Everything was shared at The Hawthorns. The goals and points went one to each, followed by deep hugs and admiring speeches. Leeds United presented Semi Ajayi with the first goal, and he returned the favour by deflecting the equaliser.
Most significant is that Leeds and West Bromwich Albion share the top two promotion places and a feeling of relief that this game is over. Neither team wanted to be on the wrong end of a blow to their morale, even if it wouldn’t materially affect the league table. This was no Disgrace of Gijón, two teams playing to a mutually beneficial result. But both managers, Slaven Bilic and Marcelo Bielsa, spoke afterwards about the respectful spirit of the game, the strong but fair tackling, the way each side’s way of playing created chances to win.
For such a hyped, anticipated and pressurised game, there was not actually much more than morale at stake. Results elsewhere meant that defeat for either team would be softened by the consolation prize of an eight point lead over 3rd place, where the real battle is. A top of the table clash takes on a different character when the top two, at the end of the season, share the main prize of promotion; Leeds and West Brom are on the same side of the fighting against the teams below.
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As such you could take this match as pure sport, a game to decide nothing except who has the better team. In that respect Leeds should be happier. It’s not only to Marcelo Bielsa’s credit, but to his players’, that Leeds have scored two in open play in two games against the team that has taken its proper place as the division’s strongest, with only the gift of a goal from a corner — the flaw in Leeds that everybody knows — denying them all six points.
Whether it’s down to Bielsa’s stubborn nobility in, or rather outside, the transfer market; Andrea Radrizzani’s old-fashioned Yorkshire grip on the club’s pound notes; West Brom’s parachute payments; or their willingness to flex with Financial Fair Play, the fact is that West Brom have Gareth Barry on their bench and Leeds have Robbie Gotts.
The disparity that Premier League money, still pouring into the bank accounts of its relegated teams, has caused in the Championship, along with the Peacocks’ failure to grasp those riches in a decade of not trying hard enough, means that ten years after beating the Premier League champions at Old Trafford while still a League One team, Leeds now go into some league matches with a similar economic disadvantage. Before we snap ourselves out of it, we can allow ourselves to wonder how Leeds might cope in the Premier League next season, but West Brom represent the financial muscle and squad quality Leeds will face there. And Leeds haven’t lost to them, and ran Fulham close enough to be optimistic of beating them at Elland Road.
With key players with Premier League experience like Adam Forshaw and Pablo Hernandez missing, and to extend the argument, Pontus Jansson, players like Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich and Ben White have stepped up beyond their profile and their pay grade. Nobody can limit their prediction of how good Ben White might become, but few thought Dallas or Klich could improve as much as they did last season, or that they could get better again this term. But together with Kalvin Phillips they stifled West Brom’s strong midfield — Jake Livermore is a £10m England international — limiting them to one big chance per half: Matt Phillips running through one-on-one, Filip Krovinovic chasing a through ball into the six-yard box, both well dealt with by Kiko Casilla.
Casilla dealt with their other chances too, tipping shots from long and close range over the bar, almost making up for punching the first corner of the game straight up in the air, where the ball stayed until Ajayi settled the head tennis with the opening goal.
After that Leeds were the better side by a small margin, thanks to that midfield effort and other improved and improving players. Helder Costa is getting better with every game, and was United’s most dangerous player, putting in cross after cross as part of the classic Bielsa wide bombardment, sprinting from his own half to give Jackie Harrison the ball, whose cross nearly forced an own goal. Harrison continues to show gains of his summer prep; his final ball is rarely pretty, but the stats show how effective he is, and he set up the equaliser.
Pat Bamford, on as a half-time substitute, headed Harrison’s quick cross towards goal and in off Ajayi, proving not only his worth as a starter ahead of Eddie Nketiah, but the deliberate effort he has made to become a player with a differing and important skillset compared to his young rival from, and now back with, Arsenal.
The slight prefect, sometimes thought better suited to the wing rather than the Championship’s rough penalty areas, has transformed himself into Bambo, a burly number nine who bashes any defender who tries to take the ball, crashes in headers — off defenders — then celebrates with the sort of shy-looking Leeds salute to the crowd that reminds you how, underneath, he’s still a nice young man trying to fit in with the lads. That he’s able to keep up the tough guy act for so long in games now, and to the total effect he had at the Hawthorns, is to Bamford’s credit: this is not the player who Anwar El Ghazi breathed to the ground last April.
That change in Bamford should be remembered as part of Nketiah’s recall to Arsenal. The conclusion drawn from his loan might be that he is unsuited to Bielsa’s style of play, and the first half showed by how much that’s true, even after months of training with Leeds. If Bamford could adapt, why couldn’t Nketiah? His loan didn’t happen in a vacuum. Were Leeds supposed to change? Was he supposed to change? Victor Orta didn’t fool anybody with his hour-long presentation on how Nketiah would be used at Leeds; everybody involved in August, from Marcelo Bielsa approving the move, to the Arsenal hierarchy and senior technical staff picking Leeds ahead of other detailed presentations from Bristol City and Fortuna Dusseldorf, to the player himself, all agreed that Eddie Nketiah was capable of fitting into Leeds United’s team this season.
What the first half at West Brom showed is that it’s not only game time that has held Nketiah back, but a failure to adapt to the team’s style the way Leeds, Arsenal and he expected him to. There can have been no illusions about how Nketiah would be expected to play: Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds were not about to change their style to suit a 20-year-old without a league start, and Arsenal will have been thorough in their analysis of the team their hot prospect was joining. Arsenal might be recalling him because they expected him to start more games; but Leeds might have expected him to have earned more starts, too.
Leeds now ought to take the shortest cut they can to replace Nketiah. Loaning a player to adjust and retune was viable in August, with long months of football ahead. Half the season has gone and training now is about recovery and reinforcement, not education and improvement. Much of the responsibility now is with the players, and any new players need to be ready made to fit in and contribute what Leeds United need.
Last November’s 4-1 defeat at The Hawthorns showed how fragile Bielsa’s new revolution still was. There have been fragile moments this Christmas, against Cardiff City and Birmingham City, but Leeds took a draw and a win from them. Statistical graphs of the Championship show that by almost every measurement Leeds are the best team by large margins, but those margins are always closer on the pitch, and turning them into a nine point advantage over 3rd place is a good achievement from 2019.
What we can’t measure is Leeds United’s resolve, but we could sense it on New Year’s Day. The game was a draw, but overall Leeds look a better team than West Brom, which is better than they need to be to win promotion. And they look resolved, this season, to prove it, in the only way that will count. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)