Half the Championship is full of teams like Preston North End, so much so that after their recent win in the Carabao Cup several of their fans arrived in my mentions on Twitter to throw the hashtag ‘Teams Like Preston’ at me, even though it was a phrase I hadn’t used. Mainly because I always associated it with Barnsley; Barnsley, who were relegated last season to League One.
I’ll use the phrase ‘Teams Like Preston’ now, though, because half the Championship is full of teams like them, and that has been one of the fears for Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa — wouldn’t we be better off with a Steve Bruce or a Mick McCarthy, managers whose understanding of the English second division can be read from the bumps and bends of their noses? Won’t Bielsa’s Leeds, like Thomas Christiansen’s Leeds, flounder and fail against the gritty determination of teams like Preston, fulfilling Millwall manager Neil Harris’ assessment — once everyone from Leeds was safely out of earshot — that Leeds United are a ‘disgrace in English football’?
Preston manager Alex Neil has considerably more class than Harris, although that feels like damning him with faint praise; but as he put North End out on the pitch at Elland Road, it was with similar plans to harass and bother. Preston arrived with bits of ideas from lots of things they’ve seen working against Leeds, and some that worked for themselves in the League Cup. Samu Saiz is United’s obvious danger player, so was marked. Kalvin Phillips is the hipster manager’s danger player, so Neil did his best Graham Potter impression and marked him too. Last time Preston were here they caused Leeds problems at the back by pressing the defenders and making it hard to play out, so they repeated that tactic. But last time they also made their pressing too physical and had a player sent off, and didn’t seem to have learned from that, leaving late ankle taps and flying tackles all over the Leeds back three. There was even an attempt by one of Preston’s substitutes to keep the ball away from Saiz as he tried to take a throw-in, a sort of low rent imitation of Millwall’s delaying at the weekend, but it merely got Saiz giggling. Preston were a goal down at the time.
By half-time Mateusz Klich was already dishing out some cool drag-backs at full-back to turn away from all the Preston pressing, but it took a while for Leeds to reach that level of cool. Few things take as much effort as looking effortless, and Bielsa hasn’t yet communicated all his embedded knowhow to his relatively new team — how could he, when there’s been thirty years of it? As a result Leeds can look shakier than they need to in the opening stages against teams like Preston, as they try to work out the best way to cope each time. Bailey Peacock-Farrell remained almost disturbingly calm, giving short passes to Klich under pressure and long chips to Barry Douglas and Luke Ayling, as the Kop groaned as if in actual physical pain. One flying save from Peacock-Farrell kept the ball out of Leeds’ top corner, earning a round of applause, while not helping the North Stand’s nerves. But Leeds wouldn’t veer from their idea, and eventually rose to Bielsa’s career-long challenge of keeping his teams true to style. In this case, the solution to the problem was going forward and battering Preston.
The stats show that by half-time Leeds had created seven chances to Preston’s one, and if Klich had been wearing his clinical boots and Ezgjan Alioski could time a run, the score might have been 4-0. Instead it was 1-0, Liam Cooper almost lying down in the box but somehow heading Douglas’ corner through Declan Rudd’s hands and inside the post.
They all count, but you could hardly call Cooper’s goal classical finishing, and that was United’s main problem going into the second half. They could and should have been many goals clear, but Klich’s misses were matched by Tyler Roberts’ tangible lack of confidence as the target striker. Put through on goal early in the second half, he seemed trapped by his thought process, and neither sprinted beyond the defenders to score nor went down convincingly enough to win a free-kick. Indecision in the final third was a bigger problem than Preston’s defence, who were often standing watching as Alioski crossed to Jack Harrison who headed to Roberts who laid off to Saiz who passed to Klich who set up Alioski who crossed and so on and so on.
