Three men since Dick Ray, a left-back and a soldier in the Great War who became Leeds United’s first manager after the end of it, have strung seven together and Marcelo Bielsa is one of them but Ray’s old mark has the feel of a record which will never be broken. Bielsa and his squad hit the wall as they vied for an eighth on Saturday, beaten by Hull City and unable to post Leeds’ longest winning sequence for almost 90 years.
Ray’s team made life easy for themselves as the results piled up - 5-0 thrashings of Oldham Athletic and Burnley, a 4-1 rout of Bury and a thorough demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford - but Bielsa’s spent the past week pushing every limit, fighting back from two goals down at Aston Villa and scoring twice in injury-time to beat a bewildered Blackburn Rovers side who thought that game was already up. Leeds went to the well more often than Bielsa intended and a 2-0 deficit against Hull was, predictably, one fightback too many.
A fine sequence of form ended there, form which a division as manic as the Championship rarely allows, but the spell behind Leeds and their pointed reaction to their last defeat at West Bromwich Albion has the potential to be defining.
Leeds United 0 Hull City 2: Phil Hay's player ratings as Whites fall to first defeat in eight gamesIt pushed the club past 50 points on Boxing Day and gave Bielsa the breathing space to move on without an inquest from an afternoon where nothing fell for him. To Bielsa, the football he saw against Hull looked much like the football which had been giving people heart-attacks either side of Christmas.
“In our offensive play I didn't see more of a lack of precision than usual,” he said.
West Brom are the one club who have cashed in heavily on imprecise football from Leeds, rattling four goals past them at The Hawthorns in November, but the structure of Hull’s win on Saturday was more like the first league loss Bielsa incurred, at home to Birmingham City in late September.
A disciplined, committed defence carried City through the game and when Leeds twice put themselves at the mercy of Jarrod Bowen, Bowen stepped up and took both chances. “Our counter-attacking was superb,” said Hull’s manager, Nigel Adkins, and the danger it posed was apparent from the outset.
Leeds were linked with a January bid for Bowen on Friday, though the club said they had no intention of tabling one, but it is easy to think that a team at a high level of the English pyramid might.
Leeds United 0 Hull City 2: Marcelo Bielsa refuses to criticise Whites players following defeatThe 22-year-old and Kamil Grosicki lurked with intent on either wing, attacking with the pace and direct running which Bielsa lacks when Jack Clarke is away from the pitch. Not the first time, Jack Harrison started and was substituted at half-time, inviting Clarke to mirror the trickery of Bowen and Grosicki. “Both players are giving good things to the team,” Bielsa insisted in defence of Harrison but it is doubtful that a drifting Harrison will feel so content.
Bowen scored for the first time in the 25th minute, prodding in a shot after Grosicki’s cross rebounded off Will Keane to Kalvin Phillips. Phillips looked for a pass rather than sticking his boot through the ball and it slipped away from him to Bowen. Goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, having nipped out from his goalline, was beaten low to his left.
Hull’s second goal on 58 minutes was also avoidable, initiated by Bowen deep inside his own half and finished off by the forward after Peacock-Farrell blocked a point-blank shot into his path. As the attack took shape and Hull spread possession across the pitch, Grosicki exposed Peacock-Farrell after ghosting past Barry Douglas with costly ease. Douglas thumped the turf in annoyance but Bielsa was forgiving.
“The first goal was not because the opponent had a skill we couldn’t neutralise but I didn’t see any mistakes I would criticise,” Bielsa said.
“Normally (Bowen and Grosicki) are the most important players for the opponent and we put a double-mark on them. We had another player helping against them. Until the second goal this way of neutralising the wingers worked really well. The opponent scored two goals and they could have scored a third one but I don’t think we played bad defensively.”
Leeds United 0 Hull City 2: Honest Adam Forshaw not seeking excuses and confident of long-term successAt the other end of the field, the problem was a combination of Hull refusing to bend and Leeds declining to shoot too often. Mateusz Klich, whose goals have dried up since the crowd began singing about them, epitomised a general reluctance to have a go from longer ranges where he scoring earlier in the season.
“Maybe we should have taken more shots from distance,” Bielsa said. “Our play in the centre put us in good positions to shoot from outside the box.”
Other situations were more unfortunate. Todd Kane steered two Pablo Hernandez shots off his goalline in the first half and Hull substitute Jon Toral jumped under his crossbar to nod away Luke Ayling’s header from a Hernandez corner in the second.
Kane popped up again in the 88th minute to stop an effort from Tyler Roberts - a replacement who brought fresh vigour with him - sparking the tension and pandemonium which got to Blackburn on Wednesday. Will Keane, though, could have sent the crowd home five minutes earlier when his effort flicked off Phillips and bounced just beyond the far post.
All bets are off with Leeds at present, so dramatic have their previous results been, but even Elland Road seemed to sense that a third round of injury-time mayhem was asking too much.
'Just write that one off' - Leeds United fans react to Hull City defeat at Elland RoadKlich admitted after the drama against Blackburn that a neat and tidy win would do nicely for a change. Hull got it and, with a seven-match unbeaten streak behind them, have a sight of the play-offs.
Bielsa sounded as satisfied as a beaten manager could, saying the match was “not particularly different to the other games we played.” He conceded to no mental or physical fatigue either. His line-up was identical to the team used against Blackburn, though Rovers’ attempt to freshen themselves up with seven changes resulted in a 3-0 hammering at Sheffield United and suggested that Boxing Day had simply taken an unavoidable toll.
Even if Bielsa wanted to shuffle his team around, he has a bench full of Under-23s and no prospect of Liam Cooper or Patrick Bamford returning at Nottingham Forest on New Year's Day.
Good news, though, came from Norwich City on Saturday as Derby plied Norwich with their own medicine by winning at Carrow Road with a finish in added-time. Leeds were out of late goals but the Championship was not and Bielsa starts the new year looking down on the rest of the division.
Eight-seven years of history surely told him that United's winning run would have a shelf-life.