Leeds United start September at the top of the Championship and Marcelo Bielsa can warm his soul with that fact as he picks through the remains of a draw with a club who are as set as his own on finishing this season there or thereabouts.
There was nothing between Leeds and Middlesbrough last night, no decisive result or moral victory, and there is something about Bielsa and Tony Pulis which suggests this tussle at the upper end of the league could go toe-to-toe for a while. Clubs win nothing at this time of year, as Leeds learned the hard way 12 months ago, and a goalless draw at Elland Road did no-one any harm.
Bielsa’s squad reached the international break unbeaten and Boro’s did likewise, tied on 14 points and separated by the small matter of goal difference. There was an edge to their meeting, no matter how early the fixture list had brought first and second together, but the intensity of it was indicative of football’s competitive instinct. Landing a clean blow at this stage would have felt sweet. At full-time, a point and no damage done was good enough.
Leeds have been heavy handed during Bielsa’s first month in the English leagues, dishing out beatings with the fluency of a coach who has known the Championship for much longer than four weeks, but Boro were less easy to lay a glove on; organised, disciplined and full of the know-how which has prevented any goals against them since the opening weekend. Pulis might not have Bielsa’s global cult status but he has vast experience of mixing it with coaches who view the science of the sport in a different way to him.
Boro’s chances proved the better of them, such as they were, but despite some palpable tension, the evening was promising a goalless draw from the earliest minutes and yellow cards numbered eight, one shown Bielsa’s assistant Pablo Quiroga as part of a new EFL directive following an argument over the slow introduction of substitute Pontus Jansson. Fierce and frenetic but low on brilliance, a simmering rivalry was left waiting to be renewed.
Bielsa and Pulis are of the same generation, very close in years but all the while a mile apart in terms of doctrine, and Bielsa was astute enough beforehand to remark that the popularity of his own ideology did not excuse anyone under-estimating his opposite number’s faculties. The league table told a story about Pulis’ knack of finding a plan, in spite of all that is said about him, and when it got going the match did likewise.
Neither coach had a week of plain sailing behind them. Bielsa lost Pablo Hernandez and the finesse that comes with him to an untimely injury and Pulis spent the previous 48 hours dealing with a request from Martin Braithwaite to leave for Spain before yesterday’s transfer deadline. A Spanish move failed to materialise and Braithwaite arrived at Elland Road with Boro’s squad under a certain amount of personal duress. Pulis was in the unenviable position of benching a striker who had started every one of Boro’s league games and scored three times.
Boro had height across their team - the Pulis way, so the stereotype says - but Bielsa was not swayed by it, choosing to overlook the bulk of Pontus Jansson and trust in the rhythm of Liam Cooper’s passing to make Leeds play in the only way the Argentinian allows.
Rhythm was needed against a Boro side with an impeccable defensive record and for 45 minutes, Leeds lacked enough of it. Patience was needed too with Boro’s back five encouraging a flood of bodies behind the ball whenever possession ran to Bielsa’s players. Pulis stalked up and down his touchline as the blood and thunder flowed. Bielsa maintained the contrast between them with his usual static, seated pose. The match started on a knife-edge and stayed there, waiting for someone or something to to tip the balance.
There was nothing that passed as a chance until the 22 minute but in one passage of play Leeds felt the threat that Boro were carrying. Jonny Howson, back on familiar turf, stung Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s hands after United’s defence split apart in front of him and the goalkeeper was awake seconds later to stop Daniel Ayala’s header sneaking in under his crossbar. Britt Assombalonga’s wasteful finish from the resulting corner was a generous miss from very close range.
Bielsa waited for Leeds to respond in kind but watched them struggle to click in open play. Luke Ayling’s flying header from Barry Douglas’ corner forced a goalline clearance from Adam Clayton on the half hour and United worked both flanks without puncturing Boro’s defence as Pulis’ clutch of three centre-backs held the gate. Boro’s passing was slicker and more incisive and they restricted Leeds’ chances to counter-attack until Bielsa had the opportunity to impart some wisdom at half-time.
There was little he or Pulis could do to break a thorough, bona fide stalemate. Ayala nodded a header wide from a corner and Jack Harrison, Bielsa’s stand-in for a notably absent Hernandez, did likewise with a shot on the turn after a brief scramble in Boro’s box. The noise inside Elland Road intensified as the stadium waited to see who would blink.
Bielsa and Pulis refused to, holding back on any substitutions until the 88th minute. By then, Downing had fired over from a position which should have suited his left foot, Gjanni Alioski drifted offside when Samuel Saiz tried to play him in round the back of Boro’s defence and Ayala miscued another headed chance. Patrick Bamford warmed up religiously on one touchline, waiting for Bielsa’s staff to look his way and let him loose against the team who sold him for £7m last month. The call came finally in the last minute of normal time, too late for a dramatic intervention.