The noise when Pablo Hernandez scored after seventeen seconds was like a bomb going off. And off, and off, and off. Hours have gone by and the cheers still resound.
It was impossible to know what Leeds United were going to do about this game. The 4-1 defeat last time they played West Bromwich Albion has hung over them, like the more recent defeat to Norwich City, like a sobering reminder of United’s status as intruders in the top three; it’s been hard to resist that the idea that, against the top teams, Leeds United lose. Then there was Tuesday against Queens Park Rangers, a fixture crammed in as if deliberately to trip up a burning out squad. It became hard to resist the idea that, tired before their third game in six days, Marcelo Bielsa’s constant eleven would lose to whoever they were playing.
“It’s an obligation in my profession to overcome the sadness [of a defeat],” Bielsa said on Thursday, “and the hope of the next game is a good recipe for that.” Hope is something that football fans always have. But on this night it mingled with apprehension that the recipe Bielsa was cooking up would leave us choking.
Hernandez swept all those cares away with one shot from his glitter-cannon right boot, leaving West Brom choking on his smoke and Leeds fans, their ears still ringing, picking tiny tinsel pieces from their hair. It started with Liam Cooper, his defensive powers boosted by a thick headband over his cut eye, winning a high header from West Brom’s opening high ball and turning the game around. Jack Harrison advanced down the left and Hernandez called for the ball in the sleepy hollow between West Brom’s midfield and defence. He got it, and controlled it, and after weeks confronted by packed penalty boxes all he saw ahead was space, the top corner beckoning him like the moon to John F. Kennedy. Pablo chose to go for the goal. The ball had no choice.
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It would be a giant leap to say Leeds won the game in that moment, but they exorcised all the pre-game doubts, and that was just as good. West Brom’s response was important, but soon became irrelevant. Leeds didn’t fancy letting West Brom have the ball much, anyway. Defending started from the front with as much determination as Cooper and Jansson at the back. The possession statistics were more equal than in the games against QPR or Bolton Wanderers, who let Leeds have the ball. West Brom wanted the ball — they had to have it, to equalise — but every moment of West Brom possession was a challenge to Leeds to get the ball back, which they did as if they were correcting a grave injustice. West Brom might have the ball, but they weren’t allowed to play with it. When they tried, Leeds tackled, and in the open spaces in midfield white shirts appeared to claim possession.
Pontus Jansson made clear that he was having no part of Jay Rodriguez, winning two forceful headers above him in a few seconds that left the tall striker arguing with his bench, Zlatan dressed as Mountain Dew. Rodriguez didn’t have the strength to be dangerous; in the second half Jansson barged him off the ball and his celebration yells were picked up by the pitchside microphones. Dwight Gayle didn’t have enough of the ball to be dangerous, as passes to him were collected by Cooper; Hal Robson-Kanu might have found space behind Ezgjan Alioski at left-back, but every time he did, he found Alioski overtaking him. When his wall blocked a direct free-kick, Kiko Casilla marched from goal to high-five as many of his defenders as he could; Leeds were in no mood for conceding.
Instead they scored again. Hernandez’s anti-anxiety opener hadn’t worn off on the half hour when Leeds travelled from back to front and wing to wing in ten passes, three of them between Jansson and Luke Ayling at the back. Then Mateusz Klich and Hernandez, a pitch-width switch to Alioski, a dribble inside and a pass to Klich, now on the edge of the box, now able to see what could happen. A pass to Tyler Roberts and a flick through to Patrick Bamford was what he could see, and after ten passes Bamford steadied himself with what felt like ten touches before shooting carefully across the keeper and inside the far post.
If the team as a whole needed to restore its reputation, Roberts and Bamford needed to establish theirs. United’s main goalscorer was sitting in the West Stand with his leg in a medical boot, and without Kemar Roofe at QPR Leeds failed to score for the first time away from home all season, only the third time in the league at all. At Loftus Road Bamford was a blunt knife and Roberts was a lost spoon, a poor portent for the rest of the season. They shouldn’t play like that again, and instead should play like they did against West Brom.
