Leeds United glory within 10 points for 'protagonist' Marcelo Bielsa after Blackburn win - Graham Smyth's Verdict
When Marcelo Bielsa walked through the doors of Elland Road he vowed to be a 'protagonist', not a 'speculator', and two years on it looks good on his Leeds team.
The Whites' 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers showed why being on the front foot suits them and their head coach, a man who wants to control the ball and the fine details, so well.
A draw with lowly Luton in midweek had laid foundations for a nervous and difficult afternoon in Lancashire, where the rain fell like a blanket on a heavy pitch.
Crucially, Leeds gave frustration and anxiety no time at all to settle or build, taking a seventh minute lead.
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The ball leaving Patrick Bamford's boot and entering the net did the nerves of everyone of a Yorkshire persuasion inside Ewood Park and everyone who wished they could be there, the world of good. That, in part, is because when Leeds score first they do not lose - that freak, nightmarish April 2019 Wigan Athletic defeat excepted. Of the 48 Championship games in which they've got the first goal, Leeds have now won 43 and drawn one.
Scoring first in this one came from being on the front foot. It was Mateusz Klich's pressing that forced an error deep inside the Rovers half and led to Patrick Bamford's clinical strike.
The second goal was a direct free-kick, a sublime one at that, 'beautiful' in Bielsa's eyes, but you can trace its origins back to Ben White's pressing. The centre-half showed the awareness and penchant for nipping in to win the ball high up the pitch that has made him so vital to Leeds' protagonistic ways. His good work gave Leeds possession from which they won a corner, and when Barry Douglas' second cross was half cleared, Tyler Roberts was fouled 25 yards out and the rest is spectacular history that will be replayed long after Kalvin Phillips' time with his boyhood club comes to an end.
Blackburn hit back with a wonderful free-kick of their own but Phillips, who in the lead up to this game had declared his post-restart performances as 'alright,' Klich and White all impressed by keeping control of the game.
Leeds were well in control even before Klich slammed home the third goal to put the result beyond doubt and bring automatic promotion to within 10 points, with five games remaining.
If each one is as entertaining as this one it will make the run-in almost as memorable as the outcome.
Blackburn, themselves in need of a win to keep their ailing play-off hopes alive, refused to go down the well-worn track of setting up simply to defend and counter against Leeds.
Even before the visitors went ahead, Blackburn had forged a chance, Blackburn's Bradley Johnson testing Illan Meslier's concentration and handling with a low, powerful effort from distance after a mix up between Liam Cooper and Barry Douglas, but the keeper held on well.
It was Leeds going direct in the opening minutes, with little success, and Blackburn trying to pass it out from the back.
Yet that created an opening from which Leeds profited.
The hosts dallied too long in possession in a dangerous area, Klich forced a turnover and found Bamford, who beat Christian Walton low to his right for number 15 for the season and a third in six games.
A goal down, Blackburn needed to come out and play even more, which suited Leeds. What didn't suit Leeds was how well Rovers played in the wake of the opener. The Whites were cut open more than once in the heart of defence, Sam Gallagher running clean through only to shoot wide of Meslier's goal, before Meslier denied Adam Armstrong and the post foiled Lewis Holtby.
It was panic stations, briefly, until Klich began to link their attacking play and Roberts started to make inroads with close control, putting the Whites back on their best foot.
The game, thanks in part to an injury to Elliott Bennett and the disruption to the game, settled down and lost a little of its entertainment value until the ball broke to Bamford in the area and he carved out a shot that came back off Walton's upright.
Then came Phillips' addition to the 2019/20 highlight reel, a perfectly flighted free-kick that sailed into the top corner, Walton a rueful and powerless spectator.
The goal came at a good time, five minutes before the break, and made life very comfortable for Leeds until, three minutes after the restart, Blackburn hit back to make things a bit more interesting.
Their response was a direct free-kick from Adam Armstrong, which left Meslier rooted to the spot and was of comparable beauty to the one Phillips scored, only added to the game's value as a spectacle.
Yet a thriller, in terms of two teams going tit-for-tat à la Birmingham away, did not materialise. Leeds and Bielsa were enraged by the awarding of the free-kick, feeling Phillips had tried to get out the way rather than foul his man. Their response to perceived injustice was excellent, however. As the head coach revealed earlier this season, anger is fuel for Klich and when Jack Harrison's route to goal was blocked, the Polish international drilled the ball into the net via a deflection, from just outside the box.
It was difficult to imagine a way back for the home side, but it is not in Bielsa's nature, or that of his team's, to sit and wait for their opponent to make the next move. He sticks rigidly to his beliefs and his vow.
So he sent for Pablo Hernandez, replaced the fading Roberts, and the Whites continued to attack and attack.
Hernandez was passing the ball between opponents' legs, full-backs Luke Ayling and Barry Douglas were camped in the Blackburn half and roasting defenders over an open fire and wingers Gjanni Alioski and Jack Harrison took every opportunity to run at Rovers.
The drinks break, an absurd sight on an almost wintry day, was all-too-brief respite for Blackburn, who should have been 4-1 down with a little over 20 minutes to go.
Bamford was clean through on goal and had poked the ball past Walton when the keeper clipped the striker a yard outside the box, referee Rob Jones taking his time to decide a yellow card was all that the denial of a certain goal warranted.
Douglas' free-kick was well saved by a man fortunate to remain on the pitch.
Bielsa still would not rest, or let Leeds rest, demanding more running, more pressing, more movement and spurring them on to create another couple of half chances before the end.
Five games stand between the protagonist and his happy ending. He will not rest and nor, you suspect, will Leeds.