The fates love to toy with Leeds United. The game at home to Wigan Athletic at Easter was their game, when they span their thread and wove their tapestry and showed us how the story was going to end. We still had hope at the end of that game, but only by ignoring the inevitable.
Marcelo Bielsa wouldn’t get involved in talk of last season before this weekend’s visit to Wigan; “This is not the reason why we are here,” he said, meaning either the pre-match press conference, or maybe meaning coming back to coach the club again.
But football doesn’t give you the luxury of ignoring its past, even without history books and retrospective documentaries. Football is obsessed with its own history, especially in a centenary season; especially when the Premier League, that was once our present, feels part of the distant past. We want to go back, and that’s the point; we always want to go back.
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Stuart Dallas was more forthright. “I’m sure the boys will be champing at the bit to get at them on Saturday,” he said. “We definitely owe them one.” The ability to face down their demons will be invaluable this season; arguably, at the fourth time of facing Frank Lampard, it’s what let them down last time. They’ve got Pontus Jansson on Wednesday, Derby County in a month.
Dallas is one player for whom starting the season in the same form he finished the last is not a hindrance; he was the best player in the home leg against Derby and came close to taking Leeds to Wembley almost by himself. He’s started this season with the same influence but a different intention, of avoiding Wembley altogether, and of righting a few wrongs along the way.
To do that in these circumstances is almost weird, though, and it’s hard to point anywhere other than the fates for the red card in the first half on Saturday that reduced Wigan to ten players, just as at Elland Road in April. Last season’s game was another in United’s long history — that word again — of proving that getting what we think we want is usually the precursor to a disaster: the club that spent nine seasons in Division Two after the war, won promotion, and was woken one night to its Main Stand burning down; that started this century top of the Premier League, and celebrated with a night out in Majestyk’s nightclub. Bielsa knows this, saying once that the exciting sensation of winning lasts, “only five minutes, and after that there is that enormous and huge emptiness, and an indescribable loneliness,” and the exciting sensation of watching Joe Williams sent off was followed five minutes later by the indescribable loneliness of feeling like we’d seen this all before.
It might have been a less stressful afternoon playing against eleven. Wigan had started with a bold plan of pressing Leeds at the back, trying to goad mistakes out of Liam Cooper or Kiko Casilla. That, and the foul tackling in midfield that led to Williams being sent off, was frustrating Leeds, but it didn’t mean Leeds weren’t going to win. Despite supporters’ nerves about Kiko and Cooper, Leeds have started the season with the calm assurance that was absent from last term’s final weeks. There’s no reason not to be calm in August, and Bielsa’s mandate — keep doing what you’re doing until it works — is inherently optimistic. Wigan couldn’t keep their game up all day, but Leeds could.
That aspect didn’t change with the red card. It merely forced Wigan to retreat to the edge of their own box, with the pessimistic new plan of resisting United’s authority for as long as possible; United could just keep doing what they had set out to do, in more space. Leeds soon broke through, and scored near enough to the half-hour and one-hour marks for me to suspect there’s an optimum timeframe built into Bielsa’s football, a calculation that average opponents can resist his style for thirty minutes at a time but not much more. It was around the half-hour mark that Patrick Bamford missed a good chance against Nottingham Forest last weekend, when a goal would have soothed nerves and changed the game.
Bamford answered his critics by scoring both goals against Wigan, only for his critics to smile politely but ask if he didn’t have some better goals he could score instead. It must have been like taking the fans out for a fancy Italian meal, and watching them spend their night gazing at Eddie Nketiah grazing in the window of the more appealing French place over the street. The meal was nice, but we can make pasta for like 50p at home, Pat.
These weren’t impressive strikes; the first an open goal that Pat seemed to ponder before scoring from two yards, the second a rushing pushing at the front post to force the ball over the line from a corner. But the cliché that they all count is true, and the idea of Bielsa’s football is to create chances like these. United’s unwillingness to shoot from distance can be frustrating, and is sometimes put down to a dream of scoring perfect goals; it’s more that they’re following a plan towards the perfect chances. Those byline crosses are intended to land exactly where this one did, via Adam Forshaw’s header against the post, for Bamford’s first goal; a fast counter attack, starting with a Dallas nutmeg and sweeping across the pitch, ended with two players trying to score from less than six yards. We’ve seen those chances often under Bielsa, and often it’s been full-back crossing for full-back, by design; if it can be Bamford getting into the right place at the right time instead, he can score all the scruffy tap-ins he likes, and leave the elegance to the build up. If he keeps that up then Eddie Nketiah won’t be changing anything soon.
As pleasant as it was to see Bamford scoring, it was just as satisfying to watch Cooper and Ben White untroubled by six feet and five inches of Kieffer Moore, and a referee content to give him six free-kicks while only penalising him twice. He won his fair share of headers but none of Wigan’s various flavours of shithousing helped him pass the ball more than five times.
The stars of the show were Dallas and Forshaw, though, the latter also starting with some points to make after last season. He’s been given a more progressive role in this season’s midfield, and a challenge along with it, of not letting Bielsa give the job to Jamie Shackleton instead. The only problem with Forshaw’s performance was the time he spent in Wigan’s penalty area without scoring, but that was also a successful part of the way pressure was built. After Forest failed to complete a single pass into United’s penalty area last weekend, this week Wigan managed two; Leeds completed twenty, creating fifteen chances, after last weekend when fifteen passes made eleven. Wigan’s red card was not the reason Adam Forshaw was always in their box.
We blamed Wigan’s red card last season for a lot in the end; it was the worst favour we got all year. Marcelo Bielsa, I guess, prefers to blame himself. “I remember this fact,” he said after the match, when he was reminded again of last season’s storyline. “I was trying to make something different happen today.” He succeeded, as ever, by doing everything exactly the same. Maybe something else is changing. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)