Instead of leaving an empty space, Bamford’s preference for languid play outside the box became an invitation for Roberts to surge ahead of him, white shirts — Bamford included — following behind him through the breached defence. From advanced positions Roberts had the strength of body and brain to hold the ball and choose a course of action, either looking for Hernandez, who knew what to do with the chaos Roberts was causing, or creating a direct chance.
That’s how the third goal worked. West Brom ventured into the game at the start of the second half, no longer letting Klich and Kalvin Phillips have midfield all their own way. But Gareth Barry had to leave before a second yellow forced him to, and as soon as he left Leeds scored. Phillips and Roberts won the ball in Leeds’ half, and Roberts crossed halfway at speed, heading into what had been Barryland. It might have been Bamfordland, but he jitterbugged left and left, watching spaces and shoulders for his lines and opportunities, receiving a pass with work to do. He held off a tackle from behind but the space had gone in front; confident after his first goal, Bamford shot anyway, getting a deflection he deserved and Leeds a 3-0 lead on the hour.
The timing contributed to the perfection. Leeds scored as near as matters at clean half-hour intervals, never giving nerves or West Brom an entry into Elland Road. After the match Bielsa cited the “continuous connection between the players and the fans. We didn’t have one single minute where the fans didn’t respond to the efforts”; because, with the regularity of the scoring, there wasn’t a single minute when the euphoria of the previous goal could give way to anxiety about not adding another.
That’s the stands, though, where we worry as routine. Leeds United’s players never looked worried. This was as complete a performance as I can remember against a first rate opponent since Leeds beat Deportivo La Coruna at Elland Road in April 2001, and for it to follow just days after the defeat at QPR — hours, really, in terms of time spent training — suggests United’s team have mental and physical stamina beyond our expectations. Leeds lacked craft at Loftus Road, not effort, but the eventual lack of rewards could have knocked the self-belief out of weaker players — or a weaker coach. Instead, at some point while we fretted the days away before this game, they made a collective decision to show no weaknesses at all.
That explains the fourth goal. Ezgjan Alioski was standing out already for a performance as unique as his personality, a free defensive role from left-back that let him roam the pitch to aggravate West Brom’s players into giving him the ball. In the final ten minutes, as players tired around him, Alioski was covering even more ground; he won one tackle high upfield in the middle but a West Brom player took the loose ball, so Alioski chased and tackled him on the wing, backed up by three teammates who seized the initiative to attack. In his third game in six days Alioski had found his maximum performance and knew it; he was grandstanding by the end, but not with flicks or keepie-ups, with weird behaviour. He delayed a throw-in to give a ball-girl a hug. He gently stroked Mason Holgate’s hair when he was injured. In a break in play, he clapped along with the Kop. And when he scored the fourth, he lined his mates up in a row, waved at them, and crumpled into giggles only he understood.
The fourth made the thirty minute scoring cycle complete. Jamie Shackleton replaced Tyler Roberts and rivalled him for direct attacking. His first attempted cross was blocked, but the clearance was brought down and backheeled to him again by Bamford. Hernandez took over, taking the game inside, inviting Klich to run across and Shackleton behind; pass to Klich, pass to Shackleton, low cross to the left-back and it’s a goal for Alioski, as good as the last kick of the match.
Which was a shame. Alioski had more kicks in him. But sometimes you have to know when to stop, and when Marcelo Bielsa is pumping his fists and shouting for joy on the touchline, you know you’ve done enough. Leeds played like the teams I used to watch on videos, videos that Bielsa has probably watched too. Praising the players after the game, he sounded as in awe of them as a fan, and it’s worth remembering that he is; he loves football, watches it and thinks about it constantly, and when his team plays like this, he looks at them like we do. “The most important thing was the effort, the attitude, the behaviour and the state of mind of the whole team during the whole game,” he said. “It’s a win which is owed exclusively to the players.”
That was more eloquent but not more meaningful than the yells coming from a taxi heading into town after the game; from a group of girls leaning out of the open windows singing “All Leeds aren’t we!” With its football team overcoming the small sadness of Tuesday, the city had a taste of May, when the team might yet overcome the enormous sadness of the last fifteen years; I like to think that taxi was off on a tour of the Loop Road but it’s a bit soon for that yet. Soon, soon, soon. My only regret after this game is that Leeds aren’t playing again the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. They could do it, you know; and they’d win. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)