Marcelo Bielsa says this “was a beautiful game,” and I say being obsessed with football for so long has made him perverted. “Honestly, it’s incredible,” he went on, “This Championship is so special to me, that a team like this one is at the bottom of the table.”
I can share his pleasure at seeing Barnsley in the relegation places, especially now Leeds United are in first place, but I’m not sure about the rest of it. It had been too long since the defeat to Swansea City to wait any longer for Leeds to get back on course, but that’s what we had to do. This game was too good, too exciting, too end-to-end, too much of a derby and much too beautiful, when what we required at kick-off was a half-time lead to settle the post-Swansea anxiety, preferably in double figures.
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But nobody scored in the first half and that felt too familiar; Leeds have only scored before half-time in three league games this season, and only once in the first half-hour, and that was in the first half-hour of the season. Bielsa moved the conversation about his team’s scoring inefficiency forward in his press conference this week, saying there is no training drill that can improve United’s finishing, but he’d been talking to the players about the mentality required this season. They shouldn’t be looking back on bad luck anymore, he said; it’s no longer good enough to say, as they did after losing to Swansea, that they deserved to win. “That’s not going to allow us to succeed,” he said, with success in this case meaning promotion.
Barnsley won’t be promoted, but they were last season, and they showed the mentality of a team that wanted to beat Leeds, provided first by their ex-Leeds contingent. Alex Mowatt was capable but quiet in midfield, but Mallik Wilks was not working quietly; he pressed United’s defenders and goalkeeper, and took every chance he could to run and shoot.
The most surprising of them was Aapo Halme, who wasn’t denied much at Leeds, and on the evidence of his first few games for Barnsley, got chances his ability didn’t deserve. But he played as if he had something to prove, to Pat Bamford in particular, scrapping and fouling and getting all the decisions referee Keith Stroud cared to give him. Halme always seemed such an amiable chap, and seeing him squaring up to Bamford after one challenge was like seeing an argument from the college rowing team spilling over into the cheese aisle at Waitrose.
There was enough of this stuff from Barnsley to knock Leeds off course, and in pure numbers this was the Peacocks’ worst passing performance of the season so far; the first time Leeds have completed fewer than 400 in a game, the first time that’s been less than 80% of the passes they tried. That might also have been due to Adam Forshaw’s absence; his replacement in midfield, Jamie Shackleton, has a lovely ability to receive passes while starting a surging run, and everything he does tends forward with excitement. But perhaps Forshaw’s more patient approach would have given Leeds more control, and got those passing stats back up.
He wouldn’t have helped the shooting stats, but Bielsa had different options when a goal was required. Barnsley’s high press was leaving large spaces behind their defence, where Shackleton twice sent Bamford, creating chances at difficult angles. Helder Costa replaced Jack Harrison at half-time, introducing pace to explore those gaps, and helping Bamford put the ball in the net. He finished one of Costa’s threatening low crosses from close range, but the linesman said Costa had been offside when he got the ball.
That must have contributed to Bamford’s small tantrum when Bielsa made one of the other changes at his disposal. Tyler Roberts made a welcome return to the bench, but Eddie Nketiah was chosen to replace Bamford, who had every right to be annoyed; despite Halme’s attention, he’d beaten him to the ball several times with intelligent movement, and had a good finish denied by a flag against someone else. He might also have been annoyed because he could predict what Nketiah was about to do.
With the eyes of Leeds, Barnsley and Arsenal upon him, Nketiah has the knack of doing in fifteen minutes what Bamford makes look like the work of fifteen years. Kalvin Phillips crossed a free-kick and Nketiah was unmarked, and his finish was ungainly in a good way: with his body airborne, he stuck out a leg, and stuck the ball in the net. 1-0, at last, and Stuart Dallas punched the advertising boards in celebratory relief.
If Bamford took Nketiah’s introduction badly, Halme took it worse; like Costa, his pace was enough to turn Barnsley’s defenders from competent tough guys to floundering crooks. Halme lost Nketiah on the edge of the penalty area, and found him again with the end of his boot, as he turned in search. Hernandez showed his usual interest in taking the penalty but Mateusz Klich showed why he should have been taking them since the day he signed, rolling the ball carefree to where the keeper wasn’t.
By this time — the 89th minute — Leeds had earned the right to be cool, and the regret that they weren’t in that zen state much sooner, and didn’t control the game against such low-ranked opposition, could give retrospective way to satisfaction. The game was not beautiful to me until Leeds had won it, but the work they had to do to win was beautiful all the way through; it was just hard to notice through the nerves.
Bielsa’s point on Friday, to the players and to the press, was that Leeds have to stop forgiving themselves for bad luck, and start getting what they deserve. They started that against Barnsley. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)