There was something quintessentially Marcelo Bielsa about this. The former manager of Argentina has become the Championship’s master of the overwhelmingly dominant 1-0 win. For Leeds United, the solace came simply in the fact it was a victory.
Just their second of a troubled 2020 restored them to a position of strength. Yesterday could have been the day Leeds dropped out of the automatic promotion positions. Instead, they emerged the stronger as none of the four teams in the play-off places prevailed.
Indeed, one of them, Bristol City, were their victims, their chances of ending a 40-year exile from the top flight dented by one of their former players, in the scorer Luke Ayling.
Leeds’ own fraught, epic, tragicomic quest to return has spanned 16 seasons. This represents their best opportunity and this was just a third win in 12 games.
It has been a wretched run, marked by missed chances at one end and mistakes at the other, highlighting footballing and psychological frailties and reviving concerns about management’s most influential nearly man. Bielsa was watched by one of his protégés, Mauricio Pochettino, in Tuesday’s draw at Brentford.
This was witnessed by England’s biggest gate of the day, 35,819, for the biggest club outside the Premier League, even if the double European Cup winners Nottingham Forest may quibble with that assessment.
Leeds are an anomaly even in a division of well-supported clubs who generally have Premier League pasts or more distant glories. It accounts for the pressure.
This time, Leeds weathered it. Storm Dennis battered much of England and City faced an onslaught.
Leeds had 21 shots, 13 of them before City’s first, a tame header from Jamie Paterson, and 69 percent of possession. Leeds could have won by four goals but almost lost their lead when City’s former Bradford and Huddersfield striker Nahki Wells spurned a late chance to level. It felt a microcosm of a reign.
“The team controlled the game,” said Bielsa. They always do. “We ran a lot.” They always do. “We missed a lot of chances.” They always do. But Leeds’ relentlessness is not always married with ruthlessness. Too often the wrong decision was taken in the final third, or the right one was executed in the wrong way. Helder Costa was a particular culprit and their attackers lacked the precision of holding midfielder Kalvin Phillips or the incision of their flying full-backs.
Bielsa being Bielsa, there were a couple of selections that showed his stubbornness. There was defiance in the early choruses of the names of Kiko Casilla and Patrick Bamford, Leeds’ two most-mocked players.
His obstinacy has manifested itself in keeping faith with both and, if plenty of supporters would happily have seen Casilla dropped after his errors cost Leeds five goals in 11 games, they kept their doubts to themselves. ‘Marching On Together’ is the club’s anthem and United displayed their togetherness. “We felt the support of our supporters,” said Bielsa.
Casilla was barely tested as he kept a rare clean sheet. The offside Bamford had a goal disallowed after Stuart Dallas’ shot was tipped on to the bar.
He almost scored when Daniel Bentley got a hand to his low shot but Tomas Kalas was required to stop it dribbling over the line. It nevertheless amounted to another game without a goal for him. “Bamford is the player who has shot most in the Championship,” said Bielsa. “You can take that information two ways.”
Leeds are the team with the most shots. Bentley made a brilliant save from Costa and the on-loan Manchester City midfielder Jack Harrison rattled the bar but the decider came early. Pressure told after a bout of penalty-box pinball.
City were penned in, both of Leeds’ full-backs sufficiently advanced that they took shots in quick succession and, after left-back Dallas’ effort and then midfielder Mateusz Klich’s follow-up were blocked, right-back Ayling swivelled to score. “A fair win,” said Bielsa. A much-needed one, too.