If 2022 is to be Marcelo Bielsa’s last year at Elland Road, at least it began with the sort of afternoon to suggest he should leave Leeds with Premier League football. Just their fourth win of the season means Leeds have nevertheless opened up an eight-point gap on the bottom three. Beaten 3-1 for the second time in four days, Burnley are stuck on a solitary victory. With Leicester, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool next, that may remain the case for some time.
Even the finest moment of a dreadful day for Sean Dyche felt doubly damaging. Matt Lowton was struck on the head by a bottle of coke thrown by a Leeds supporter when celebrating Burnley’s goal. “Very disappointing,” said Dyche. It was the fourth consecutive match at Elland Road with flashpoints involving the crowd and the FA surely must investigate.
Dyche’s scorer, with a free kick he first won and then dispatched wonderfully, was Maxwel Cornet. The bittersweet element for Burnley is that their catalyst is now headed for the African Cup of Nations.
The Ivorian’s sixth goal was his latest spectacular strike but while the fit-again substitute was a transformative figure, his valiant efforts were in vain. Burnley can seem over-reliant on him, though Dyche argued the collective can compensate, adding: “I have never lost faith in these players and I won’t do. The pride I have them is enormous.”
But it was a triumph for Bielsa, who had been self-critical after defeats. “I don’t ignore the situation that we are in and I also don’t ignore what my responsibilities are,” he said. “It was very necessary to get the win.” As they did, his name rang around Elland Road. His team played his quixotic 3-3-1-3 formation in a game defined by their frenetic football, not Dyche’s more prosaic gameplan. “They had the edge against us with that desire,” admitted the Burnley manager.
Victory was sealed by two of Bielsa’s substitutes, Dan James heading in a cross from his fellow replacement Joe Gelhardt, but the pivotal two goals came from players who were proof of the Argentinian’s alchemy when pillars of his Championship side were outstanding in the top flight.
Both Jack Harrison and Stuart Dallas overachieved by scoring eight league goals last season and had underachieved by getting none this. Droughts were ended as emblems of regression recaptured their dynamism. While Wayne Hennessey parried his initial effort from an acute angle, Harrison scored the second. Dallas’ superb first-time finish from the edge of the box restored Leeds’ lead.
They were worthy winners after a late flurry when Gelhardt excelled and Raphinha spurned a golden chance. “We dominated the game and created danger,” Bielsa said. Even without the watching Kalvin Phillips, plus Patrick Bamford, who has only played 22 minutes since September, and Liam Cooper, this was a more recognisable Leeds side than the depleted teams who had lost their three previous matches, conceding 14 goals. It was their first game for 15 days and they were faster and fresher.
There was ambition and audacity when Raphinha tried to score from 50 yards and Junior Firpo with a back-heeled flick. But, until Cornet’s arrival, the threat to Leeds stemmed from two of their alumni. The former Leeds striker Chris Wood had two chances, each created by their old left-back Charlie Taylor. Illan Meslier saved his first shot while the second fizzed over the bar.
Otherwise, Burnley were architects of their own downfall. They were overwhelmed and overrun in the first half, making error after error. James Tarkowski’s poor clearance led to the opener and he was the starter with their best pass completion rate. Dyche accepted: “We kind of hurt ourselves.”