It was Leeds United’s last home game before Christmas and the events of the 53rd minute restored Elland Road’s faith in the existence of Santa Claus. For many weeks the chances of spotting him felt as slim as the likelihood of the club ending a drought which was turning penalties into mythical creations.
Fifty eight matches went by between the last penalty awarded to Leeds and one which came their way on Saturday, a real-time wait of 5,273 minutes. The debate which took place between Kemar Roofe and Pablo Hernandez after referee Peter Bankes penalised Queens Park Rangers defender Toni Leistner for handball suggested that Leeds have long since given up on discussing who takes them but Roofe won the argument, placed the ball down and smashed it past goalkeeper Joe Lumley. Few run-of-the-mill goals in the history of the club have been so satisfying.
Leeds, after gifting the opener to Nahki Wells in the first half, needed that break. Roofe had equalised on the cusp of half-time, changing a game which was starting to perplex Bielsa’s players, and his 10th goal of the season brought up a fourth straight win. Marcelo Bielsa was aware of the length of time since Hernandez failed to convert United’s previous penalty, at home to Reading last October, and was pleased to see him and Roofe arguing the toss. “If you take into account the fact that it’s a long time since we last had a penalty, it’s a good thing to see that more than one player wanted to take responsibility,” Bielsa said. Anyone missing it would have been lynched.
The watershed moment of Bankes pointing to the spot made anything seem possible this season and having bemoaned the decision by accusing the official of taking a guess, QPR manager Steve McClaren admitted the tension at the top of the Championship was starting to tell. Implausibly even for three months - “a strange league to start with,” as McClaren put it - gaps are opening up. “You're starting to see six, seven, eight teams coming through,” McClaren said. “There are a lot of big clubs in there and there’ll be a lot of disappointed clubs at the end of the season. You're beginning to see the pressure of that.”
That Leeds, with four successive wins behind them and only three defeats on their entire record, are second in the table is a measure of Norwich City’s mesmerising form and there was a temptation to groan when an injury-time winner flew in at Carrow Road on Saturday, keeping Norwich’s noses in front. But those with an eye on the real prize looked straight to the margin below Leeds and the automatic promotion places, where Sheffield United in third lie five points back. The daylight is meaningful and Bielsa knows it. “If we show we are able to keep this difference then it would be a big difference,” he said. “If you lose the capacity to play at the same level, the difference won’t matter.”
Leeds have been marching at a confident, progressive rate since the start - from the day Bielsa walked through the door, if the truth be told - and there is no exaggerating the depth of his influence, from making a poacher of a player like Roofe who spent the two previous years trying to find his niche to masking the injuries which left a peculiar defence in front of Bailey Peacock-Farrell on Saturday.
Jamie Shackleton, another gem of an academy prospect, dropped in at right-back like a veteran, punishing QPR with direct, overlapping runs. “He’s a player with personality,” Bielsa said, which seemed like an apt description. At centre-back, the pairing of Pontus Jansson and Kalvin Phillips pushed the club’s luck a little further and Wells was free to break forward and slot the opening goal past Peacock-Farrell in the 26th minute after Phillips misjudged a high ball, Jansson sprinted to close it down and Wells succeeded in escaping them both. The cost to Leeds was ultimately nil but there is inherent risk involved in asking Championship footballers to be as versatile as Phillips. A better team would have made more of his discomfort.
Wells’ strike - QPR’s first effort of note - burst the bubble of Leeds’ good start, in which Roofe had enough chances to score a hat-trick. One close-range effort flew wide, another delivery slipped past his outstretched leg and a third was saved low down by Lumley. The goal from Wells’ provoked confusion and indecision in Leeds until the third minute of first half injury-time when Hernandez’s shot caught Leistner playing Roofe onside and invited a deft side-foot finish from the striker.
“In the second part of the first half we suffered the effect of conceding a goal,” Bielsa said, but the timing of the equaliser was helpful. Eight minutes into the second half, Roofe brought down a long pass and attempted to turn beyond Leistner who knocked the ball away inside QPR’s box. Bankes saw handball, even though McClaren suspected the official had been unsighted. “The referee’s position from what I’ve seen on the replay - wow,” McClaren said. “He’s got fantastic eyes. He can see through people to see that handball. There was a lot of influence behind the goal.”
Roofe scored three away at QPR last December and having tucked away the penalty, he went looking for another hat-trick, drawing Lumley into a diving save before shooting at the keeper from a tight angle in the 62nd minute. McClaren began working his bench and looked to the height and strength of Matt Smith for the last 12 minutes. Bielsa countered that threat by sending on Aapo Halme. “At the end of the game we didn't have any option but to adapt to the kind of game the opponent was playing,” Bielsa said. Under pressure, Leeds held out against two near-misses from Wells, a Jake Bidwell lob which Peacock-Farrell tipped over his crossbar and bitter, biblical rain.
There is a biblical strand to Bielsa’s work at Leeds and his achievement in putting wine in vessels which held water for too much of last season. The Championship has ample room for a coach with his personality and idiosyncrasies but the league invariably defers to teams who get the job done on a day like Saturday, when Bielsa-ball gave into fighting route-one attacks. McClaren could sense impetus at Elland Road and an air of calm in the dug-out beside him. “There's big pressure and expectation here,” the former England boss said, “and a manager with the experience to deal with that and handle it.” Not once this side of Christmas have Leeds regretted dialing Bielsa’s number.