I don’t think any of us believed this season wouldn’t be a rollercoaster, but even I have to admit this is wild. To go from upsettingly poor performances against Chelsea and West Ham to blow away Newcastle 5-2. To then concede twice in the opening 3 minutes against Manchester United, going on to lose 6-2. A narrow win at Burnley, a whopping humiliation of West Brom followed by a humbling 3-0 defeat to Spurs. Crawley. Brighton. Every time we feel high we get smacked down, and every time we’re down we find a way to rise again.
A narrow (but spirited) victory away at Newcastle led into a nervous pre-game social-media atmosphere against Leicester at the weekend. Having played them already this season it was evident how perfectly they’re setup to counteract our strengths. With a figure like Vardy able to operate in the spaces behind our high-press – and players of individual quality in the middle capable of dribbling past our man-marking system, Leicester isn’t a game I look forward to much. Thankfully Vardy was injured and I do think their incisive attacking edge being blunted somewhat did rather help.
But Leeds were good. Very good, in fact. I’d moaned for a few games that it felt like we hadn’t had that confident zip about us since the Villa game back in October (funnily enough, the game immediately preceding Leicester). Ever since we’ve seemed slow to the second ball and lacking that spark that made us so dangerous and exciting in the opening games. Our style had started to look more akin to frustrated misplaced passes and through-balls played a yard the wrong side of the target. Sobering losses against Crawley and Brighton, too, cemented this worry – would Leeds find their groove again? Even a crucial win against Newcastle wasn’t very comfortable – it felt like we switched off in the second half and invited too much pressure. If we talk about football as an exercise in exerting control, our whole tactical system only really works when its under control.
When Bielsa-ball is controlled it’s often very mechanical – high intensity pressing, turnover of possession in advanced areas and persistent overloading in attack. When we aren’t in control it becomes frantic and our desire to play from the back becomes a game of juggling hand-grenades.
The Leicester game, however, showed us back in control. We’d found our zip again and imposed ourselves on the game. This allowed Bamford to be more involved (where he’d been more isolated in recent games) – finishing the game with a goal and two assists. Both lovely assists and the goal is as good as any you’ll see in the league this month.
Bielsa hasn’t been very fortunate either – and it’s frustrating how little is said about this when pundits have still not stopped talking about Liverpool’s injury problems. We’ve been trying to hold our heads above water without recognised centre-back pairings (Koch and Llorente both injured). Rodrigo looks set for a spell on the recovery table while Raphinha picked up an injury too and it looks like Poveda will be out for a while having limped off the U23’s victory against Sunderland.
Yet, despite the bad luck, despite the problems with the pitch, the lack of fans, the makeshift squad and myriad of other factors – Leeds are looking like the Premier League will need to get used to them. We’re 15 points above the relegation places with 18 games to go. That’s a 5-game swing. Not enough to be comfortable with, but it seems like we might actually survive. And that, however you slice it, is utterly remarkable.
Everton tomorrow night feels like a free hit because it’s impossible to know which Leeds will turn up, which players we’ll have available and whether the “zip” will be in attendance or not. But it’s fantastic to be back – and we are, firmly, back. Leeds are box-office and we’re great to watch.