In a season of surprises, Leeds United are now both on holiday and the best team in the Premier League, another feat for the record books. They’ve lost one in ten, and Marcelo Bielsa has turned from merciless general to Butlin’s anything-but-redcoat, recapturing the nostalgic magic of last summer in Derby when everybody was drunk and playing better than ever.
The pounds for points system for final placings in the Premier League was supposed to keep Bielsa’s mind strictly on the table’s integrity, making no matches meaningless, forcing the first team into striving until the end. Perhaps he learned last summer, though, how Leeds can mix line-ups — and drinks — and still win. Were relegation on the line for Southampton or Leeds in this game, perhaps Mateusz Klich and Robin Koch would not have their feet up for it, but with nothing more important than pride and money at stake, Bielsa is happy to risk it. What’s Leeds United’s bank account compared to Klich’s hope of winning the Euros?
Leeds were by no means severely understrength, or drunk, but after already letting a couple of players take holidays, Bielsa’s sentimentality was showing at St Mary’s. He insisted that Gaetano Berardi has been in great form in training and the Under-23s, and that he helped secure a clean sheet when he came on in this match, which is all true: and what a shame we didn’t see more Berardi in the Premier League than this. But that he could share minutes with Spain’s Diego Llorente added an element of convenience to the half-time changes, when Pascal Struijk also relieved England’s Kalvin Phillips. If Pablo Hernandez plays in front of the crowds at Elland Road on Sunday Bielsa will just have to give in, go on, admit it, you’re a big softie underneath, aren’t you, aren’t you?
Bielsa even invited Kiko Casilla back in nets, who tweeted after the game about how much he has missed playing football. If so, why doesn’t he go somewhere next season and play it? Everything that can be said has been said about that time he was suspended and fined for shouting “You fucking n—–r” at Jonathan Leko, during a game at Charlton that Leeds lost because Casilla reacted to a ball coming into his six yard box like a cat having eggs thrown at it. What has changed since then, though, is that Leeds have become a top-half Premier League club with Illan Meslier in goal, who is cool and fun and liked by everyone. Meslier makes lots of great saves and he has a deep voice and a pass completion average higher than Alioski and Klich. He’s got the fourth best save percentage in the Premier League, has received more passes this season than Pat Bamford, and he loves running the length of the pitch to celebrate goals, which I love about him. At the end of nearly every game someone will talk about what a great thing it is to watch that crazy young Leeds keeper playing football, and he is in mind when the club are sending Adidas box sets to baseball players, gridiron stars and LL Cool J, part of a generational shift to a new look Leeds United. Casilla, meanwhile, fourteen years his elder, is welcomed into the team by grizzly adults rubbing their hands because it will ‘piss a few off on Twitter’, a strange thing to desire from a game offering so many pleasures. In the end, Casilla made some saves, kicked the ball a few times, dropped it, caught it, whatever. The house didn’t burn down, but that doesn’t make you glad the town arsonist came to your party.
Others were busy trying to play themselves into tournament contention and summer form, and did, despite a first half when not much was going right. Leeds kept giving the ball to Raphinha and hoping for the best: his cushioned header was hit wide by Stuart Dallas, Rodrigo put him through but his shot was saved, Bamford had a chance to play him in but couldn’t read his wishes. There was no question of leaving Raphinha out of this game — he’d forge the teamsheet if he had to in his pursuit of goals and assists. He will also strangle Bamford one day if he keeps shooting when Raphinha is in the six yard box demanding a pass. He had a big chance at the end, too, courtesy of Bamford, but missed, and looked like he wanted to strangle himself.
Bamford is out there trying to get on the highlights so Gareth Southgate will see, and Raphinha did his best to help with an exquisite ball behind Southampton’s defence. Bamford could have taken a shot early, but took the ball around the goalie instead, and didn’t take a dive when Alex McCarthy gloved his shins, and therefore didn’t get a penalty. “So I have to dive?” he seethed at the ref, stamping his foot and tossing his head like a cross little pony. Let’s try again, then, Rodrigo this time, Spain’s number nine playing as Leeds’ ten, chipping into the penalty area where Bamford nutmegged McCarthy with a tangletoed finish. With twenty minutes left, the lead was overdue.
That was enough time for Wales’ Tyler Roberts, who wants goals as bad as Raphinha but just doesn’t have the same malevolence while trying to get them, to finally chalk something up on the stats board. It’s more than a year and a very changed world since he came on and dictated his way to two goals at Hull, one of them a delicate diving header that was great, and his return to goals after so many VAR denials had to happen this way. A golden opportunity, a stumbling fluff, and finally a favour from the ricochets: there’s the empty goal, Tyler, just pass it in. They say when confidence is low, players need any kind of goal, and the style here mattered less than the meaning: the players celebrated, Bielsa celebrated, Roberts looked as relieved as if he’d just won the World Cup in a penalty shoot-out. What a time for him to find the confidence to match his efforts, one game before the season ends.
Maybe luck will befriend him at the Euros, but first, it’s everyone back to Elland Road for one more fun day on the Premier League’s sunny side. Beat West Brom, and when the new season starts again in mid-August, Leeds will have lost one game since early March, which is ages. Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl sounded lost, lamenting how his team couldn’t have played much better, how Leeds have an extra gear his players do not. Better luck against us next season, Ralph. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)