“I felt there was a little bit of anxiety in the air,” said Bolton Wanderers manager Phil Parkinson after the game, and he was right, to an extent. As I walked down to Elland Road in the unusual warm February sunlight, every step taking me nearer to the ground made me wish more and more that I was walking in the opposite direction.
It was beer garden weather, not Championship tension weather. Days like these shouldn’t be interrupted by football; football is a winter sport so that, when summer comes around, we can enjoy the sunshine free from thoughts about the entities Leeds United or Bolton Wanderers or promotion or failure. I wanted to drink some beer and relax. Instead I had to watch Leeds United.
They infuriated me, as I suspect they infuriated Phil Parkinson, by being so unnaturally calm. There was a lot to pick apart from the scuffle in the second half that started when Bolton’s Josh Magennis hit Ezgjan Alioski high, wide and unnecessary on the touchline and their Joe Williams tried to drag Alioski to his feet by testing the stretchiness of his arms. As numerous Macrons started bouncing around the technical areas looking for some, Alioski stayed reclining on the floor like Macedonian royalty, Marcelo Bielsa walked around the Bolton warriors to tend to him as if he was avoiding dog shit on his way to pick up some milk, and Mateusz Klich walked forward, poured some water on Williams, then walked backward as if he’d appeared on the scene on a spring.
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Of course Klich had found the one way of suggesting that Williams should cool down that was guaranteed to heat him up, but it was done so calmly it was as if it hadn’t happened at all. Pontus Jansson was there, of course, but he didn’t actually do anything apart from shout at people before Liam Cooper pulled him away, which made it even funnier when Phil Parkinson was led away down the tunnel, shouting revenge and flicking signals with his fingers. No Leeds players were booked; they didn’t even look flustered.
Pat Bamford is a bit more expressive in front of goal when he’s had a chance and the ball hasn’t gone in it, but while he thrashed around on the grass the rest of the team kept their cool. Bamford had scored a penalty just in time in the first half, when United’s keenness for keeping the ball in play helped them set up Tyler Roberts for a one-two with Jack Harrison that ended when Roberts was brought down as he ran into the box. Bamford, wanting goals to kickstart his leading role in place of Kemar Roofe, raced Roberts for the ball and won the right to take the kick; he sent the keeper the wrong way by slotting left footed into the right corner.
Had Bamford finished his other seven opportunities — two six-yard box chances among them — Leeds would have got the result they were looking for after seeing how Norwich City dismantled Bolton last week. He didn’t, but he played well; and Leeds didn’t, but they played well.
Instead Leeds got the same three points Norwich got, just not the goal difference. They let Bolton equalise within seven minutes of taking the lead, the second of three first half chances they were given from corners. From the first Kiko Casilla had to make a brilliant save to put a close range header over the bar; the third was volleyed just wide of the near post. For their middle one Casilla came and stopped, watching Harrison head Bolton’s header off the line; Williams’ shot was blocked and by the time the ball reached Mark Beevers, most of United’s defenders were still blocking it, prone on the floor where they couldn’t stop his strike.
Leeds stuck patiently to their task. There were moments of temper; Jansson tried to get the referee to notice Clayton Donaldson’s fouls, but soon gave up; just before half-time Kalvin Phillips wagged his finger severely in Craig Noone’s face for diving. Donaldson was Bolton’s outlet, and keeping everybody else behind the ball was their plan. Leeds are used to that by now, and they’re used to Marcelo Bielsa’s formula for overcoming it. Keep doing what you’re doing until something happens.
Leeds could be more proactive in these situations. They dominated Bolton in the second half, who spent long periods in their defensive third, withstanding. Leeds concentrated on building their attacks on the wings, but when that got them into the penalty area, Roberts, Alioski and Hernandez each wanted to give the other the finishing touch. It’s not the desire to score a ‘perfect’ goal that used to afflict Arsenal, but for the guaranteed goal, as if they’re mentally calculating the expected goals value of every opportunity and won’t shoot until it hits one. They patiently repeat their experiments over and over like the Large Hadron Collider of football. Bamford and Klich were more willing to try more difficult chances, but ended up proving the theory by missing.
Trust Alioski to defy physics, convention, and good taste, all at once. Klich barged Donaldson off the ball and passed wide to Alioski. United’s crosses weren’t accurate enough all day, and neither was this one, but — I mean, this is a big but. But it went in. Alioski had checked back on his left foot and was trying to curl a cross towards Bamford or — and remember, Marcelo Bielsa is our manager — Pontus Jansson near the penalty spot. Instead he gave it the full Gjanni, clipping it towards the near post where the swerve died and it dropped, as sure as if Alioski had planned it, over the head of Remi Matthews, who was misled and sent stumbling by his dancing feet.
Alioski almost stumbled through his celebrations; he gets so excited, and has so many rehearsed hand signals, tongue wiggles and hip shiggles to remember that, when he scored, he’s like a crisp-addicted puppy dropped at the door of a Seabrook warehouse.
Perhaps that’s why Magennis was so eager to batter him. You can’t say that Leeds played for Alioski to do that, and yet somehow they did; calm and patient and splendid, they just kept playing until they took the lead, just like they’d planned. It’s not how they planned to take the lead — a header from Bamford or a volley from Bamford or just any finish at all from Bamford was what they were working towards. But a weird chip from Alioski is what they got, and it got them the points, despite Sammy Ameobi’s stoppage time rocket just wide, despite the Elland Road crowd’s desire to get away from all this anxiety and use the remaining sunshine to toast something like a 5-1 win — not this.
“If we say that the action that allows us to win a game is thanks to what we’ve done in the training session, when we lose we should also think the opposite way,” Bielsa said afterwards. “As football is so unpredictable, I’m sure of one thing. We can’t win games with the training sessions. Training sessions are useful to increase the level of performance of the players and then what happens during the game comes from the skills of the player.”
The skills of Alioski, in this case, but what Bielsa is saying is true. He’s been preparing this team every day since July. They’re confident in what they’re doing. There’s a little bit of anxiety in the air at Elland Road, but Leeds are still winning games. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)