Graham Smyth’s Big-match Verdict: Leeds United’s 3-1 win at Bristol City highlighted a gulf in quality
Patrick Bamford and Ben White did their level best to answer some of the questions hanging over Leeds United, in Sunday’s Championship opener.
The Whites’ 3-1 win over Bristol City featured the same mesmeric link-up play and swashbuckling attacking intent that Marcelo Bielsa’s men were famed for in last season’s near brush with promotion.
But amid worries over the cover at centre-half following Pontus Jansson’s summer departure and the likely imminent exit of Kemar Roofe, Leeds went some way towards reassuring supporters with their performance and three points.
A breathless first 45 minutes flew by, punctuated by a Pablo Hernandez magic show – the little Spaniard making time stand still and producing an instant contender for goal of the season midway through the half.
Bamford’s first of the season further calmed any residual nerves, before Jack Harrison volleyed in from close range to leave beleaguered Bristol City hanging by a thread.
It wasn’t an easy afternoon by any stretch however; Leeds did face spells of pressure and had a wobble late on in each half, the second of which allowed the Robins to pull a goal back.
Had any in the away end been sitting, they’d have been shifting a little uncomfortably in their seats towards the end.
But ultimately the better team, by far the better team and the fitter looking team, took a victory that was both well deserved and hard fought.
What might have made the afternoon so satisfying for Bamford and new boy White, was the way in which they had to battle back from difficult starts. Bamford, unable to find the net in pre-season, looked a little shy of confidence when the first two chances came, the second of which was the more promising, his half volley not caught well enough to bother Dan Bentley.
Leeds had struggled to get him into the game before those moments, they hadn’t yet hit full stride despite enjoying most of the ball.
They appeared to be taking a long, hard look at their opponents before deciding the best way in which to go at them.
White, guilty of two sloppy passes, wasn’t alone in not taking the best care of the ball, Kalvin Phillips caught in possession more than once, giving Bristol City a sniff of a counter attack.
Both White and Phillips soon recovered and were looking confident in possession, the former coping well with his defensive duties and the latter engaging in what became a titanic tussle with Robins’ most influential midfielder Kasey Palmer.
Liam Cooper was the proverbial rock at the back throughout and kept home targetman Famara Diedhiou under wraps for the vast majority of the contest.
At the other end, intricate passing moves threatened to unlock the Bristol City defence before Hernandez took it upon himself to make them, Bentley and everyone else in the stadium his rapt audience.
The ball was played into him on the edge of the box, he spun and sent it curling, floating into the top left-hand corner of the net.
Lee Johnson would later insist his players could have done more to get to the attacker before he pulled the trigger, but it happened in the blink of an eye and just like that Leeds led. Johnson’s men, to their immense credit, were on their heels but still standing and then found a way to move forward.
Down the flanks they came, first the right, then the left, then the right again, producing dangerous deliveries that the Whites did well to cope with.
Kiko Casilla needed no invitation to come haring off his line and he didn’t always make the required contact with the ball, but when he was needed, he was in the right place to make a fine stop and keep Liam Brownhill’s shot out.
Even during that purple patch for the hosts, Leeds were a threat.
Jack Harrison’s pace meant there was always an outlet down the left and when he raced clear, Bamford peeled away and created space for Hernandez to tee up Forshaw, the midfielder’s shot flying inches wide.
The action on the pitch was matched briefly in the entertainment stakes by touchline antics that threatened to boil over and take centre stage. Lee Johnson and the Leeds medical staff had a pair of confrontations, before Bielsa attempted to speak to his opposite number only to be brushed aside.
The pair later said they’d met at half-time to clear the air, yet there was still a bite to the early second-half proceedings.
The yellow card came out for anything cynical, referee Tim Robinson managing to stop the situation from escalating.
Palmer had kept Phillips busy, showcasing his strength and driving Bristol City forward, but few of his team-mates could match his desire or give Leeds anywhere near as much trouble.
Another man putting on a display of physicality was Bamford.
He came in for some close attention and seemed to relish it, leaving both central defenders on the deck at one point as he muscled a path forward.
When Leeds couldn’t play it quickly down the flanks, they could go to Bamford and he became the focal point for attacks. When the chance came for the striker to do the nicer stuff, he took it. Hernandez was at the heart of it again, with a touch that looked for all the world too heavy taking him past Jay Dasilva, quick feet allowing him to reach the ball and clip it to the near post, where Bamford applied a deft headed finish.
Cue pandemonium in a packed away end and a sense of relief for a striker who couldn’t find the net in pre-season and did it at the first time of asking when the real stuff started. Johnson’s response was to remove his most influential player, Palmer making way for Niclas Eliasson.
Initially the swap didn’t pay off, the Robins looking like easy prey for a rampant Leeds.
Stuart Dallas, who came under a lot of pressure in the first half, got on the ball, looked up and finally saw nothing but green grass and open space.
Away he flew down the right, feeding Mateusz Klich who had quietly gone about his business all afternoon and must have seen glory flash before him as he shaped to shoot, the ball cannoning off a defender and into the path of Harrison, the winger sidefooting home to secure the three points.
Or so everyone thought.
With Helder Costa coming off the bench and, as Johnson would later admit, a gulf in quality becoming painfully apparent, Bristol must have feared a rout.
Yet, once again, they dug in and had another go.
Andreas Wiemann made it all feel a little edgy when he drilled the ball under Casilla, via a deflection, introducing nerves and more than a little panic to the game’s late stages.
The Leeds who had run Bristol City into the ground and strangled the life out of the game were shaky, unable to retain possession and forced to defend deeper and deeper.
More than a few questions were asked and, aided by fresh legs in the form of Gjanni Alioski and teenager Leif Davis, Leeds came up with answers.
By seeing out the final minutes, Bielsa and his players did their bit to ease the tension surrounding a club desperate to get it right this time.
Any lingering doubt over their promotion credentials could be removed by an equally strong showing in the transfer market this week.