Chris Wilder is well known for sticking the words of his opponents on the dressing room wall to motivate his teams. But who takes them down?
Somebody must. But Leeds took the lead in the 87th minute so there wasn’t much time. Wilder and his Sheffield United players coming face to face with whatever Pat Bamford slash Fozzie Bear hybrid somebody spent Friday afternoon making in Word art couldn’t be allowed to happen.
Wilder’s rampant antagonism is truly one of the best things about him. Sometimes the game can be a little too nice out of fear of headlines or FA charges. Looking back to this fixture in 1990 you find David Batty wanting to “thrash” the Blades, and the Premier League is poorer now it hides that sort of intent behind faux-respectful metaphors.
Wilder is real. This week he was complaining about Leeds nicking Sheffield United’s best players, as if with two pints in him he can’t get his mind off John Pemberton moving up the M1 in 1993. He might smile and shake hands with Marcelo Bielsa, but this isn’t about the Rosarino; this is about all the times he’s seethed through Look North, wanting to chin Harry Gration for his pro-Leeds bias.
Bielsa is his ideal opponent because, although he is outwardly quiet and respectful, he instils in his team the same fury for victory that once led him to swear he’d cut off a finger if it meant Newell’s won their derby. Ahead of this game there was plenty of analysis of the formations each coach might employ, but like in chess, diagrams are only abstractions. Look again at the pieces on the board: perhaps their placement is interesting, but don’t forget that knight is a horse-mounted warrior slaying pawns in his quest to run his sword through the bowels of the king. Bielsa’s grand-mastery works the same way.
The formation is the structure. The game is about the personal battles, one on one, player versus player, each charged with vanquishing their own opponent. Win your battle and the team will win the war. When one of Bielsa’s defenders is chasing a striker over the halfway line, we’re beyond tactical niceties. It’s personal, body to body.
That’ll hurt Wilder all the more, as he’ll feel his goalless, winless, pointless team have let him down as individuals, losing the one-on-ones one by one. The Blades had good chances but were dismayed by the player excepted from individual combat and excellent against them all: Illan Meslier. The goalkeeper can’t choose his opponent and must defeat everyone and everything the other team have got for him. On this occasion his two important first half saves were the beating of all eleven from Sheffield, and their coach too.
The first should have been impossible. John Lundstram was too close for Meslier to react to his shot, and when it was hit across him, it was too well placed for Meslier to shift his feet, weight and direction to dive and stop it. But he did all of those things.
The second, a shot George Baldock aimed at his top corner, was more achievable, helped by good positioning; but achievable hasn’t guaranteed anything from United’s goalkeepers of the recent past. Meslier beat the ball away from his net with an arm as concrete as Felix Wiedwald’s confusion.
Leeds, putting a back three against Sheffield’s forwards, who were often augmented by their defenders, asked more defensive work than usual of Helder Costa and Jackie Harrison as wing-backs, and each was the source of one of those chances. Meanwhile Tyler Roberts was being smothered in midfield, so Leeds ended the first half with only Kalvin Phillips’ free-kick headed over by Bamford, and a shot by Stuart Dallas that Aaron Ramsdale did well to keep out of his top corner.
The second half, with Rodrigo instead of Roberts, was more promising. Sheffield’s chances had been good, but otherwise their patient build up was being rebuffed far from goal. Wilder tried to increase the grudge factor by bringing on Oli McBurnie and Billy Sharp, the latter up against a player who shared that first season of Massimo Cellino with him and us, Liam Cooper, in his 200th Leeds game. Divergent paths brought them together again in the Premier League, and while Sharp might have got there first, I wonder if he looks with a little envy at Liam’s Championship winner’s medal, the armband on the sleeve of his Leeds United shirt.
McBurnie, who was born in Leeds, had a good look at goal when a corner put the ball into the six yard box but he couldn’t put his head on the ball. Although Leeds will be glad to break their trend of conceding in every half they’ve played so far — helped by Robin Koch playing well without conceding any penalties — Meslier’s brilliance and that sort of anaemic finishing helped.
Bielsa sent Ian Poveda on for Costa, a player free from the weight of any intra-Yorkshire rivalries, and from the defensive duties that dulled Costa’s positive start to the season. He added dazzle to the right wing. Harrison, on the left, drew on his reserves of intensity. He doesn’t drop his shoulder like Poveda or throw himself into the dance against his markers. But when Rodrigo took the ball from Mateusz Klich with one thing on his mind, passing to the left where Harrison had run into space, Harrison also had one thought: put the ball in the place for Bamford.
“It came off my nose,” Pat chuckled afterwards. That made the moment, three minutes from ninety, even better. It meant there was time, as the ball bounced, for Harrison to throw his arms in the air, for Ayling to put on a big grin, for Chris Wilder’s heart to drop, all before Bambinho had even done it to ’em. He was doing it to them and doing it to them slow as the ball bounced in the six yard box, over the line, into the goal, onto the net, down to the grass. All the time in the world for having fun.
There were also five added minutes, during which Bielsa gave a last lesson for the day about time and personal battles. Leeds had no use for Rodrigo’s playmaking anymore, and Bielsa had no thought of playing out the game with an unnecessary player. Off came the substitute and on came Ezgjan Alioski, the player the moment needed, even if it was only a moment.
Alioski won those minutes and that was enough from him. All any of the players had to do with their minutes was win their battle. Pat Bamford, struggling for breath in his post-match interview, put the sensory emphasis on the way the game was won by the people playing it. You could see it, hear it, and if you were close enough, smell it; in pre-Covid days before sanitiser was everywhere, you could touch his sweat and taste it. A sweet flavour in Leeds, but like ashes in the mouth of Chris Wilder, which is how football games should end. ◉