where the old feelings had gone, here they came back. And we only got a point. Because it’s Leeds, remember. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)