I wonder sometimes what it must be like to only watch Leeds United when they’re good; to be one of the few thousand who swell Elland Road’s attendances seeking pleasure, rather than carrying out some rote duty.
‘We hear Leeds United are good now,’ they say. ‘Let’s go watch them.’ But what do they expect? It’s not like when a West End show is getting rave reviews and everybody is going to see it; that show is the same every night, so whether you have a good time or not is down to whether it suits your taste. Going to watch Leeds United and expecting to enjoy it, well, it sounds insane to me; and it means putting your faith in the performances of Kalvin Phillips or Liam Cooper, show-stopping stars on their day, but if you spend enough time at Elland Road, you learn that those days aren’t bought for the price of a ticket. You need crucial alignment of the stars; perhaps divine intervention. Or you need the nervous sweating in the stands to be matched by the sweaty memories of hours of work at Thorp Arch.
For 45 minutes this looked like an off day for Leeds, or maybe an on day for Rotherham United; it was somewhere between the two. Rotherham manager Paul Warne brought his players as if they were lambs to be slaughtered, but their pre-match video analysis must have been that Wallace & Gromit where they save a sheep, because he had no intention of allowing any harm to come to a single tuft on their wooly backs. A 5-1 defeat to Brentford on opening day woke Rotherham up to their new Championship pastures; Warne was using Leeds to show that his flock will not be messed with that way again.
This was new for Leeds in the league this season; Stoke City arrived and played like what they are, a bunch of highly paid losers, and Frank Lampard’s Derby County played like what Derby County’s Frank Lampard is: a novice, and he was schooled by a king. Rotherham ignored all that, stuck their biggest defender on Samuel Saiz, pressed our defenders on the ball and aimed for their big striker, to see how far they could get by putting the local Championship vernacular up against the fluent new vocabulary of Marcelo Bielsa, Salim Lamrani and co.
They got quite a long way by knocking Leeds out of their rhythm. Leeds were always the better team, but not by enough to score, and Rotherham were alert for weaknesses; it was a useful reminder that Bielsa has got Leeds playing better by making them work and learn and that it isn’t normal yet. At times you could feel the mental and physical strain Leeds’ players were under; it would have been easy to revert to last season’s type, to concede a stupid goal, have a couple of players sent off, give it loads of bollocks in the second half when it was too late then end up losing amid boos. But that was then, and now there’s a mad-looking bastard frowning at them from atop a blue bucket, with a prowling squad of comrades in his technical area looking ready to drag any weak links down the tunnel and out into the forest, to fate.
Bielsa’s unusual new normality does not come easy to Liam Cooper, and it would be doing his performances a disservice to say that it does. He’s striving to be what Bielsa wants him to be, and that’s why we can’t judge his terrifying pass across the six-yard box too harshly; it was too far in front of Bailey Peaock-Farrell, and too far behind Gaetano Berardi, who was facing the other way anyway, and it was perfect for Ryan Williams, and that made the goalkeeper’s mind up. He dived across the forward’s feet and blocked his shot. Peacock-Farrell was then beaten by Jon Taylor, who spotted how far the keeper was off his line and tried to catch him out with a low shot from 25 yards out; Peacock-Farrell might have touched it with a fingertip, but the more significant touch was against the woodwork.
Both Leeds players were doing what is being asked of them; they were just a few degrees off the stratospheric trajectory of the season’s play so far, and that was enough to alarm the crowd. The most alarm was caused by Kalvin Phillips, who is protected by his passing statistics; he tried more passes and completed more passes than any other player on the pitch, hitting the mark with 87 of 99. But the naked eye and his first half pass map tells the truth; eight of his twelve unsuccessful passes came before half-time, and some were easy balls, and some were comic misplacements, and there was something barely perceptible between him and his new high standards.
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Whatever that small something was, it was holding the team back. Leeds United are newly reliant on Phillips, involving him more than ever before, so such slight deviations from this new norm are magnified by their impact on the rest of the team. In some teams, a player missing a pass every five minutes wouldn’t be a problem; but for Bielsa’s Leeds United, in front of a sellout crowd expecting the Beeston Globetrotters, waiting for Phillips to tee up Saiz or someone to do the big number and send the audience home happy, every Phillips pass feels significant.
