Leeds United won in Blackburn by scoring three goals I’ve dreamt of seeing, two of them I’ll forget as easily as a dream. They rested me and now I’m awake they can evaporate.
On Tuesday night Jackie Harrison and Ezgjan Alioski tried to provoke Pat Bamford and Helder Costa into committing works of art. Neither obliged, deciding there’s no market for diving headers at the back post anymore.
Not many people practise that sort of work now, anyway. Lee Chapman was the old master and from the left Harrison and Alioski imitated Gary Speed or Tony Dorigo, crossing with life that Chapman used to turn into art. But that’s all gone out of fashion.
The style today is carving from the byline, something Marcelo Bielsa says is popular in Mexico, and even when a diving header is offered European tastes now snub it. Last week in Italy Mariusz Stępiński scored for Hellas Verona by chesting into an empty net. Lee Chapman would furrow his muddy brow at that.
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Wet Blackburn is no place for beauty and art but for skill and labour. Rovers even write it on their club badge. Mateusz Klich, in form for the first time since the pandemic began, won the game with an opportunist snapshot on a rebounding ball that placed lucky bets against the defenders’ legs and goalkeeper’s hands as it scuffed to, roughly, the goal.
Goals don’t have to be beautiful to have a beautiful effect, and souls can benefit from being calmed as much as lifted. Four minutes after Rovers threatened to cloud the second half by starting scoring with a free-kick, Leeds United needed to see a ball in their net however it got there.
Klich did that and all the work for the first goal, too, six minutes into the match. He burgled Lewis Travis at home and fenced the goods to Bamford, not asking for a masterpiece: he rolled the ball to Bamford’s favourite left side, just ahead of his boot, along a line easily diverted into the goal’s bottom corner. Bamford knows a silver spoon when he sees one, and the one Klich stole from Travis was neatly tucked in the velvet bag.
Rovers’ manager Tony Mowbray looked glum, but going behind so early roused his team. Mowbray is no dope, and before the game he succinctly described United’s style of ringing the pitch with players and leaving the middle to others; they defend one penalty area, crowd attacks in the other, and use the centre as a transfer station from wing to wing.
So he counted on Klich staying out of form so Blackburn could design their central passes to twist Liam Cooper and Ben White, the dance move they don’t like. Leeds kept giving Rovers the ball to try it and they shot just wide, shot against the post, burst upon a diving save from Illan Meslier at Adam Armstrong’s feet.
But they didn’t have enough quality to finish or to keep the ball for long themselves, giving Leeds as many attacks as they took, letting Bamford hit the post with a louche turn and shot after Harrison set things up with help from Tyler Roberts’ backheel. In the second half, Klich put Bamford through again and he drew a red card foul from Christian Walton outside the box, but only a yellow card from referee Rob Jones’ pocket.
Mowbray also played smart with his formation. “Number nine as a right-winger,” said Bielsa afterwards, as if shuddering at the memory of Blackburn’s teamsheet. “Number eight as left-winger, number seven as centre-forward. That was new for the match of today.”
Bielsa would know. As he told the world last season, his pre-match research is done to calm his nerves, so he can face each game with a book of answers to any question that might come up. When he first discussed working with Angus Kinnear and Victor Orta, he knew every formation Bolton and Burton had used the previous season, and how successful each had been, and that was only an example.
As he fumbled pre-game bumps with Mowbray’s fist and elbow, what was Bielsa thinking about all the hours of scouting, the thick bible he’d written on Rovers, that his opponent had made useless?
Bielsa’s anxiety continued throughout the game. There’s no crowd there to hide it now, but he joins in with the absent crowd’s nervous mood, multiplied by his own suspense on the verge of his first club honour since 1998.
The sum of his and our hopes and fears mean Kalvin Phillips’ free-kick will only look like a poem if we can remember it in the tranquil days after promotion. For now it was something overdue, the little bit of Kevin De Bruyne we’ve been envying the Premier League for since Pablo Hernandez scored a free-kick for Christmas in 2017; and it was obscured anyway by Armstrong, Blackburn’s star player, scoring like a copycat a few minutes later.
But when we’ve got the leisure for sweet things, the ball’s journey from Phillips’ instep, over the wall, into the damp net at Blackburn’s top corner, will be lapped up for a treat.
Quality mattered at Ewood Park because Leeds United were basically better than Blackburn Rovers, and by demanding the ball and taking their chances they forced the final score to show it. If this was art it was a Factory-made screenprint by one of Andy Warhol’s assistants. It might be a few removes from genius, but it looks good and could be worth a fortune. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)