Leeds United 2 Bolton Wanderers 1 - Phil Hay's verdict: Familiar story for Whites as Marcelo Bielsa keeps his cool amongst the madness
No such luxury for Marcelo Bielsa, whose inner-worrier has never made him the cigar-smoking type, and if Bolton manager Phil Parkinson read the mood correctly, there was tension in the air at Elland Road on Saturday.
There is far more down the road at Bolton, where everyone from their owner down is on edge, and it was Parkinson who occupied the doghouse at the end of a 2-1 defeat to Leeds but United owe themselves an afternoon of relative calm.
Bielsa did not expect one against Bolton, in spite of Norwich thrashing Wanderers a week earlier or the jeopardy Bolton are in on different fronts, and his priorities were two-fold.
“We're focused on winning, that's our first goal,” he said beforehand.
“Then we’re focused on deserving to win.” Both demands were met and the balance of play in Leeds’ favour was not obscured by the fortuitous break which carried Gjanni Alioski’s 68th-minute winner into the net off the underside of Bolton’s crossbar.
There would have been value in a rout like the one Farke enjoyed, in a division where goal difference might count, but Leeds have been no more inclined to let automatic promotion go than either Norwich or Sheffield United, the clubs who are digging in most convincingly around them.
Norwich edged out Bristol City on Saturday and West Bromwich Albion were put away by Sheffield United later that evening. Big results in another eventful round of matches but still Bielsa is facing a scenario where victory in Tuesday's game in hand at Queens Park Rangers will take Leeds top.
That trip south and Friday’s clash with West Brom were the pivotal contests in this week’s run of three fixtures in seven days. Bolton - 23rd in the Championship and lacking any great direction at any level of the club - were simply a side who Leeds had to beat.
Alioski got them there with a mis-hit cross from the right wing but Bolton were making up the numbers for too much of the last hour to keep Leeds out. Had it not been Alioski it would surely have been someone else. United are yet to drop a point on a day when they score first.
They started Saturday in third place in the Championship, giving Parkinson what he thought was an opportunity to rattle the nerves of Bielsa’s players.
“I felt there was a little bit of anxiety in the air,” Parkinson claimed. “That’s what I felt coming into the game.”
Some of what happened in the first 30 minutes, when Bielsa’s defence offered up cheap and dangerous chances, supported that argument but Bolton cracked eventually and Parkinson’s composure went after Alioski’s goal. At the end of a touchline brawl caused by Josh Magennis’ foul on the left-back, the Bolton boss was shown a red card.
In the 70 minutes prior to his dismissal, he and his staff had tangled repeatedly with the fourth official. Bielsa, to his right, was more impassive, even in the periods where Bolton’s shape and tightly-packed lines forced Leeds to probe patiently with limited success.
His team are good at making his methods play, albeit in their own time, and Bolton were backed against a wall from the latter stages of the first half onwards.
The visitors should have scored first when Magennis, in only the fifth minute, saw Kiko Casilla claw his free header off the goalline but Leeds were ahead nine minutes later as slick interplay led Pawel Olkowski to dive in and trip Tyler Roberts inside Bolton’s box. Roberts and Pablo Hernandez went for the ball but Patrick Bamford got there first, insisting on taking the penalty.
Had Kemar Roofe been fit, the duty would have fallen to him.
“As Roofe was not on the pitch, we didn't have anyone designated,” Bielsa said. “But on penalties there's one point that is very important. Usually the player who takes the ball just after it’s given has an advantage because he shows he has confidence.”
Bamford smacked it safely into the bottom right-hand corner. Bielsa has lost Roofe to up to eight weeks with a knee injury, leaving Bamford to finish for goals up front.
The striker is carrying ring rust after two knee injuries of his own and several good chances slipped by him on Saturday but a penalty and an outing in which his movement and anticipation made some of those chances for him felt like an outing which did him good.
“The ideal thing is to score a goal,” Bielsa said, “but the worst thing for a number nine is when you don’t have any chances to score.”
Bolton had more than Bielsa would have liked before half-time and the shambles caused by a corner in the 23rd minute brought their equaliser. David Wheater’s header was nodded off the line by Jack Harrison but a shot back into the box hit Kalvin Phillips and ran to Mark Beevers, who prodded the ball into the net.
“Dangerous actions created by the opponent were from set-pieces especially,” Bielsa said. “These things have happened many times to us in the Championship.”
Bielsa is not blessed with pace on the wings, which was one reason why Leeds spent so much time try to take Daniel James from Swansea City last month, and Bolton’s discipline stopped United from slipping in behind them to good effect until their attempt to sit deep in the second half - a flawed tactic against Bielsa’s side - started to catch up on them.
The waves came and Luke Ayling and Bamford went close before Klich hustled Clayton Donaldson out of a counter-attack and worked the ball wide. Remy Matthews, who had denied Bamford and Harrison with good saves before the interval, misjudged the flight of Alioski’s loose cross and watched it bounce in off his bar.
Within minutes, Magennis raised tempers by clattering Alioski near the tunnel and a brawl broke out after Joe Williams attempted to drag Alioski off the ground, Klich sprayed a water bottle down Williams’ back and Pontus Jansson ran to have his say.
Parkinson was in the thick of the melee, arguing with Jansson, and once referee Tony Harrington had booked Magennis and Williams, he took a slow walk along the touchline and showed Parkinson a red card.
“There were about 15 people in amongst it trying to keep it calm and (Harrington) has decided to pick me out,” he moaned.
Parkinson was gone but Bolton were not quite done and a shot from substitute Sammy Ameobi in injury-time flew inches wide of Kiko Casilla’s goal.
From a vantage point in the West Stand, it looked like it was in.
“It was a very similar game to other games we've played,” Bielsa said, knowing that it should not have been so tense at the end, but tense is how it promises to be for him and Tuesday will be no different; a night when Leeds can flex their muscles and seek to return to the top.