Good signs for Leeds United and a common theme for Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Everton

London has often been a place where Leeds United find themselves lost but the signs on Sunday pointed in the right direction.

By Graham Smyth
Tuesday, 18th January 2022, 4:40 am

The rank bad luck that robbed them of Mateusz’ Klich’s ‘goal’ and saw Raphinha’s almost-perfect free-kick cannon off the post were the sort of work events the Whites have become accustomed to in the capital. But at full-time there was a party in the away end.

What the 3-2 win will do now for Leeds is largely down to them, but the possibilities are greater and more appealing because of a result that brings mid-table into view. Goals change games but wins change hearts, minds and seasons. Leeds have two, in a row, in the Premier League, for the first time this season and the next three, maybe four, are all winnable - difficult, but winnable.

Nineteenth-placed Newcastle United, winless in five, are up first and the magnitude of that game is obvious but, by beating West Ham so unexpectedly, Leeds moved a full 10 points clear of Eddie Howe’s men.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

After that it will either be a home and away double header against Aston Villa, 13th and just a single point ahead of the Whites, or a visit to Birmingham, depending on the Premier League’s appetite for squeezing the Elland Road game into the FA Cup weekend. Burnley’s ever-increasing fixture backlog includes a game against Steven Gerrard’s side, though, so the Clarets’ needs may take priority at the end of the upcoming international break.

Regardless, Leeds know the Villains are a side with whom they can compete. And then it’s Everton, currently without a manager or a win in their last four and, courtesy of the London Stadium result, now sitting directly below Leeds with a game in hand but a three-point deficit. Nailing the Hammers has moved the furniture in the bottom half of the table and suddenly Leeds, in 15th, look a lot more at home. The goals have come back, for Jack Harrison and other key men are coming back. Pascal Struijk returned with a wonderful performance on Sunday and with Patrick Bamford hoping to follow Rodrigo back into action, Bielsa's attacking options are widening. There are promising signs.

What’s more, the running theme for their next trio of opponents is a variable Leeds have not needed to concern themselves with since 2018 - change.

Newcastle under Eddie Howe are sure to change, as they add further reinforcements to the expensive Chris Wood, but no one can say if it will bring the positive growth they desperately need or a clumsy mutation that drags them down.

BACK AGAIN - Pascal Struijk returned for Leeds United after six weeks out and performed impressively against West Ham United. Pic: Getty

Aston Villa are changing too and, although so much has happened in the top flight since Gerrard left Rangers for his new job, he’s still just eight weeks in. Coming into a club in the middle of a season and turning things around takes time. There was an undoubted bounce factor upon his arrival but they’re without a win in four, albeit having shown great character to come from behind to draw with Manchester United and, like Newcastle, are bringing in players, maybe even a handful, this month. Gerrard is managing a transition, not just a season.

As for the Toffees, they’ve come unstuck altogether having sacked a director of football, a director of medical services and now the manager whose introduction sparked those first two departures. Whoever replaces Rafa Benitez will need to fight a raging fire with one hand and teach philosophy with the other. Leeds have their troubles - chief among them a staggering injury list - but, placed next to their upcoming opponents, they’re a picture of settled serenity.

Midway through the Argentine’s fourth season in charge, Leeds boast an understanding of his system that runs throughout the club from the most senior of professionals to teenage rookies. That’s something Newcastle’s money cannot buy.

It was there for all to see in the performances of Premier League debutants Leo Hjelde and Lewis Bate on Sunday as they did the very things their elders are expected to do.

One passage of play in particular, when Hjelde sent a throw-in to Klich in the Leeds half, received a bouncing ball back and then exchanged five lofted or headed touches with the midfielder under pressure before attempting to break into space, spoke volumes about the adventurous, risk-accepting culture Bielsa has steeped the club in.

Both Bate and Hjelde arrived in the summer yet because Leeds attempt to keep their recruitment strategy directly in line with the manager’s plans, they’re players with profiles that fit the style and, even after a few short months at Thorp Arch, they’re getting it, making contributions in London that were ‘very important for the victory’ according to Bielsa. It’s almost as if joined-up thinking and stability - a manager allowed to do his work in partnership with a director of football for three and a half years - are a good idea.

What it means in real terms, right now, is that Bielsa can put out a team who from one to 11 fully grasp the the plan.

The plan might not always work but Leeds have one and it has brought two wins on the bounce. Three big games await and Leeds not only know what they need to do, they know how they’re going to try and do it.

Can their rivals all say the same?