It’s November. The heating is on, the clocks have gone back, our anxieties are seasonally adjusted. At Elland Road on Saturday the air was thick with rain, gunpowder and rumour, about how Fate on Friday had lain in wait for Hope, beckoned him to her, then punched him hard in the stomach.
Without Eddie Nketiah’s advertised first league start this game had little to distract Arsenal fans scrolling through the scores on their iPads in between jeers and sushi at the Library of Boos. Sky weren’t present either, leaving us alone with our 3pm kick-off, and without Roy Wegerle’s soccer skills there wasn’t much glamour in the opposition. One of the complaints about a 46 game season is how games like this can feel routine, and Elland Road, hungover from Hallowe’en, settled down to watch with a sigh. The match started with a miskick that gave QPR a throw-in near half-way. Then a miskick that gave one to Leeds in the same place.
But after the typical Leeds angst over Nketiah and the typical Championship artlessness of the opening minutes, Leeds United got going about their business and put in a performance that might, more than any so far, prove their credentials as potential champions. If games like this are routine in the Championship, it’s better that you make a habit of winning them.
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Last season Marcelo Bielsa set the Peacocks upon the league as if he meant to destroy it, 6-0 win by 6-0 win. Frank Lampard has never truly recovered from the 4-1 dismantling at Bielsa’s hands that welcomed him to his managerial career; the problem was, he didn’t need to. It feels like Bielsa has learned more from those sorts of exchanges than Lampard has, because he isn’t setting out to obliterate the Championship this season. This season he just wants to beat it, and get Leeds promoted, whether that’s by ten points or one, by one point or by one goal.
That means goalless draws sometimes, like at Hillsborough last week, only the second of Bielsa’s time in charge. And it means ending games like this one against QPR, with six players defending the eighteen yard line and Leif Davis rampaging up the wing like a pinball fired full pelt by the plunger. Leeds are now four games unbeaten, in which time they’ve conceded one goal; two home wins and two away draws and, as Ronnie Hilton sang, at Elland Road Baht’at that’ll do.
That mechanical efficiency minimises the drama around Nketiah and Pat Bamford to the point that it seems unnecessary. As such, I’ll deal with Bamford briefly because you’ve heard it all before over the last ten goalless games: the new information is that a through ball from Mateusz Klich rolled perfectly onto his beloved left foot, but the chance was lost when he tried to switch it onto his benighted right; and the ball hit the back of the net, put there firmly by Bamford’s forehead, but the linesman, perhaps lulled by Pat’s previous Antenuccisms, said he was offside.
Leeds scored twice anyway, and if Bamford can’t score then as long as he works hard he’ll get what he got on Saturday: his name sung from start to finish, goal or not. The more goals the rest of the team scores the more likely Bamford is to get one of them — I think that’s how it works — and Nketiah’s injury at least lifts that pressure. Meanwhile, songs for Tyler Roberts and Jack Harrison need writing.
Roberts has looked promising as a substitute while recovering from his injury, and looked even better in the starting eleven. The mystery of not buying a replacement for Samu Saiz goes away when Roberts is fit and in form, and this is the season when he needs to assert himself as Pablo Hernandez’s heir. He’s some way from that level, but what he’s doing right now added the right amount of creativity to United’s attack, that had a central point of pleasure for the first time in weeks. Those aimless crosses above, behind and beyond Bamford were gone, because Roberts was always in a good position, a good option to create a different problem.
That was best seen five minutes before half-time, when Harrison was determined not to cross from the left, but to retain and dribble, keep and twist, hold and not give until Roberts was there to take his short pass on the edge of the penalty area. The ball was rolled into Roberts’ path and his finish was an essay in aplomb that his teammates, after that three-miss trick shot against Birmingham the other week, could all do with reading. He picked a spot where the net was and the goalkeeper couldn’t be, and kicked the ball there. It really can be that easy.
If we ignore Kyle Bartley’s touch on Ezgjan Alioski’s goal against West Brom, Harrison has five assists in the last six games, and he was aiming for a sixth in the second half when he ran into the box again and squared for Klich. But the ball was diverted by Marc Pugh, and when it ran loose behind QPR’s defence, Harrison got it back and scored himself, stroking the ball into the far corner. It really can be that easy.
But QPR weren’t easily beaten, which isn’t the same thing as saying they were a threat to Leeds. They’ve been one of the division’s most potent teams, and Jordan Hugill had a chance to equalise, but headed a powerful cross wide, while Eberechi Eze had the sort of livewire impact we used to get from Saiz, but it was often in his own half. Stuart Dallas was in midfield stopping Eze from playing, and the positional discipline of the rest of the Peacocks around them was sublime.
What formation did Leeds use? All of them. QPR had two strikers, so Bielsa used his new strategy of adding a third centre-back to outnumber them while keeping Kalvin Phillips in midfield. He could drop back as required when Liam Cooper or Luke Ayling went wide as full-backs, but otherwise the wings belonged to Harrison and Helder Costa going forward and back. Klich was deeper in midfield, from where he pulled out that through ball for Bamford; Roberts offered him ways forward by running away and creating space. Leeds had to be wary of QPR, and were, adapting to their threat and sharing possession with them, while still looking much more likely to score.
QPR had almost two-thirds of the possession after United’s second goal as they tried to get back into the game, but Leeds shut them out, the season’s eighth clean sheet. Although some of Davis’ very good running almost created chances for a third goal, his other runs created chances for Leeds to run the clock down in the corner, that they eagerly took.
Last season that would have been unthinkable: Leeds would have been chasing a third goal, yells of ‘¡Vamos, vamos!’ urging them forward from the bench. But what was more valuable here, a third goal or protecting the lead — and the fans from nerves? It’s been so long since Leeds took a two-goal lead into the closing stages of a game that the absence of tension in the last five minutes felt almost as good as a late third goal.
The ¡Vamos! is still there, but it’s being put to work. Jack Harrison might not be altogether popular, but he is the symbol of United’s race for promotion. On social media you can watch videos of Jack honing his skills on a rooftop pitch in summertime New York, flicking tennis balls and dribbling good old size fives. His mates are even throwing frisbees at him while he does it; it’s a wonder he’s not wearing a mankini. But at Elland Road you’ll find him soaked by cold rain, simultaneously playing left-back and left-wing, racking up assists and goals through sheer force of will, and earning his fair share of the clean sheet bonuses too.
Harrison isn’t dazzling us and he isn’t thrilling us, and he isn’t Nketiah and it’s not exciting. But nothing needs to be exciting. His performances contribute to goals and protect results, and the excitement will come due after the wins and draws accumulate and the points are counted. Leeds aren’t crushing the division team by team, but they’re cementing their place at the top of it, point by point. Glory isn’t due for months yet. For now, admire the work. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)