The second half pass map supports that story, but to Kalvin’s credit. Only four of 51 were missed; all four were attacking passes with an element of difficulty, rather than simple sideways balls. All those simple — or not — sideways and short balls were successful, as was one big long arrow showing an assist; but we’ll come to that. But Phillips made that fine adjustment back to his new normality, and all came right with the world.
First we come to the goal that changed the mood, for which we can thank Barry Douglas. His corner demonstrated to Gianni Vio, if the set-piece coach was watching, that the best way of getting the ball onto Liam Cooper’s head is just to cross it really well, and if you do that, he’ll head it at the goal. Cooper’s header was saved, and the kindest thing to say about Kemar Roofe’s effort with the rebound is that it sent the ball towards Luke Ayling. Amid attacking and defending boots Ayling launched himself at the ball head first, his pony tail flapping in the breeze, and after his header was blocked on the line he did what any striker would; celebrate as if it was definitely in. According to the goal decision system it was, but the referee’s wrist alert failed him; to hear Paul Warne describe it, even the Robot from Lost In Space was raising the alarm for the goal, a shock to Warne, who didn’t even know such technology was used in the Championship. When the goal was finally confirmed, Ayling was off along the touchline, kicking up his heels like the runaway rear end of a pantomime horse; Leeds were going to win this game by stumbling, if they couldn’t do it with style.
There was still 40 minutes left for style, though, and with a 1-0 lead and Phillips restored to his senses, the crowd got what they came for. Berardi, Cooper and Peacock-Farrell got together in the centre circle to further discuss that first half near miss, breaking off now and then to block a long Rotherham clearance and give the ball back to Phillips; everyone else got busy, playing one-twos towards the Kop and, on one occasion, almost all the way into the goal, only that was the occasion when Saiz should have forgotten the nice stuff and just put his laces through a shot. But he seemed as bewitched as anyone else by the move that created the chance, and tried to flick it through a defender; back to Bielsa’s ideal football, playing against a team that isn’t there, but we’re not quite there yet, and the shot was blocked.
The crowning moment was created from nervousness and completed by confidence. Agitation had been left out for long enough, and returned with a vengeance when Leeds insisted on passing their way out from left-back; I can’t deny, after some of the earlier waywardness, that I wasn’t also willing them to just clear the cursed thing. But over on that blue bucket, Bielsa was watching, and Mateusz Klich, Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Barry Douglas all combined to please him by creating a way forward, eventually; it came with a ball from Douglas down the line to Ezgjan Alioski, who laid it back for Phillips, who pinged a long pass down the line towards Roofe.
For a moment Roofe looked like he wouldn’t get to it, but he was almost drawing the defender in; a touch of the ball and a touch of pace took Roofe into the penalty area, but so close to the byline and the looming keeper he didn’t look like he could score. But there was a tiny gap, far away, and that’s where Roofe put the ball; although by the time it got there, the quality of his finish had made it a huge space that the ball filled entirely. But, but, but, although; those words have latched onto Roofe this season. But we’ve signed Bamford, but Bielsa won’t rate him, but he’ll never score from there, although how could you leave him out now?
Roofe was taken off with five minutes left so Patrick Bamford could make a forlorn claim for his starting place. Kemar’s confidence is so high that he’s the only player who high-fives Bielsa when he’s substituted; he has no qualms about interrupting the head coach’s mojo. Nor should he, after a goal like that. “I make efforts,” said Bielsa afterwards, “but I don’t see how we can link the goal of Kemar Roofe with me”; he was inviting us all to forget the coach, and go high-five the goalscorer.
That’s partly because the coach had other things on his mind; his first encounter with true ‘Championship’ football, the first signs of frailty following pre-season’s detailed groundwork, and 23 unsuccessful crosses that had me wondering if we shouldn’t just get Jay-Roy Grot back now. Those are his problems, though, and after dedicating his life so far to the pursuit of perfect football, I expect he’s used to that; problems are a normal state of being for Marcelo Bielsa.
We used to say problems were normal for Leeds United, too, but as Elland Road is filling up with excited people, we’re saying it a little less each week. So, what’s normal now? It can’t be this, can it? ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)