Spotlight on Leeds United midfield as Marcelo Bielsa seeks central creative spark in Pablo Hernandez absence
MARCELO BIELSA looked for Mateusz Klich and Stuart Dallas to provide the central midfield spark against Preston North End in the double whammy absence of no 10s Pablo Hernandez and Tyler Roberts.
In the end, the extremely versatile Dallas finally made a breakthrough but all eyes will now be on Roberts to see when the Wales international makes a return.
Leeds are in the unfortunate position of having two of their strongest options to fill the no 10 role sidelined with Hernandez facing a month out with a hamstring injury picked up in last weekend's 2-1 loss at Fulham.
Roberts, meanwhile, has now returned to training following his own hamstring problem but Whites head coach Bielsa admitted earlier this week that it would take time for Roberts to reach full fitness.
The 20-year-old failed to make the bench for Boxing Day's clash against the Lilywhites with the Whites options among the substitutes featuring several youngsters in the shape of Jordan Stevens, Robbie Gotts and Pascal Struijk
With Hernandez out and Roberts not returning, Gjanni Alioski came into the side as the only change which meant Dallas shifting from left back to centre midfield.
The knock on effect saw Klich pushed forward into the no 10 role to support Patrick Bamford with Bielsa resisting any temptation to start Arsenal loanee and England under-21s ace Eddie Nketiah be it in a front two or even ahead of Bamford with Bamford himself as a no 10.
That seemed to the case in the second half of last weekend's loss at Fulham.
But Klich was selected as Bamford's chief support act and as ever the Pole worked his socks off with the pressing of both Klich and Bamford forcing keeper Declan Rudd into hacking away a hurried clearance in the early stages.
The Elland Road crowd loved it but decent Whites moments were few and far between in the opening exchanges as Preston dominated with Klich unable to get involved as he would have liked.
That looked set to change as United poured forward in the 22nd minute with the Pole racing through the middle but as Klich paused to assess his options the midfielder was dispossessed.
Seconds later, Preston were ahead as the Lilywhites launched their own rapid counter which ended with Alan Browne stroking the ball past Kiko Casilla in the 22nd minute.
After briefly pressing for a second goal,, Preston then went into survival mode with a sea of green shirts behind the ball, making it even more difficult for Klich and company to find space.
Chances eventually came, mainly for Gjanni Alioski and Liam Cooper from a free kick only for those chances to be squandered.
All eyes then fell on the tunnel before the start of the second half as to whether Bielsa would make any changes.
United's head coach resisted but felt enough was enough on the hour mark.
Cheers rang around Elland Road as Nketiah was called for but not when the no 9 of Bamford flashed up as the man to be taken off.
That meant a like for like swap with United's central midfield staying as it was and Klich and Dallas continued to work hard in a niggly game in which Klich and Dallas became involved in an exchange with Tom Clarke with all three booked.
But as United began to dominate the latter stages it was Dallas and Alioski who emerged as United's main threats with Alioski somehow blasting over when presented with an open goal and then most unlucky to see a thunderous effort crash against the post.
Dallas too started peppering the goal more frequently but United looked to be running out of time with Bielsa resisting the temptation to make any more changes.
But as part of a performance in which he mustered three attempts on goal with two on target, it was Dallas who finally made the breakthrough with his deflected effort in the 89th minute breaking Preston hearts.
As far as United's central midfield went, Klich only had one attempt on goal which was blocked but the Pole posted a decent passing success rate of 80 per cent from 68 touches. Dallas had 51 touches with a passing success rate of 73.
Leeds clearly missed Hernandez - and the option of Roberts - but eventually at least did enough to keep the gap to third at eight points.
Roberts ought to now be making a fairly imminent return and as always for Leeds in the longer term the sooner their Spanish magician is back the better.