At Charlton on Saturday Leeds played like a team digging itself into a rut. Football adores the war language of trenches, but trenches aren’t where you want your team to be.
We were becoming used to the repetition of bad habits: the failure of set-pieces, the wayward final balls, the blunt finishing, rigidity replacing creativity. Against Charlton the team walked in the Valley of the shadow of Bielsa; without Pablo Hernandez’s inspiration, they gave up their thought processes to the man sitting on the sidelines, sticking to his instructions as if that was all they had, never thinking to add their own defining touch. Bielsa’s system, his plan A backed up by his plan A, is the greatest weapon he can give to his teams. But they have to know how to use it.
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It’s to the credit of the Peacocks’ unchanged starting eleven that, under Elland Road’s lights, they shone through their victory over West Bromwich Albion. Bielsa works his teams hard, but the rapid turnover of games in the Championship means most of that work is done in the summer. In the season, when they’re playing Saturday and Tuesday, the responsibility for applying their lessons is with the players.
From full-time at Charlton to kick-off in Beeston, once you factor in travel, sleep, recovery, controversy developing around alleged racist comments made by Kiko Casilla, media duties, tactical meetings and rest, the hours have gone and the players are in another league match. Bielsa might be able to eke another obscure VHS out of every day, but the players don’t have the time. The different performance, and the different and significant result — West Brom were unbeaten — was not delivered by Bielsa’s intensive work on the training pitch, because there wasn’t time for any. This was an occasion when the players, collectively and individually, had to make their own decisions, breaking free from the weekend’s submissive devotion to Bielsa’s basic method and, as a result, making Bielsa’s method work.
Jamie Shackleton was the star of the first half, dismissing the assumption that, when fit again, Adam Forshaw could automatically take his place. Shackleton, along with Stuart Dallas, was the outstanding player of the play-offs, but his games this season haven’t lived up to that standard; Bielsa praised him for slotting in, aged 19, without detriment to the team, but he can’t have missed the alterations that did occur: Leeds have looked less secure in the centre, their passing has marginally reduced, the midfield’s influence has been slightly impaired. Then, against West Brom, Shackleton enhanced everything, winning tackles, breaking at speed, combining with Helder Costa down the right.
His slight stature means he’s not suited to the destructive side of Forshaw’s work, and perhaps Bielsa is testing him there, taking Shackleton to the edges of his ability as a way of taking him further; when he plays well, there doesn’t look like any limit to his potential. His natural future might be doing Mateusz Klich’s job as a more advanced midfielder, an attacking 8 in the current lineup, leading counter attacks and working around the edge of the box. That’s where United’s goal came from: Costa broke on the right where Klich went to help by taking the ball and playing inside to Shackleton. He moved things along sharply to Jack Harrison, who was crowded by defenders in the penalty area as he often was at Charlton. His contribution now was critical, keeping the ball and keeping the defenders around him in suspense, until Ezgjan Alioski arrived, ending a fifty yard dash from left-back with a low crack into the six-yard box.
Who put the ball in the net? Kyle Bartley, but it could have been any defender, the goalkeeper, Patrick Bamford; it was beside the point. The point was that, by striking low, hard and dangerous, Alioski swapped attempted precision for percentages, and put the ball where a goal was likely, expected if you like, and where Leeds have been failing to put it for what seems like forever.
Costa and Harrison’s contribution to the goal, and the game, were important. Helder Costa was the deepest letdown at Charlton, because he carried the highest hopes; Leeds are paying almost a full Rio Ferdinand for Costa to provide an alternative to Pablo Hernandez, but they might as well have played Michael Duberry on the wing at the Valley. Against West Brom we started to see the quality: pace behind defenders, driving dribbles in front of them, one sweet half-volley that had venom and surprise, and was on its way to the top corner until it was saved.
Harrison has been a more constant disappointment with his bizarre but sincerely held belief that there is an invisible giant in the penalty area who will make good from Harrison’s moonshot crosses. When dribbling he seems to lose himself in the work of it and forget about the joy of beating his marker, but when holding the ball for Alioski, that was an asset: Harrison couldn’t hope to beat the defenders around him, and almost lost the ball to them, but he stuck to his task and trusted in reality, that if he kept the ball stuck to him someone, like Alioski, would really appear and help.
Bielsa values Harrison beyond most supporters’ patience, but games like this show why the coach can emerge content, from his initial frustration, when Harrison dribbles around three players then dribbles the ball out of play. When West Brom tried to catch Leeds out with short corners it was Harrison seeing the danger ad taking the initiative, closing down two players and spoiling the plans.
Those plans were curiously kind to Leeds; Casilla was tested by a few shots, usually from Matheus Pereira’s dangerous playmaking, and by one ball about forty yards from his goal that he booted so hard into an attacker’s face that he was too dazed to shoot the rebound into the unguarded net. But when West Brom did do the obvious by sticking a corner into the box, Patrick Bamford was in full Pontus Jansson mode to head the ball clear.
Everywhere else on the pitch, Bamford was in full Patrick Bamford mode, which at its harshest means he didn’t score and fluffed the easiest chance he had of diverting a shot into the net from four yards; his effort lacked conviction and Sam Johnstone made superb saves of that and Costa’s follow up. Bamford always has to play against his reputation for missing sitters, and his reputation for diving; on several occasions when a West Brom defender scythed him down, they tried persuading the referee that Bamford had Adryan’d it while they were shown a yellow card. The problem with his reputation is that Bamford has brought it on himself with his high profile misses and high profile dives; his other problem has been playing within his reputation’s limits, rather than fighting back against it.
What he brought upon himself through his performance against West Brom was appreciation from the fans for his work rate. That’s always been a fast way to win friends at Elland Road: Alan Smith was as likely to be booked as score, and was loved for it. Bamford doesn’t have the build to base his game on aggression, but then neither did Smith, and Bamford’s embodiment of his predecessor’s style of dogged pursuit and disruption, taking the punishment, taking more, and ending the game covered in bruises and mud, was the best way for him to keep the chants for Eddie Nketiah to a whisper. He took the punishment and, at full-time, took the acclaim, the crowd singing in praise of his resilience when the whistle blew.
Resilience was required and given everywhere; Tyler Roberts had to be stoic after replacing injured Jamie Shackleton at half-time, then being replaced 25 minutes later as Bielsa sought more defensive players and made prolonged, effusive apologies. The change was unavoidable; the second half was tense, and West Brom’s intent for an equaliser tested Leeds, but Gaetano Berardi was a faultless replacement for Liam Cooper after his first half injury, Kalvin Phillips returned to form, and Ben White was typically sublime.
And the crowd played its significant part. The games at Elland Road against Swansea and Derby in particular, but also against Nottingham Forest and Brentford, sounded as tense as they felt; there were few songs but much worry. Helped by an evening kick-off, and by seeing a more exciting game of football, the chants for the Champions of Europe started in the first half and reached a crescendo around the hour, and Elland Road never quite gave in to the nerves that were gripping everyone as full-time drew near. Fear was masked by defiance; Elland Road felt like it ought to.
Everything was, in the end, as it ought to be. Elland Road can be special under the lights; this team can be special when it puts its mind and body to work, rather than resting both in the lap of Bielsa. It was far from perfect but Leeds overcame their imperfections rather than let them beat them. The unbeaten league leaders came to Elland Road and were beaten, and Leeds took their place at the top. This season, teetering on disappointment already three days ago, still has the potential to be special. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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