It’s a joy to watch a footballer take control of a game and produce something beautiful, almost architectural, that they designed and planned.
When Leeds United won the ball from Norwich City’s goal kick in the twentieth minute — Leeds always win the ball from your goal kicks, now — Pablo Hernandez and Ezgjan Alioski were roughly side by side, on opposite edges of the centre circle. Something silent, a mental blueprint, passed from Hernandez to Alioski, and from that moment it was just a matter of time, execution and desire. Hernandez took the ball and the game over to his right, creating a space ahead of him to the left. He didn’t have to look up to know that Alioski would be entering that space, and the ball was already on its way before any of Norwich’s players realised the space was there; a pass like a flying buttress, inviting Alioski to become airborne.
Alioski bloody loves these headers, and one day he’ll score one that’s perfect. Last season at Derby County, when he fluffed a one on one chance, Scott Carson’s save gave him another go, and he dived headlong over the goalkeeper to head the ball into the empty net. This time he had a running start and got even more air, zooming like an atomic superhero’s kid sidekick, the aerodynamics of his sculpted hairdo firing him towards the ball. But Tim Krul saved his header, damn him; Mateusz Klich, a studious looking soul, brought the game down to earth and considered carefully how to defeat the defenders. His safe shot into the back of the net gave Leeds the lead.
It hadn’t looked likely ten minutes earlier, but that was before Hernandez had become so decisive. In the early stages Alioski and Barry Douglas struggled with Norwich’s right-side of pink twin pigs, Pukki and Pinto, and needed two strong interventions from Pontus Jansson to keep Norwich away from Bailey Peacock-Farrell. Jansson was making a seamless return, but the game couldn’t go on like this, so Hernandez made regular moves from the right wing, lending his mates a hand. It meant Samu Saiz had to drift out to the right, working hard on the peripheries instead of dictating from the centre, but Pablo’s was a friendly and necessary coup. He’d got this. Within ten minutes, he’d made the first goal.
He only had a supporting role in the second goal, just minutes later, but it came down the newly confident Leeds left — although it started with a defensive throw-in on the right. Hernandez laid the ball back to Luke Ayling, who sent it across the field for Gaetano Berardi, Douglas and Klich to spend some triangular time with. They didn’t dwell for long but moved down the left, until Douglas played a square pass for Kemar Roofe, who laid it off at a right angle into the box for Alioski, who smashed the ball from a narrow angle inside Krul and into the net. Triangle, square, square, acute; Leeds were throwing more shapes at Norwich than a 2am crowd at The Warehouse.
The last time Leeds played at Carrow Road it was like watching Leeds play an absurd game of musical statues against eleven hyperactive kids in yellow; our players just stood still while the Canaries frolicked between them. I have been using this game as the nadir of Paul Heckingbottom’s management, against which Marcelo Bielsa’s sudden invigoration of the same players should be measured, ever since a point during the second half against Stoke City when I pulled up a video clip of that game on my phone, to make sure I was watching the same team.
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The new ability to Barcelona the ball around is drawing the acclaim, but there’s important substance to it, too. Leeds have become ruthless. The start of this match wasn’t great, but once Hernandez took a grip Leeds played into it and over Norwich, and made sure to come out of their first dominant spell with a two goal advantage. When Leeds are on top, Leeds score; a new, clinical style that depressed their opponents.
Norwich started each half like a team that had just been given important instructions by their ailing manager, then played through the rest of the game like a team forgetting those instructions, remembering instead his funny name and brown car coat. Norwich were one long fade-out. Leeds have a coach with a style that has been analysed so deeply over the years that any deviation triggers alarms on a thousand tactics-twitchers’ laptops, but are representing Bielsa’s ideas so totally that there’s barely been a peep.
In the last minute of added time, Kalvin Phillips threw himself at the ball to stop Norwich taking a shot at Peacock-Farrell, and it was a moment when Bielsa’s principles of complete commitment from first to last combined beautifully with Leeds United’s principles of side before self and effort for the cause. It’s as if Bielsa was always meant to do this here, and to do it to Kalvin Phillips, specifically; to help the lad from Wortley finally fulfil his potential as a hero of the next district, down the hill.
Phillips’ return from his early substitution against Swansea City, and Alioski’s from his half-time hook, should be praised in context with the entire team’s failure to recover, until summer, from one setback at Millwall last season. Alioski scored one and could have had the first from Klich, and was always dangerous; Phillips played as if Tuesday had never happened. Perhaps, if he’d been left on the pitch to struggle in Swansea, it would have been harder to recover. That stoppage time block wasn’t the only one; dropping into central defence, in the last moments of the first half he strained to reach a high ball just ahead of Jordan Rhodes, denying him a back post header. With the ball, his passing was intense and cheerful; not just the number that were completed — 41 of 47 tried — but the style of them. A pass map is a beautiful thing when it shows so many vertical arrows, from front to back, long accurate passes into attacking areas.
There’s not yet a visualisation tool for United’s third goal, unless you count the work of its scorer’s namesake, Pablo Picasso. Hernandez collected the ball from a throw-in, and with the same intent vision we began by talking about, turned away from his markers, sidestepped a defender, and shot beyond Krul. It wasn’t top corner or bottom corner but middle corner, if that’s even a thing; nobody ever aims their shot there, probably because the trajectory it requires is along a nice height for the goalkeeper; but when the ball is struck with this much art, there is no nice height for the goalkeeper.
In football, vision is usually invoked to mean seeing the edges of play; the unseen chance for a long pass, or a surprise through ball to a runner from deep. Against Norwich Hernandez played with the purer kind of vision, the sort with which an artist approaches a canvas, seeing the result before they’ve even picked up a brush, knowing they have the skills and training to make the painting match the thought. Hernandez is often caught in photographs with an introspective stare, as if his eyes are darkened by some previous horror visible only to him. But in motion he looks forward, not backward, into the future, with a game-defining gaze.
No wonder Marcelo Bielsa is glad he’s here. So am I. ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)