Leeds United battered, bruised after Crystal Palace defeat but Marcelo Bielsa's side are not broken - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Sometimes you are the hammer, sometimes you are the nail.

Sunday, 8th November 2020, 5:45 am
HAMMER BLOW - Leeds United were beaten 4-1 by a Crystal Palace boasting an in-form and in full flight Eberechi Eze. Pic: Getty

For two games in succession Leeds United have played the part of the nail, something that was always going to happen at some stage for a newly promoted side and will almost certainly happen again as the season unfolds.

Their fellow Premier League new boys Fulham and West Brom also know the feeling- the latter, like Sheffield United, find themselves in the unenviable position of failing so far to take a single turn at being the hammer.

Even reigning champions Liverpool have been on the receiving end of a one-sided bashing since their title defence began. It happens.

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Last season, Crystal Palace ended the campaign with a banging headache thanks to seven straight defeats and a winless run of eight games, shipping 18 goals in the process.

Manager Roy Hodgson, however, is a man whose managerial tenure at Selhurst Park has hinged on patience. He showed it when he was required to work minor miracles with a small squad, delivering three successive midtable finishes and the club repaid him by refusing to throw the baby out with the bath water when last season ended with that poor spell.

In a world that shows little willingness to give things time, even something as crucial as the result of an election, Hodgson and the man in charge of the team Palace beat 4-1 on Saturday have patience in common.

Marcelo Bielsa's team sprints more than any other in the Premier League but he himself is not prone to undue haste.

Last season proved that Bielsa would not be rushed into making any definitive declarations on Leeds' promotion hopes until he was embracing Kalvin Phillips in a beer and champagne soaked Elland Road function suite. This season he has refused to be drawn on Leeds' survival chances or indeed on any 'tendencies' whatsoever in the early stages of his first Premier League campaign. A pair of defeats in the most ruthless and punishing of English divisions will not prompt panic and like Hodgson late last season, he won't get carried away even if two defeats becomes three, four or more.

That's not to say either man is content to stand still - Bielsa is willing to make changes so early in games they can appear drastic to onlookers who don't see the picture he sees and Hodgson was keen to bring in quality and freshen things up at Selhurst Park in the summer. At 4-1 up on Saturday he lost his cool over a botched two-on-two breakaway that would have added merely gloss to an already guaranteed result.

They both know the race is long and the full picture is big - bigger than a result or two, for sure. It's bigger than the temporary absence of key men like Kalvin Phillips and Rodrigo and bigger than situations involving individuals like Pablo Hernandez. Even on a day when attacking creativity was going to be paramount, Bielsa was content to omit the Spanish magician from his squad, believing his decision to be the right one in the context of a bigger picture he's yet to and may never reveal to the world.

This game, against a well drilled defensive side with counter attacking excellence was never going to be easy but Bielsa's Leeds are used to that. Life was never easy in the Championship, when teams set up to defend deep week after week. But few things spell trouble for Leeds like conceding an early goal.

It gives the opposition license to double down on the tactic of letting Leeds take all the risks and waiting for mistakes upon which they can capitalise.

So Scott Dann's 12th minute opener, a header from a corner that Illan Meslier just couldn't keep out, did not bode well.

But Leeds' response was superb, even if the goal at the end of a really well-worked move involving Luke Ayling, Mateusz Klich and Patrick Bamford was chalked off by VAR because the latter's shoulder on the arm with which he was pointing where he wanted the ball to be played was deemed offside.

Football has no qualms about kicking you when you're down and Klich was literally prone when Eberechi Eze went to ground with Robin Koch in close proximity to earn a free-kick he subsequently bent into Meslier's top corner. Leeds director of football Victor Orta was at pains to point out that Leeds had earlier put the ball out of play with Andros Townsend still returning to his feet after a challenge, but his protests echoed fruitlessly around the empty ground.

There was nothing else for it but to take risks in possession and the same combination of players who opened Palace up the first time did so again. Ayling clipped the ball in towards Klich, he headed it on and Bamford found space and time to slam a shot past Vincente Guaita.

The Whites were playing well, better than they had against Leicester, but you can play well without scoring. You can play well while conceding. You can play well and suffer rank bad luck.

Leeds didn't level before the break, instead Palace went 3-1 up and it was a Patrick van Aanholt cross that deflected off Helder Costa to leave Meslier completely wrong footed that did the trick.

There was no such luck for Leeds in the second half and they didn't make their own, either. Pascal Struijk should have hit the net from a Jack Harrison corner but didn't. The visitors should have made more of their possession in dangerous areas but repeatedly failed to beat the full-backs and crosses which had to come from deep were easily defended.

The return of Raphinha, off the bench, gave Leeds something a little different as he popped up here, there and everywhere in search of space and possession to do damage. But it was pretty without ever being decisive.

Instead, when Harrison gave the ball away, Palace were too swift in their transition to attack and Leeds too slow to recover defensive shape, allowing Jordan Ayew time at the back post to beat Meslier via the post.

With Eze oozing class on the ball and Palace playing with the freedom of a three-goal cushion, the hammering could have worsened, but didn't.

Leeds go into the international break a little battered and bruised but not broken.