2020 has been an unusual year for football. After 16 long years absence, Leeds United achieved promotion to the Premier League and were gifted one of the most beautiful opening-day fixtures fans could have wished for. Liverpool as reigning Champions would face a rejuvenated Leeds at Anfield to the delight and fanfare of every neutral fan. I’m certain even Manchester United fans were interested.
Fixtures like these should be deafening affairs, as two of the “proper” clubs in the English game tussled with one another in-front of passionate crowds vying to out-sing one another. Sadly, the atmosphere was more akin to an Academy game than two footballing giants getting reacquainted. Empty stands and every kick of the ball echoing around Anfield; it wasn’t what I’d hoped for after 16 years of daydreaming such a scenario. But that’s perhaps where the disappointment ended.
There’s a certain arrogance that I feel is carried by fans of “established” Premier League clubs – rightly remarking on the gulf in quality between the two leagues, but writing off any newly-promoted side as a casual annoyance who will spend an entire season gasping for breath at the foot of the table. And while they may be right, those of us who have spent 2 years watching Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds know that we’re a different entity to the likes of Norwich or West Brom. Not that our fortune is inherently more certain, I still expect us to struggle, but it is dangerously arrogant to assume that Leeds won’t (or can’t) run rings around you.
Liverpool certainly didn’t afford Leeds this luxury early in the game, pressing high and retaining the ball. For the opening minutes it felt like a very uncomfortable return as a phenomenally good side clearly sought to put the plucky Yorkshire club in its place. The Premier League gave us a warm “hello” by awarding an early penalty against debutant Robin Koch via VAR for having a deflected shot hit his arm. Of course, the rules dictate that such a scenario shouldn’t result in a penalty, but VAR seems entirely incapable of following simple rules and a lifetime of disappointment surrendered any sense of surprise to such an event. Of course, Mo Salah buried the ball and Leeds were down already.
It’s worth saying at this point that I never cared about the result. Leeds were never going to beat Liverpool here. With Liam Cooper injured and Ben White still being held hostage on the South coast, we were expecting an Academy player making only his 4th start to form a cohesive partnership with a player only on his 6th day at Leeds – against a Liverpool side who (quite frankly) walked the league last season. It was an unfair expectation that we could win the game – we’d had too many players on International duty and no time to prepare. Liverpool, on the other hand, had a mature and comfortable lineup who had played together many times.
But it doesn’t matter. Whether we played Liverpool as our 1st game or 38th, I wouldn’t expect us to get anything from the fixture. But having this as our first game means that we can theoretically gauge where we’re at without stressing about it too much. Perfect, really, if we overlook the disappointment of needing to do it behind closed doors.
Leeds grew into the fixture as the minutes passed and started to apply the learned behaviours that Bielsa has instilled into the club from the very first training session. That instinctive way of playing stretched Liverpool who would find their high-press caught out by Leeds’ fast vertical transitions and intent to commit players forward. A lofted Kalvin Phillips pass was beautifully controlled by Harrison’s pillow-feet, cushioned left, dinked right, dragged inside and smashed into the bottom corner. Liverpool hadn’t been caught sleeping, Leeds had just undone one of the best sides in Europe with a genuinely brilliant piece of individual play.
VVD would then score a free-header from a corner to put Liverpool back in the lead, before an individual mistake from the big man would allow Bamford to deftly finish a 1-on-1. A failed clearance would fall to Salah who would lash the ball into the top corner (in a way only a player of his calibre can) before a beautiful passage of play saw Klich volleying another equaliser in another stunning reminder that Bielsa’s Leeds seldom concede defeat. A justified penalty in the closing minutes of the game would wrap the 3 points for the home side, but it almost didn’t matter – Leeds had demonstrated to both the footballing world and to themselves that they can go toe-to-toe with the big boys.
Obviously both sides were victims of rustiness and a lack of preparation. Neither coach would be reflecting fondly on the defending demonstrated, but it was reassuring to see that Leeds can exert pressure on clubs as good as Liverpool. Very few sides (if any) go to Anfield and dominate the ball, but Leeds did. Very few go to Anfield and score 3 goals (Chelsea did it in July, Palace did it last season, Man City the season before). It’s rare. But we did it.
Pundits all around the country starting waxing lyrical about the bravery of Leeds’ play, how impressive it is to watch and how both sides managed to create one of the most open and entertaining opening fixtures the Premier League had ever seen. For every Alan Brazil-tier noise-maker breathlessly trying to argue how “Leeds cannot do this every game”, there’s Leeds fans nodding, knowingly, that this is exactly what we do every game. Relentless.