What an unexpected start to the season. A friend of mine is a Stoke fan and I have foolishly entered into a bet with him – whichever club finishes higher, the loser buys Nandos for the entire winning family. Ridiculous considering Stoke were (and should still be) favourites for automatic promotion and Leeds are destined for 15th. I had therefore tried to manage expectations by asserting that “Leeds will get tonked”, because I thought we would. Our pre-season games weren’t dominant performances by any means and we had conducted business so late in the window that it seemed unlikely that the new players would be comfortably folded in to the tactical system yet.
Yet… Marcelo Bielsa has taken last season’s players, injected Barry Douglas and made them unstoppable. In fact, this was the Whatsapp conversation during and after the game:
The shift in desire from the players, the adoption of Bielsa’s system, the intensity – it’s astonishing. Stoke were totally vexed by the sheer number of Leeds shirts surrounding them at any moment. The second we lost possession the ball would be swarmed with white shirts. We’ve played against this system before and we’ve watched it in the Premier League and we know how deeply unpleasant it is to fall victim to. However, it is utterly glorious to be on the winning side of it.
Klich opening the scoring was unexpected but welcome, while a Jack Butland mistake allowed a fairly tame Pablo Hernandez shot to slowly sneak into the net. New signing Afobe would net a penalty from an admittedly soft decision to give Stoke a glimmer of hope, before Cooper would nod down a precision Douglas corner to seal the victory. Stoke were as surprised as we were.
Derby are another side expected to be competing at the top end of the table this season, meanwhile Leeds were still stapled to an unwelcome record of having not won away from home since Boxing Day. It seemed unthinkable that we could repeat the performance against a strong side who had outplayed us so much in recent memory. If anything, Leeds were sharper, more rabid, more intense. Derby’s possession of the ball was tempered by snarling pressure and lunged challenges, forcing them into mistakes and meaning Leeds picked up all of the second balls.
A divine Klich curling shot from outside the area opened the scoring, followed by an equaliser that Bailey Peacock-Farrell will be disappointed by. A free kick outside the area that was simply hit with such venom that it fizzed into the net before he’d even had chance to raise his hands. Ultimately he’ll know he could have done better, but Leeds’ attacking intent would quickly restore the lead.
A floating ambitious cross for Roofe hang beautifully between confused defenders as Kemar rose higher than you could think possible to nail a “Chris Wood vs. Brighton” tier header into the net. It was the same technique but a harder execution. Roofe was at full stride and had to leap, twist and get enough on the ball to clear Scott Carson’s outstretched hands but cushion it sufficiently to remain on-target. It was brilliant.
After the break he scored again. An even better goal, could you believe. Klich chips a deft ball in to him with as many as 3 Derby players in his lap. He executes a Dennis Bergkamp-esque flick of the ball to totally change its direction and wrong-foot the home players. While they’re still pondering the move Roofe had turned them and was through on goal – firing a shot high into the net that Carson had no chance with. Phil Hay would rightly declare that as much as we love 30-yard thunder-whatsits, you’d expect to see that Roofe goal in the “Goal of the Season” playlist come next Spring.
Derby’s misery was nearly complete. Pablo Hernandez refused to give up on a skewed cross, racing ahead of a snoozing back-line and lifting a speculative cross back across goal. It missed Roofe who was looking for his hat-trick, but was met by Alioski who launched the ball back across the onrushing keeper to wrap the game up at 4-1. Pundits would go mad for the new-look Leeds and escalate the debates about whether this kind of football is sustainable across the entire season, or whether this indeed is the “real deal”.
Unsung heroes exist everywhere, but credit must go to Bielsa for finding how to get the most out of Saiz. We’re seeing the pre-Christmas player of last year again, flourishing in the Enganche role. He has limited defensive responsibilities but total remit to pickup the ball and break forwards. He’s still a bit rough around the edges but you need only look at Derby’s Twitter conversations to see how much they felt he influenced the game.
Special mention has to go to Phillips, too, who plays a difficult position in this system and he’s looked immense. Tidying things up in midfield, running interceptions and dropping into defence when the wing-backs break forward. You can really see the training paying off now; the players look fit and the tight triangles they’re playing are looking more and more natural as the weeks go by.
Man, it’s exciting.