This, after all that, was good. A good game between two good teams, and our team was better and got a good result. Not a great result, and Fulham are still to have their say on it, but a good one.
2020 has started with difficult fixtures and Leeds United have found them difficult, but those games have been played now, and my main thought from full-time at Nottingham Forest still stands: if that’s as bad as it gets, that’s good. Of the current top six in the Championship, Leeds only have a revenge fixture against closest promotion rivals Fulham to play, at Elland Road. The fixture lists are not so kind to the teams around us. From this point, 2nd in the table with fourteen games to go, games against teams that are not as good as ours, promotion is there to be won.
This game proved Leeds aren’t going into the rest of the season without their mojo, without their ability, without their faith or their fight. All season this game promised to raise questions about old decisions, but they stayed stuck in the throats of others. A penny for Pontus Jansson’s thoughts as, after his pre-match interviews about the Peacocks’ ‘mental tiredness’, he sat in the stands through yet another big Leeds United game, while Ben White and Liam Cooper showed him how it’s done.
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This was so far beyond the performance at the City Ground that we have to disregard Marcelo Bielsa’s opinion that Leeds were better there. There might only be paper between some of the available stats — a 2% change in passing accuracy, for example — but until Wyscout’s metrics have a baseline for swagger we’ll have to trust the evidence of our eyes. We shouldn’t ignore Bielsa altogether, though. Amid this week’s calls for his head a counterpoint has arisen: that we’ve been spoiled by him, and don’t always see the good that is in front of us. At Brentford it looked like the Leeds we expect, and with one goal and one point to show for it, most of us would call this a seven-out-of-ten performance. Outside West Yorkshire, where they don’t feel the need to be so hard on Leeds, everyone else will say this is among the best football the Championship has ever seen.
The return of Kalvin Phillips to midfield, rested and refreshed, was vital. Whether he’s passing short or long, running forward with the ball or running back to tackle, he’s this team’s heartbeat. With Mateusz Klich, he dominated the pitch; Leeds were pressing and harassing as they do at their best, two or three baby blues surrounding an opponent until he has no choice but giving up.
Around Phillips, everything was put right. Ben White to centre-half, Luke Ayling to right-back. Stuart Dallas went to left-back and, despite the claims of Barry Douglas or Ezgjan Alioski, that position looks settled as of now. After weeks of toil in central midfield, Dallas was as influential from left-back as earlier in the season on the right; his training as a winger makes him Terry Cooper to Jackie Harrison’s Eddie Gray. That’s an optimistic comparison, but any Championship right-back with those two overlapping and underlapping their way towards him won’t know the difference.
Harrison had the game’s first and best chance, dribbling in from the left, refusing an invitation to win a penalty — who would have taken it, anyway? — but when space opened in front of the keeper his shot was weak. Weak shooting also let Helder Costa down, when he got the ball back from Klich in the penalty area; they should have made more of their break down the right. Costa had a more difficult chance, heading for the top corner from a deep Dallas cross, not missing by much; Pablo Hernandez tried to volley into the other top corner but that shot was saved. Two chances went to Pat Bamford: another header from a deep cross, sent high over the bar, and a first time shot from the edge of the area, sent high over the bar. After Jean-Kévin Augustin replaced Bamford, he had one attempt, but with a defender bearing down, he wellied both ball and player out of play.
A couple of Brentford shots whizzed past Kiko Casilla’s post, but neither side had clear-cut chances, so it was a relief when Leeds did to Brentford what so many teams have done to us. Harrison’s corner was fumbled by goalkeeper David Reya, and Liam Cooper put a determined boot through the ball to equalise in the melee.
The melee in the penalty area, and the melee in the game. An equaliser was needed because ten minutes earlier Cooper had rolled a pass square across the six yard box to Casilla, who let it roll under his foot to Saïd Benrahma, hovering for just that to happen. A couple of years ago at Griffin Park, we watched Andy Lonergan’s confident replacement of Felix Wiedwald crumble; who was going to save Kiko Casilla now, and save us from him?
Not, it seems, Marcelo Bielsa. “I don’t think Kiko needs my words,” he said after the game, “because I always support him with my decisions.” That decision is always to keep him in the team, which is bewildering, but to unwilder ourselves we have to look at it from Bielsa’s point of view. Look at the error: miscontrolling a simple pass. Firstly, it’s Bielsa who demands that pass from his players, so he can’t punish them for trying to carry out his instructions. Secondly, how many outfield players did exactly the same, putting clumsy feet around the ball, giving possession away? He can’t drop them all for that. And if the argument is about accumulating goalkeeping errors, like not covering the near post at Forest, well, there were no mistakes like that in this game. Mistakes are aberrations by definition, and Bielsa trusts his players by assuming mistakes won’t happen, forgiving them when they do, and believing the same ones won’t happen twice.
It feels like Casilla is determined to make as many different mistakes as he can, though, and for that reason and many others I disagree with Bielsa. I wanted Ilan Meslier to start this game and I want him to start the next.
That said, there is other evidence to consider. “Oh no, here we go again,” was Kalvin Phillips’ post-match confession of his feelings when Casilla let in the goal, and we watch and wonder how the players can trust Casilla anymore. But then look at the rest of the game: in the 85th minute, with Brentford players closing in, Ben White rolled the ball across the six yard box again, trusting Casilla to do what, this time, he did: pass it first time to a Leeds player on the opposite wing. If they’ve lost faith in him, or themselves, Leeds have a funny way of showing it. “After that he showed more confidence when he was given the ball because that’s the way we play out,” added Phillips. “We just stuck together.”
This team has always been more than the sum of its funny, oddly fitted parts, and that’s been the miracle of Marcelo Bielsa. With the news that Adam Forshaw is definitely out for the season, the side at Brentford look like the eighteen that will be trying to win promotion from here: if Jamie Shackleton and Tyler Roberts can stay fit to cover any needs in midfield, Dallas can stay at left-back; Bamford now has the pressure from Augustin in attack, and everyone else just has to keep working. An FA ban might take one change out of Bielsa’s hands, but for now, if Leeds United’s sum is going to include a donkey keeper, Leeds United’s team will just have to keep adding up to more. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)