But there was more to Leeds than misapplied gloss. The corner that led to Cooper’s goal came United’s way because Harrison had tackled firmly on Preston’s goalline, putting over a cross that panicked their defence. The key to the game was not United’s crisp passing or swift dribbling, although that helped; it was the conscious decision to batter Preston in their defensive third, turning their gameplan back on themselves, but better. Alex Neil sent his team out to press Leeds, but it was Roberts and Alioski making eighty yard sprints back to the edge of their own penalty area to block attacks, while his own number nine, Louis Moult, hung around upfield when his team were under pressure. Moult’s mission was to get physical with Pontus Jansson, with rib-digs and shirt tugs off the ball, but all he did was awaken Jansson’s best beast, as he stormed around the defence and forgot his own newly-imposed gentlemanly style by storming around in front of the Kop, roaring and pumping his fists, when Tyler Roberts made it 2-0.
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Leeds were playing with so much physical commitment in attack that, unless Preston could manage a sucker punch on the break, it was only a matter of time before the cavalry of quality made a difference in the space the tackling attackers were creating. Saiz was marked, it’s true, by Daniel Johnson, but Samu played as if he hadn’t even noticed, at one point spinning away from him and firing a through ball into space for Harrison that drew gasps from the crowd long before his low shot rebounded off the post. Jansson started the trend for celebrating crunching tackles; would it be unseemly now to start celebrating through balls like goals, when they’re this good? Even in the replays, when you know what’s about to happen and no matter how hard you look, you can’t quite see the space until Saiz has passed into the space; but his pass looked so predestined he might have carved it onto a stone tablet two thousand years ago.
When the second goal came it was deceptively simple. This is what you can do when you’re good: knock the ball about in a triangle at the back, give it to Kalvin Phillips — his marker, like Saiz’s, long since forgotten — and let him chip the ball down the line. From there it was a question of confidence for Roberts, but the shyness of his first couple of hours as United’s number nine dissolved as he brought the ball under control and lifted it over Rudd into the far corner.
The third goal started when Jansson put a stop to a Preston attack while the ball was still in their half. Harrison gave the ball to Saiz, who wasn’t content with the layout of the game around him, so dribbled and held until everything had changed to his satisfaction. Stay with me on the next bit: Billy Bremner used to say that he admired how, when Don Revie was still a player, he would pass to a teammate then hold his stance to enjoy the ball’s movement; and as soon as Saiz’s pass met Klich’s boot, Saiz started skipping on the spot, as if he was chipping the cross to Roberts himself. It was Saiz’s mind but Klich’s foot that did the deed, and then Roberts’ composure; even with the confidence of his first goal eight minutes earlier, the ball was in the air long enough for Roberts to overthink it and undernerve it, but instead he headed firmly into the corner of the goal. Saiz didn’t even celebrate the ball hitting the net; he’d sorted all this out beforehand.
“If I had to make an opinion for each player, one by one, they all would be deserving of congratulations,” said Bielsa after the game. “And if you do the same exercise, if you take player by player, you will see I am not avoiding an answer.” He’s right. Roberts took the headlines, for his two very welcome goals. Harrison deserves high praise for a game full of workrate and skill, like an onside Alioski, who dominated his own half of the pitch. Saiz should be lauded for a show of Pablo Hernandezzy influence. Phillips was the engine, despite the attempt to do another Swansea on him; Klich was forward and back all night. Jansson was aggressive, Cooper decisive, Douglas and Ayling played like auxiliary wingers; Peacock-Farrell held his nerve even when his distribution was threatened. There were no underperformers, and it didn’t feel like an overperformance. It was just the way it was.
And that’s what teams like Preston will have to cope with this season. The draw with Middlesbrough raised the first doubts about whether Bielsa’s Leeds will be able to break through the typical Championship side’s bus-parking discipline, but Tony Pulis’ defenders are an atypical bunch who have only conceded three goals in their seven games so far. Bielsa’s gambit is a bet that his team’s commitment to his philosophy will overcome whatever austere regiments arrive drilled to take them on, and the chips are steadily piling up in front of Leeds now. This was only game number eight of a long season, and far from the end of hope for the many teams like Preston that Leeds will have to face. But after last night, they’re going to need some better ideas. ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)