Marcelo Bielsa believes attack is the best form of defence, and deploys players and formations that support constant attacking, starting with his first playmaker, the goalkeeper.
Against Leeds United, Preston North End manager Alex Neil believes in attacking the defenders; he chooses his forwards not only for their goalscoring potential but for their tackling prowess, instructing them to be offensively defensive against the Peacocks’ back four. It’s easier for forwards to get away with things that are not expected of them, so when Brad Potts shoved Liam Cooper off the ball and ran with it into the penalty area, it was no foul, perhaps because it looked so surprising. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
Leeds started this game as if they wanted a nice easy Boxing Day stroll, a continuation of the lie-in Sky’s kick-off time allowed them, while everyone else except Brentford spent the day dropping points.
What Leeds got was David Nugent, a striker so old he remembers when the Ghost of Christmas Past was the ghost of the future. Never mind opening his presents; Nugent was gurning and twitching as if he was so excited to be playing Leeds he hadn’t slept since Christmas Eve. He was hyperactive about tormenting baby Ben White, and after Aleksandar Mitrovic last weekend, was the last thing White needed.
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White’s class still told, and there were times when he would simultaneously control the ball on his cheat and shimmy away from Nugent, or intercept a pass by flicking it over the striker’s head. But then there were times when White would feel a dig in his ribs and, before he could do anything about it, would see Nugent on the floor with his free-kick won; or when Nugent gave away a foul because it was worth shaking the youngster up with a kick to his calves. White had a much better day than Liam Cooper, who had put on his League One Liam disguise like he was Steve Morison with his Zlatan costume, but he was given a few lessons he won’t forget, too.
If was hard to find a Leeds player who hadn’t regressed in the first half an hour. Luke Ayling was pining for Kyle Bartley, aiming passes off the pitch towards Smethwick; Mateusz Klich disappeared as if banished by Thomas Christiansen; Kalvin Phillips forgot everything Bielsa has taught him and played with a head full of Steve Evans’ advice.
When Stuart Dallas ran forward to support Klich’s attack it meant there was nobody to protect Leeds’ goal when Klich lost the ball and Ben Pearson stepped off a Pringles can to play not so much a defence-splitting pass as a pass into the chasm where the defence had been. The ball was switched to Alan Browne and his low shot easily beat the goalkeeper who, on this occasion, appeared to be Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
That wasn’t United’s wake-up call. One moment, when Jackie Harrison almost lost possession in the centre-circle with only Ezgjan Alioski behind him, had 2-0 and total dismay all over it. But Leeds survived and the game entered its second phase, in which what were most important were free-kicks and how quickly Leeds could take them, and free-kicks, and how slowly Preston could take them. Klich fought for possession beyond the boundaries of the pitch to prevent Preston slowing a restart; Alioski reminded Alex Neil of the boundaries of the technical area when the Preston boss came out of it to debate the position of a throw-in. Pearson hit the floor, Dallas hit the floor, Tom Clarke hit Dallas, Klich hit Clarke, and nobody kicked the ball.
After Preston dominated the first half-hour the game became a grind, and while it was good that Leeds were involved, they missed the involvement of the two players who inspired their 3-0 win in this fixture last season — Samu Saiz and Tyler Roberts — or the man in the stands with the frozen hamstring, Pablo Hernandez. What they got was a strangely unpopular change, Eddie Nketiah replacing Pat Bamford.
The Elland Road crowd loves to chant for ‘Eddie Eddie Eddie’; and there’s a general fear that his recall to Arsenal in January will trigger our recall to the play-off places in May. But Bamford’s departure was greeted with boos that didn’t reflect his impact on the game — one superb cross-field pass from Jackie Harrison put the ball at Bamford’s feet with an empty penalty area to move into, if only his first touch hadn’t sent it flying out of play — but reflected an instinctive belief that such tactics as Preston’s can only be overcome by good old four-four-two.
But even though it brought a goal at Fulham last week, Bielsa thinks Bamford and Nketiah together are an outrage against decent football; as one long-time observer pointed out on Twitter, when Bielsa managed Argentina he had Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo in his squad, but he only played one.
The final half-hour against Preston supported Bielsa’s view. If the first thirty minutes were as bad as Leeds get, the last thirty were as good, with Nketiah in the thick of it: it being, frustratingly for those who love to see him finish, the wings. But Nketiah’s job was to run side to side, dragging centre-backs everywhere, creating space in the middle, and helping the overloads out wide that exploit them.
With Bamford in the team the centre-backs follow him deep and Leeds can run in behind. With Hernandez in the team the centre-backs are bypassed by visionary passing. With Nketiah in the team Helder Costa and Jackie Harrison have a link player to help them to the byline, from where they can cut back to Dallas or Ayling, Alioski or Klich, while Nketiah drives back into the penalty area.
The relentless attacking of the last half-hour was Leeds at their best, but all the chances fell to Alioski. Costa and Nketiah kept a lost ball in play, Harrison couldn’t head in the cross, and Alioski shot over an open goal; a Pablo-level pass from Casilla put Harrison away down the left, and when his cross was cleared, Alioski pinged a low half-volley against the post; from a deep cross to the back post, Alioski’s downward header was brilliantly saved by Declan Rudd, in the same spot where he kept out a header by Nketiah.
If a cross missed its target Leeds chased the ball and tried again; if it was cleared they gathered the ball and sent it wide again; if they won a corner they took it short before Preston were ready; Alex Neil stood where Alioski had told him to in his technical area with his hands on his head only hoping, because pressing his attackers against United’s defenders was ancient history now those defenders were camped in his half.
When the goal came it combined brilliance and scruff, but overall it was persistence paying off: more crosses swung this way and that, Ayling cut back and Dallas fixed his run to meet it, swivel and shoot in, with a big deflection to help.
More time would have meant more goals for Leeds, who had the fitness and now the confidence to keep playing this way all night. But Dallas scored in the 89th minute, and six minutes of stoppage time weren’t enough for a winner.
What those minutes have to do instead is set the tone. As if pricked by their own spinning wheel, Leeds fell asleep against Cardiff and got off to somnolent starts against Fulham and Preston, with only the kiss of Nketiah waking them up in the second halves. By the end of this game they were their beautiful selves again in a way Birmingham City shouldn’t be able to cope with, a way West Bromwich Albion will worry about.
Our concern is how much that depends on Eddie Nketiah, and his wave to the stands at the end was as if in case it’s farewell. Leeds have scored their last two goals with him on the pitch, and their play with him in place of Bamford on Boxing Day eclipsed anything from before he came on. Is there still time to convince him, and Arsenal, not to let the last few months be for nothing? ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)