Lady luck deserts Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United in narrow Wolves defeat - Graham Smyth's verdict

Yorkshire Evening Post chief Leeds United writer Graham Smyth casts his verdict over a 1-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux.

Saturday, 20th February 2021, 6:00 am
Wolves celebrate the opening goal against Leeds United at Molineux. Pic: Getty

Sometimes there’s little more to be said than the word unlucky.

You can examine tactics, formations and player performances until you’re blue in the face but when your opponent gets a huge slice of fortune to score the only goal of the game, there’s not a whole lot of soul searching to do.

So it was for Leeds United at Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

A 1-0 win was not what Leeds deserved. The amount of chances they created and the solid defensive display, despite the absence of Kalvin Phillips, made the result somewhat harsh.

When Wolves hit the woodwork, the ball bounced off Illan Meslier and into the net. When Leeds hit the woodwork, it bounced away from goal.

That, in essence, was that. But Leeds can take a considerable amount of comfort from how tight and even the game was.

They mostly restricted Wolves to shots from distance and while the home side’s defence did a similar job, Leeds created havoc from set-pieces that should have resulted in at least one goal.

What will disappoint Marcelo Bielsa’s men, captain Liam Cooper in particular, is that they did not make Rui Patricio work harder from the opportunities fashioned by Raphinha free-kicks and two late attacks.

Had Helder Costa placed his shot either side of the Wolves’ keeper, the game would have found its right result.

Conor Coady was already on his team-mates’ cases long before the action began, barking motivational messages during the final stages of the Wolves warm-up.

He talks a lot, loudly, but backed up his words with actions in the first half, giving Patrick Bamford little in the way of wiggle room.

The Wolves matchday programme had picked out Bamford and his England hopes for a special mention. ‘Knocking on the door,’ it said of Leeds United’s number nine, calling his claim to a place in the England squad a ‘serious one’ after an ‘impressive season’.

Gareth Southgate, as it happens, was in attendance at Molineux. His being there in person should not take on a huge amount of extra significance, he will be watching and re-watching the performances of all his potential Euro squad members, but it will still have frustrated Bamford that he could do little to impress in the first 45 minutes.

Yet all the defensive attention given to Bamford allowed Tyler Roberts to settle into the game quite nicely in the early stages.

A nice ball into the area that allowed Bamford to earn Leeds’ first corner and a clever dummy that threatened to tee Raphinha up for a shooting chance amounted to a bright start for the Welshman, with his own European Championship summer hopes on his mind.

‘Move Tyler,’ is Bielsa’s stock phrase whenever Roberts is on the pitch and the Welsh international was paying attention, dropping off to free himself and help Leeds progress deeper into the Wolves half and closing down home defenders out of possession.

At the other end of the pitch, Jamie Shackleton was accustomising himself to a new role, a surprise appearance in the central defensive midfield role allowing Pascal Struijk and Luke Ayling to return to their more natural positions of centre-half and right-back respectively.

That pitted Ayling against Pedro Neto, the man responsible for most of Wolves’ best moments in the initial stages.

As hard as Ayling and Shackleton were working to close him down as he cut to the middle, Neto still managed to produce a hat-trick of shots, one of which forced Illan Meslier into a fine diving stop.

Shackleton was not playing the role as Phillips and Struijk play it, he wasn’t so much a defensive enforcer as a midfield engine, covering a huge amount of ground but operating further forward for the most part.

That meant there was, on occasion, space for Wolves to attack between the midfield and defence, necessitating a big first half from Cooper. He kept Willian Jose quiet in the same way Coady marshalled Bamford, meaning the home side’s attacking threat had to come from their pace men.

Shackleton’s position also meant that. In possession, Leeds had to go wide to go forward.

Jack Harrison’s quiet first half put extra onus on Raphinha and Leeds’ right-hand side and although the Brazilian and Ayling were not completely on the same page, the Whites did look more dangerous there.

A clever ball into the area from Raphinha allowed Mateusz Klich to thump the ball against Rui Patricio’s near post, Struijk’s follow up volley well saved before Roberts shot well wide.

Leeds’ other main source of potential joy was set-pieces and while Raphinha’s corners were not of the quality he’s capable of, a trio of free-kicks should have elicited at least one Cooper goal. The central defender met all three deliveries, one in the first half and two in the second, without beating Patricio.

Yet it was from the second of those chances that Wolves caught a sniff of a counter attack, Adama Traore drove from the touchline to the middle with Struijk in pursuit and uncorked a fierce drive that beat Meslier, hit the bar and then bounced off the prone keeper to roll into his net.

The introduction of Pablo Hernandez helped keep Leeds largely dominant, his ability to play quick-fire passes under pressure putting the visitors on the front foot.

It was from his intervention, in his own half, that Leeds and Bamford’s big moment so very nearly arrived.

The Spaniard moved the ball up the left and Roberts slotted Bamford in behind the Wolves defence to run in and slam a superb finish into Patricio’s far top corner... until an offside flag paused his celebrations and a VAR check halted them entirely.

Late on, an even better chance presented itself, the ball dropping to former Wolves man Costa who drilled a low effort straight at Patricio, who tipped a Raphinha header wide seconds later.

It just wasn’t to be, for Leeds. It was one of those nights. It was unlucky.