Matt Abbott: Leeds United are a force to be reckoned with - and the league’s richer for it
The ball clatters against the woodwork in the 95th minute. Raphinha holds his head in his hands: denied his maiden Leeds United goal in front of an empty Kop. A minute later, Mikel Arteta breathes a huge sigh of relief as 10-man Arsenal manage to cling on. The Whites leave another pulsating encounter against a ‘Big Six’ side with only a point to show for it.
It’s difficult to remember sometimes that we’re ultimately supposed to watch football for enjoyment.
Launching attack after attack on the Gunners’ goal with no joy became exasperating. But as the dust settled and we all caught a breath, we pinched ourselves and had a little chuckle.
Last time we hosted Arsenal for a top-flight encounter, it resulted in sheer annihilation. It was November 2003, and after miraculously avoiding relegation at Highbury the previous season, we looked powerless to resist it. This led to one of the most surreal sights I’ve witnessed at Elland Road: home fans clapping an away goal.
It was a Thierry Henry inspired masterclass. And with our makeshift defence, also-ran loanees and thoroughly demoralised superstars, a 0-0 draw would’ve been a gargantuan achievement. So, to see Bamford, Rodrigo and Raphinha come within inches of sealing a win was a pleasant kind of pain. And let’s face it, it felt a long way from those 4-1 defeats before the international break.
The victory at Goodison Park was something that we’ll savour for a long-time. The obvious parallel with Howard Wilkinson’s newly promoted Leeds side being the last to win there made it extra special.
But the lethal manner with which we controlled the game and sealed the victory was nothing short of immense. And as well as bombarding Jordan Pickford, we completely nullified Dominic Calvert-Lewin and James Rodríguez.
We’re now past the quarter mark, and it’s still relatively difficult to predict where we’ll end-up. Avoiding relegation against Leicester and Palace; Europa League contenders against Everton. Eventually humbled at Stamford Bridge after an early lead and a close-knit battle; perhaps we’re thinking top-half.
What really excites me, though, is how fast we’re learning and adapting. We’ve gone from shipping goals left, right and centre to one of the best clean-sheet tallies in the division. And even though Bielsa never deviates from Plan A, we’re still catching teams by surprise. They can read and analyse video footage all day long. But they’ll never appreciate what it’s like to face them until they’re at it, full throttle.
Our defensive injuries won’t make life easy over the festive period. I’m writing this before we host a drastically improved West Ham side. And then of course, that long-awaited trip to Old Trafford before we tuck into our turkeys.
But regardless of who’s available for selection, we’ll be rubbing our hands with glee. The Whites are a force to be reckoned with, and the league’s far richer for it.