The mismatches in the Premier League were too big even when Leeds United were great, and last time in the Championship Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching had the team cocooned in its own category. This match at Leicester, then, was the first time for a long time Leeds have taken part in a contest of application of quality. Two good teams of good players, playing good football and playing it well. There’s a lesson here for someone, about how everyone would love to take much more of this.
Appropriately the winning goal was a scruff bag. It felt right. Set pieces have not been a friend to Leeds at either end for some time, but this time they punctured City by mastering what has, for yonks, seemed impossible. Dan James’ corner and Sam Byram’s header were good enough for a goal at the front post; Mads Hermansen’s save kept standards high and meant Georginio Rutter had to tap in, an easy chance that didn’t come easily. The narrow airspaces where goalkeepers work for glory were crucial again in stoppage time, when Illan Meslier leapt and clawed at a header by Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall that was almost through the angle formed by back post and bar, and with ability we can only appreciate in slo-mo he smacked the ball away. In real time Meslier’s save was obscured as if by a cartoonish caption, POW or BLAMMO, as jagged lines let us know the goalposts and the attacker and the defenders were shaking and one man, a plasticine exaggeration of how goalies should look, was emerging hardly ruffled from a half-second hurl of real body into metaphorical woodwork. It’s metal. That’s madder.
These decisive moments of goalkeeping were needed because, in the rest of the match, neither of the outfield collectives could quite decide what they wanted this game to be. It felt like a game of discovery for both teams. Leicester’s start to the season has been so statistically intimidating – thirteen wins, one defeat – that I’ve opted against watching them actually play too much. I think Daniel Farke has kept a closer eye and his pre-match call for bravery was acted out from the start by United’s forwards giving City’s backs a harder time than they looked used to. Simply by pressing Leeds created two good chances in the first three minutes, the second coming when a chip from Wout Faes down the line to Cesare Casadei was chested out of the air, twenty yards from Leicester’s goal line, by Leeds centre-back Pascal Struijk, directly to Rutter in the penalty area. It would be mean to say Leicester have built up their points total by overrunning Champo fodder. But I don’t think any other team has been brave enough to start against them like this, with a centre-back doing that.
It’s credit to Leicester and their coach, Enzo Maresca, that they found a way to assert themselves, but even when they made their long periods of patient possession into a factor it didn’t get them into Leeds’ penalty area the way it has been against Bristol City or Swansea. They couldn’t make the game as calm as they wished because, thanks to Glen Kamara and Ethan Ampadu, the ball kept popping out of midfield at frantic speed, towards Leicester’s goal. So Leicester switched their approach for fifteen minutes before half-time and this was when Leeds were most at risk, under pressure on the wings. Sam Byram picked up a yellow card and Leeds almost succumbed to a worldie, Abdul Fatawu popping the ball over Byram’s head, skittering around him again towards the penalty area, and beating Meslier with a powerful shot that curved over his dive and hit the bar. Down Leicester’s left, Stephy Mavididi had spotted that teenage midfielder Archie Gray is not yet most adept at full-back, but getting round him wasn’t enough. Jamie Vardy is a master of movement, but in United’s penalty area, Struijk was never letting him run where he wanted.
This was a sobering spell and felt to me like a ghost from the future Leeds are chasing, like Vincent Kompany’s Burnley rattling their chains through the Champo top six screaming ‘Turn back! Turn back!’ We’ve been enamoured, in recent weeks, by the way our thrilling forwards have torn up Norwich and Huddersfield, but for a quarter of an hour Mavididi and Fatawu were making those recent performances seem a touch mundane. At the other end Faes and Ricardo Pereira were stopping anything Rutter, Crysencio Summerville or Dan James tried to do, and I felt like I’d been propelled forward a season into a Premier League version of the gap between our team and Leicester’s team only we wouldn’t be bouncing back from this game against Plymouth but Manchester City. I was hoping that Summerville and James were looking at how Fatawu was toying with Byram and thinking, for the sake of the game and their pride, they should be doing that.
They never quite got to that carefree level but I was thankful for them by the end. The Fox forwards weren’t allowed to repeat their cavorting quarter hour because Leeds started the second half by pressing City off their game again until they got the goal. With the lead, United were unapologetically playing to keep it. Summerville and James’ main and major contributions were helping Byram and Gray by double-marking City’s wingers, giving Leicester no way through a six player line of defence. One of the six was Ampadu, leaving Kamara and a far-side winger to threaten counters, and one of these moments – when from a corner, Summerville turned a fifty-fifty challenge into a flicked through ball into the path of James – was as good as anything Fatawu had done. It took until stoppage time, after five Leeds substitutions, before Leicester had a proper go on target, the moment Meslier had been waiting for since his player of the match show at Anfield in 2022.
The cliche of choice is that this result has made the top of the Championship interesting, and everybody is saying it because it’s true. But the final score still keeps Leicester top, eleven points clear of Leeds in 3rd, and the performances might end up meaning more here than the result. In this game, Leicester looked like a team depending on variations of one attacking style to be enough, as it was for Burnley last season, to swat two-thirds of the Championship aside. Leeds, though, looked like a team better prepared to switch from attack to defence, from play to work, from free-swimming to dragging each other out of choppy water. Summerville’s contribution against Huddersfield last week was two goals and two assists; he had five shots, three on target. Against Leicester he only had one shot, but his tackle count was up from zero to three, which doesn’t reflect the number of times he helped Byram shepherd dangerous players into futile territory. He got a yellow card, too, for throwing Hamza Choudhury on the floor. We shouldn’t encourage that sort of thing, obviously. But we want to.
What we want now, I think, is for Leeds to make good on being good enough to beat the Championship’s runaway top two. It might be November but in some ways the start to this season still isn’t over. In the defeat at Stoke, Leeds looked like a team still beleaguered by the summer’s euphemistic ‘circumstances’. Djed Spence still hasn’t started a game; Glen Kamara, after arriving late, looks like he’s dusting off his rust. Joel Piroe can and should score more; Rutter, Summerville and James are working out when they can hold in this division, and when they can take Huddersfield’s right-back and fold him. Illan Meslier, after many sullen months, is earning and getting happy hugs again, and helping his manager answer simple questions. Why is Farke picking Meslier? Because he’s a brilliant goalie. Why are Leeds beating Ipswich and Leicester? Because they’re a brilliant team. They’re only 3rd in the table? That’s just propaganda. Now we can wait and see. ⬢
(Photograph by Darren Staples/Sportimage, via Alamy)