If only Pat Bamford had hit the thing. He didn’t have to slot the ball like Pablo Hernandez firing into a foxhole; just hit it, Nike boot to Mitre ball, with force and enthusiasm. You never know what might happen.
25 minutes had gone in the first home game of the season, against Nottingham Forest, long enough for Leeds United to look good and for Elland Road to want a lead, to want Bamford to just kick the ball into the goal so Leeds can win the game. There’s a new striker in the squad, eagerly cheered when he was introduced to the crowd. Has Pat not noticed? Or is that the problem? one of the problems? more of a problem?
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The moment summed up the afternoon, a typical summer day out watching British football amid rain and gales. Ben White tested the new rules by collecting Kiko Casilla’s goal kick inside United’s penalty area, then tested the fans by toying with Lewis Grabban as he deliberated. This was the first match the Peacocks have played at Elland Road since that night against Derby County, and the new defender’s strutting at the back was not a favour to the crowd’s nerves.
But White’s long pass over Forest’s defence was a huge favour to Bamford. His run was superb, the ball was bouncing, the keeper was approaching, the top corner was waiting; but Bamford didn’t hit the thing. He wanted the ball on his left foot, and that’s where it all went wrong; taking a touch, he didn’t cut inside, where by wrong-footing the defenders he could have correctly-footed his finish into an empty net. He just pushed the ball straight ahead, forcing himself into an impossible attempt from a tight angle with the outside of his left boot. It says something about the skill Bamford does have that he forced Arijanet Muric into a save, but it says more about his confidence that he didn’t just bury it. Oh, for the snap-finishing Bamford of seven days ago.
Leeds United now have a second word of the season, joining ‘continuity’. For the second week running they were described everywhere as ‘smothering’ their opponents; also ‘suffocating’ and ‘starving’. It’s quite stark language that sucks some of the joy from Bielsa’s philosophy; he isn’t aiming to stick chloroform cloths in the gobs of his opponents, but for his own team to keep the ball so they can attack without worrying about defending.
However you phrase it, though, it’s true that Nottingham Forest didn’t complete a successful pass into United’s penalty area all game, and their most dangerous moment from open play was a square pass from Stuart Dallas. He was otherwise excellent, running things from right wing-back while Hernandez cut inside to trigger runs from Bamford, Jack Harrison and Mateusz Klich, and most of his work was in Forest’s half. Behind him, Kiko Casilla roamed lonesome across fifty square yards of desert, a bow-legged cowboy hunting the guy who stole his horse.
Bielsa’s possess and attack philosophy is only as good as its cutting edge, and Bamford was persistently the spork at the knife fight. Outside the box he was brilliant, if a little slow reading Forest’s offside trap, but he played inside the box as if last week’s bullet header never happened, as if something psychological is affecting him within eighteen yards of Elland Road’s goals.
A minute after his first half lack of whack, he was too slow to react when a cross eluded the defender in front of him, and could only thrust his torso towards the ball without a plan; in the second half, with time for an awkward half-volley to force the ball home, he scuffed a bouncer onto the bar; after bringing down a long pass with a cute touch, he lobbed the keeper correctly, six yards wide. The Kop and South Stand sang his name for support and sport, while thinking about the Salford City game on Tuesday and what might rhyme with Eddie Nketiah.
The crowd were anxious by now. That was the big hitch after Bamford didn’t make the first half’s big hit; it was the perfect moment to score, but without it, the game succumbed to the muggy damp. A strong start to the second half was threatening to go the same way after Bamford’s two chances, but this time Pablo Hernandez put things right. Just before the hour he showed Bamford how to do it by controlling a superb first touch pass from Klich and, with his own first touch, making a good chance into a certain one. That done, there was no doubt that Hernandez would shoot across Muric and score, and no stopping him when he did.
Another goal would have won the game for Leeds, but Bamford again had no chill on a half-chance he slashed into the Kop. Nottingham Forest, with Sammy Ameobi joining in with Alfa Semedo’s game of surging runs upfield, started forcing Leeds back, and forcing set-pieces.
Ben White and Liam Cooper have been superb in both games so far, and Bielsa seems correct in his belief that, for 89 minutes of every game, this defence will be sound. It’s the other minute we’ll fret about; the minute when Forest’s corner entered the six-yard box through Kalvin Phillips’ legs and, amid the ball-watchers and the mistaken at the back post, rolled into the net. Nobody from either team did anything they were supposed to do, and Lewis Grabban, who dragged Cooper to the ground in the build up to winning the corner, scored with his shoulder while trying to score with his boot.
Referee Robert Jones’ failure to spot Grabban’s foul was one of a list of defects, from failing to give Leeds penalties for a kick on Dallas or a shove on substitute Helder Costa, to failing to send Kalvin Phillips off for a mistimed challenge. Jones once gave Eunan O’Kane a red card for brandishing a sandy eyebrow in Ipswich, but seemed determined not to make any decisions here, until his last one, blowing for full-time just as Costa was counter-attacking across half-way. At least that ensured the boos at the final whistle were aimed at him, not the result.
The performance didn’t want boos but nobody wanted the draw. Costa looked lively as Leeds chased a winner, and Leeds have freshness in reserve; Costa’s rapid dribbles can change the dynamic the way Jack Clarke’s impetuous second halves frightened teams last season; he’s on the bench still, along with Ezgjan Alioski, who might bring more spirit to left wing-back than Barry Douglas; it feels like when, not if, Jamie Shackleton and Mateusz Bogusz will have an impact; Nketiah is also here. Leeds veered between light-hearted and laborious in this match, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.
“It feels like the same as last season,” Klich said afterwards; and, “We feel like we lost the game … It is like last season, we created a lot of chances and we should have scored more goals but we didn’t.”
Which is what we wanted — Bielsa to stay, his possess and attack football to continue — and, in two unbeaten games so far, it’s what we’ve got. Leeds have quickly got back into the groove. But soon I hope Bielsa will count it off, hit it, and change the tempo. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)