A few minutes after Swansea City, making the second chance of their game against Leeds United in the 90th minute, scored it and won, Marcelo Bielsa sat down for the post-match press conference.
His counterpart at Swansea, Steve Cooper, was presumably still wiping his brow and catching his breath, after gnashing his gums at the travelling fans and slapping the swan on his chest by way of celebrating the result. Leeds fans, certainly, were still volubly livid outside the stadium, beginning their journeys home in a state of familiar stunned disappointment.
He couldn’t say, Bielsa said, if there were ways the game could have been different, or if, given a replay, he’d “do things in a different way.” After this defeat, he said, “We need something to criticise, but I honestly don’t know what to say.”
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Those fans shuffling along Lowfields Road could have suggested plenty of things for Bielsa to criticise. Criticisms came easily to mind after this game because, before they became criticisms, last season they existed for a long time as fears. Fears that, ultimately, proved as inevitable as the spectre in the cellar of the abandoned house, as soon as you opened the door, when it came out roaring and shrieking and on its way to Chelsea.
After the exhilarating start last season fans began to worry: that the team’s inefficiency in front of goal would be permanent and costly; that calm possession would leave Leeds vulnerable to sucker punches if the players didn’t capitalise on their advantages; that naive defending would cause defeats unless the goalkeeper and centre-halves got a grip. It was a perfect storm that, as it gathered above Elland Road, cloud by cloud, felt like a climate.
Moving forwards through the team against Swansea, the defence had a firm grip, with Swansea’s most dangerous players, Yan Dhanda and Borja Baston, substituted together on the hour after getting nothing out of Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper, who were both superb. Phillips was the platform for United’s dominance in midfield, outpossessing and outpassing Swansea. That created the chances for Leeds to score, thirteen of them according to the post-match stats, after eleven against Nottingham Forest and eight against Brentford; 32 chances in three home games, six of them classified by the statisticians as ‘big’, but only two goals scored. And none from the two big chances in this game.
They were officially recorded as a near post header by Patrick Bamford, from a cross by Stuart Dallas, that he put into the South Stand in the first half instead of glancing across goal; and his replacement Eddie Nketiah’s back post header four minutes from full-time, when the goalkeeper missed Pablo Hernandez’s cross and Nketiah, surprised, headed into the side netting.
You could add Liam Cooper’s header against the bar from a corner just before half-time; and, perhaps setting the tone, four chances in the first fifteen minutes before that big header from Bamford: Mike van der Hoorn deflected Dallas’ low cross just past the post, Ezgjan Alioski hit two bouncing balls at the back post and scored with neither, Bamford had another header from Jack Harrison’s cross.
None were sitters, but all had potential; the potential for it to be 5-0 to Leeds before the game had even got going. That was sort of the problem; there could be no particularly severe complaints about Bamford or Alioski’s missed chances, and there were 75 minutes left, but they reflected a strange lack of urgency in United’s play, a slower tempo than usual, that perhaps had everyone feeling there was plenty of time for United to lift that tempo and score. I wonder whether, with less time and more at stake, Alioski and Bamford would have made sure of finishing those chances had they been vital match-deciders in the final minutes, rather than leg stretchers and range finders early on, due to be followed by a dozen more of their kind.
Not capitalising early was a mistake because, although Leeds did make more than a dozen chances, Swansea’s defence played well, packing the spaces and making those chances more difficult the longer the game went on. Leeds had 21 attempts; nine were blocked inside the penalty area; nine were off target, Swansea’s crowds not helping the Peacocks’ forlorn attempts at precision.
Even when Pablo Hernandez was running directly into the penalty area, forcing Swansea’s two lines of defensive and midfield players to compress backwards like he was a sheepdog penning his flock, they were closing gaps around him and forcing Leeds into sideways taps, dummies and lay-offs, in desperate search of a clear shot on goal. When they got one, they didn’t take it; and when Swansea substitute Wayne Routledge scuffed his shot into a crowd of players at the other end, in stoppage time, it bounced through them all and out the other side, and into the net.
One of Leeds United’s best performances last season came when Pablo Hernandez cut through all the hype and bullshit and scored against West Bromwich Albion after sixteen seconds. Three more goals followed at half-hourly intervals, and perhaps this is what Leeds need, more than any of the drastic tactical rethinks or formation changes that will be debated in Bielsa’s absence over the international break.
Leeds need to start games with the immediate and ruthless desire to put the ball in their opponent’s net as early as possible, and not relax until they do it. Then, they’ll win. Apart from that, I honestly don’t know what to say. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)