I know it’s unpopular to attempt to temper enthusiasm… but we have to consider games like Fulham to be 6-pointers. Despite looking exciting in our opening fixtures I think we need to accept that the Premier League is a big leap in terms of quality and that we should expect for a difficult campaign. While I hope that we finish mid-table (like many optimists are predicting), it’s more likely that we’ll be fighting for survival somewhere near the bottom. Fulham, despite Mitrovic, should be expecting the same. Therefore going head-to-head with sides who are probable to be near the bottom should be considered six-pointer games, even if it’s only game-week 2.
There’s that odd mentality in football seasons, as if the opening fixtures don’t mean a huge amount. Which was certainly true of the Liverpool game – it isn’t excessive rationalisation to call that a “dead rubber” that conveniently took place early, to get a guaranteed loss out of the way before stress sets in. It allowed the game to feel more exhibition-like than critical, but as many pundits were keen to point out – it still yielded zero points. Despite being excited by our play and our feisty underdog nature, we recorded no points on the board. We gained some confidence though, which was important.
The Fulham game, however, is a must-win in campaigns like this. If we’re going to struggle over the balance of the season then we need to be beating the teams we expect to be around us. We’ll be fine losing to the likes of Man City and Liverpool, but we shouldn’t find much peace in losing to the likes of Newcastle or West Brom. We normally reserve the “six-pointer” terminology for later when clubs are able to squint and see their final finishing spot, yet it’s as true on game 1 as it is for game 30.
It was encouraging, then, that Leeds found their groove and dominated the main areas of the game. Robin Koch did a fairly solid job containing Mitrovic and we started to find our groove, moving the ball about with that vertical speed we’ve come to expect under Bielsa. Some incredibly hap-hazard defending allowed Helder Costa to absolutely rifle Leeds into the lead after Fulham totally switched off defending a corner, leaving the winger entirely unmarked with tonnes of time to control the wayward ball and leather a shot into the roof of the net from 10 yards.
In what is becoming a pattern now, our good work was undone by a Koch penalty, going to ground at the edge of the area while Bryan was running the ball out of play. In reality, the penalty was incredibly harsh and contact looked engineered – Paul Merson on Soccer Saturday would have staked his mortgage no VAR ruling against the ref, only to be left incredulous that this wasn’t deemed a “clear and obvious” mistake. Mitrovic levelled the game, though Meslier had guessed the right direction.
In a rare karmic rebalancing, Bamford (clearly not able to reach a high cross) dropped to the turf when he felt a hand push the middle of his back. In real-world terms, it isn’t the kind of force that would topple an adult man, nor was it really preventing a goal-scoring opportunity as Pat was some distance from making the header. But in the Premier League the rules are very clear, if excessive. Contact in the box seems to universally result in a penalty, so Bamford went down and Klich restored Leeds’ lead from the spot. Both penalties a real damning thing for modern football and the ridiculousness of VAR, but at least evenly applied (this time).
The home side then started to run riot a bit. Bamford was played through on goal, opening his body and slotting the ball calmly into the goal with his weak foot following a beautiful visionary pass from midfield. A goal made by his movement and the cohesive, connected thinking we’re seeing from this side that are innately aware of what each other is doing. Minutes later Bamford would turn winger, performing step-overs and sprinting down the left, drilling a ball square back across goal. Costa’s run met the ball without breaking stride, smashing Leeds into a comfortable 4-1 lead and barely breaking stride.
Then it happened. That familiar-ish switch-off that we’ve seen a few times where the players just completely capitulate. Dallas and Cooper completely stopped being positionally aware as sloppy midfield ball retention resulted in a turnover in Fulham’s favour, putting Bobby Decordova-Reid through on goal. He fired powerfully across Meslier to bring the game back to 4-2. Minutes later a cross would meet Mitrovic’s head and a stressful 4-3 scoreline was posted on the Elland Road board. We would go on to win the game (unfortunate not to score a 5th due to some excellent goalkeeping), but a stark wake-up call that even a 3-goal cushion is not necessarily comfortable in the Premier League. Much like against Cardiff or the playoff semi-final second leg against Derby, capitulation at Leeds is rarely a minor event. We commit to collapses with the same ferocious intent that we commit to attacking phases of play.
But then it’s 3 points for Leeds and another reminder that our brand of football is effective in the Premier League. The fact we have a beautifully symmetrical GOALS FOR/GOALS AGAINST ratio is making for amusing punditry, with 7 goals scored and 7 goals conceded – and it really is that latter stat that Bielsa will be frustrated by. We can’t play every game intending to concede 3 yet score 4, because we know this side simply isn’t able to score at that rate over a long season. So we need to shore things up at the back, switch-on and stay resilient. It’s reassuring that some of our Championship thoughts are being proven true though, that wingers like Costa will be more effective in the Premier League as they’re afforded a bit more time and space, without the likes of Daniel Ayala lumbering over to kick your legs from beneath you.
The win is great, big areas of the performance were fabulous and it’s wonderful to see us competing. But make no mistake, we need to think of games like Fulham as six-pointers, even if we’re still waking up to life in the Premier League, we need to ensure we keep a firm eye on the goal. Survival. That’s it. Staying up is all we need to do. We just intend to bloody some noses along the way.