Leeds United hammer Burnley to strike another blow in battle for 'zoomers' and underline key man's importance - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Nothing to play for? Nothing could be further than the truth.

By Graham Smyth
Sunday, 16th May 2021, 4:45 am
Updated Sunday, 16th May 2021, 7:14 am
GAME CHANGER - Marcelo BIelsa sent Rodrigo on against Burnley and he added razor-sharp link up play, movement and fine finishing to score twice for Leeds United. Pic: Simon Hulme
GAME CHANGER - Marcelo BIelsa sent Rodrigo on against Burnley and he added razor-sharp link up play, movement and fine finishing to score twice for Leeds United. Pic: Simon Hulme

Leeds United's visit to Burnley had plenty riding on it. For the Whites three points could help further their chances of a top-half finish and for certain individuals it was a chance to further state their claim for national team selection ahead of the European Championships. Others simply want to nail down a place for the final two games.

For Burnley, it was a chance to gain revenge for the injustice they felt they were served up by the officials in a defeat at Elland Road.

Neither side were fighting for their lives - the Clarets secured Premier League status for next season by beating Fulham in their previous game, while Leeds have been safe for weeks.

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Taking relegation off the table was high on the agenda of both clubs when this season began because neither are in that select group for whom it just isn't a consideration.

That luxury is afforded to only a small number of teams in the Premier League and it will be some time before Leeds United can join that club.

For now they, and Burnley for that matter, remain the underdogs whenever they take on the 'big six.' As this season has proved, it's not always the size of the dog in the fight that matters and Leeds' ferocious snapping at the ankles of Manchester City and Tottenham in recent games has enhanced this talk of them becoming 'everyone's second team' and won them the neutral vote on many occasions.

Perhaps more so outside of this country, Leeds hope to turn that neutral vote into shirt, scarf and ticket sales. They're aggressively pursuing 'Gen Z' through their social media output and esports partnerships.

Linking up with Swedish esports outfit Ninjas in Pyjamas raised a collective shrug from fans over a certain age, but made perfect sense to FIFA addicts. Linking up with Adidas and Roc Nation, Jay-Z's agency, made commercial sense. So too did the capture of new, exciting names like Rodrigo and Raphinha, players who might help inspire a legion of brand new supporters.

On Thursday afternoon, after they finished training, some of those exciting names were at the Double Tree by Hilton hotel posing in new Adidas kits that will, as they did last summer, fly off the shelves from the second they go on sale, no matter how loud the grumbles of traditionalists or concept shirt designers.

Celebrities around the world will get their hands on some freebies and pose for Instagram snaps that further enlarge the club's footprint, but it is still and it will always be what happens on the pitch that grows Leeds United. That's what gave the club their initial worldwide appeal, when Don Revie's men put flags down all over Scandinavia and elsewhere.

The central figure in Leeds' grand plans to put down more flags on foreign soil and compete for the hearts, minds and wallets of 'zoomers' is a 65-year-old man from Rosario in Argentina who says he knows nothing about social media and prefers not to talk about the commercial side of the game.

Marcelo Bielsa's area of interest lies purely in what happens on the pitch. His level of expertise and obsession over detail has helped put Leeds in position to continue building a Premier League future.

His own remains a source of fascination, hope and anxiety. Much has been written about Bielsa's contract status this week but Leeds fans know better than anyone that you're only ever on the verge of a new deal with this head coach when he sits down, pen in hand, to sign it. It's not done until it's done and it will get done when it gets done but Leeds are relaxed, owner Andrea Radrizzani is confident and Bielsa is, so obviously, settled.

Expecting him to look up from his analysis of Sean Dyche's midfield, set-pieces and last 10 performances to cast an eye over his own personal terms would be madness, however.

What he watched, live, from the vantage point of his bucket in the early stages at Turf Moor on Saturday was not unexpected, Burnley dropping the ball into Chris Wood and playing off the second ball.

He might not have expected his own players to struggle so badly with their accuracy as they failed to get to grips with the game.

Mateusz Klich, Jack Harrison, Patrick Bamford and Stuart Dallas were all inaccurate and careless with early work in the final third before the arm wrestle finally began to tilt in their favour.

They played the game in the right area and produced a series of corners and crosses, although only one - a beautiful curling ball in from Kalvin Phillips that Pascal Struijk powered wide - created any real danger.

A drab first half was nearing its conclusion when Burnley failed to put any pressure on the ball and Klich punished them, running from halfway and curling a shot beautifully past Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the home goal.

The second half began with lots of free-kicks, not a lot of football and no sign of the fireworks that were to come.

Illan Meslier had to be at his best to keep out a goal-bound Matej Vydra effort, Leeds in real danger of conceding and failing to find their own striker to trouble Burnley much at all.

So Bielsa changed it, sending Rodrigo on for Bamford in the 58th minute. It changed the game.

A wonderful one-touch move from back to front involved several players and Rodrigo was one of them, turning and flicking the ball nicely in the centre circle to keep the attack moving forward before sprinting to the area and very nearly getting on Harrison's cross.

The ensuing corner was cleared into the path of Gjanni Alioski and his off-target shot was flicked into the net by Harrison's deft touch.

The hosts had to push forward and Leeds smelled the claret stuff.

There was another quick, one-touch counter attack that ended in a Harrison cross that was too high for Rodrigo and then the pair linked up to perfection, the former's pass splitting the defence and allowing the latter to go in on goal and dink it over Peacock-Farrell.

Two minutes later it was 4-0 and the same duo combined once again. Phillips pinged the ball out to the wing, Harrison slid it into the path of Rodrigo and he went round the keeper this time to score his second.

It was a goal made for zoomers to take viral and a goal made by sheer hard work at Thorp Arch, hard work set and supervised by the baby boomer in charge. It was football to capture any generation, in any country. Sharp goalkeeping, muscular defending and the kind of swashbuckling attacking play CEO Angus Kinnear predicted they would bring to the division.

After the game Bielsa heaped praise on Rodrigo for showing what he's capable of and declined to comment on an incident that was reported by a Burnley player to referee Graham Scott.

That issue, involving Gjanni Alioski, may pull some of the focus in the coming days, but two games remain and Bielsa's eyes will only be for the football.

Once they're out of the way, it's full steam ahead in the bid to keep him at the club. Leeds know he can give them days like this and maybe even more. There is everything to play for.