There was a time many years ago when Marcelo Bielsa fancied himself as a centre-back and Leeds United are so down on defensive players that anyone with a pair of boots is in the frame.
Bielsa would not be told last week that he was in a pickle with the club’s medical room backing up but even he must have appreciated the timing of Saturday’s game.
Fresh from a 2-0 defeat at Elland Road, Bristol City manager Lee Johnson - never slow to articulate what is in his head - accused Leeds of being “lucky”, and in one respect he was right: lucky that on a weekend when Bielsa had no senior goalkeeper, no third centre-back and defence made up of whatever was left around him, Bristol City ambled into town.
The game turned on a red card shown to City’s Josh Brownhill in the 55th minute, at a juncture where they, Leeds and the whole occasion were going nowhere fast, but Brownhill deserved to walk and Johnson’s players were well on the way to giving the raw links in Bielsa’s team gentle, respectable debuts. Aapo Halme, the baby-faced centre-back who must have eaten his greens growing up in Finland, played an hour without breaking sweat.
Will Huffer, Bielsa’s 20-year-old goalkeeper, went through 90 minutes without making a save to remember. “That was our opportunity to get at them,” Johnson lamented. “We didn’t work the goalkeeper enough.”
Huffer spent the early part of last week on international duty with England’s Under-20s and headed back to Thorp Arch without the faintest idea that his debut was about to follow. Players have been dropping like flies at Leeds all season but even by their standards, the loss of Jamal Blackman to a broken leg and Bailey Peacock-Farrell to a knee injury in the space of five days was staggeringly unfortunate. Bielsa did what he always does: shrugged his shoulders and beckoned Huffer from the development squad.
Leeds spent time on Thursday looking at emergency goalkeeping options but consternation about resources cut to the bone was not felt by Bielsa. “I knew Will Huffer would play,” he said, as if the matter was settled from the start. There were enough twitchy moments from Huffer to remind Leeds not to push their luck too far with him so soon but some attentive work alongside them and a few pressure-relieving catches under pressure. Halme, too, soothed the concern about the lack of a hardened alternative with Pontus Jansson carrying a foot injury. “Inside a defensive structure which prevented any danger, Aapo Halme gave a good performance,” Bielsa said.
The defensive structure was what Leeds needed, keeping Bristol City at arm’s length for as long as it took for the visitors to blow up on a ground where they rarely hold it together. Last season their 2-0 lead after 69 minutes became a 2-2 draw and a frantic effort to stop Leeds nicking an injury-time winner, and on Saturday Brownhill’s second booking for a lunge on Kemar Roofe unleashed the hounds. It was a lesson learned at a stadium where Bristol City last won in 1979: give this Leeds team the licence to attack and they will exact a pound of flesh.
Bielsa saw no danger in adding Samuel Saiz and Jack Harrison to his team - Saiz for Halme, a number 10 for one of his back three - and attacks began to come in waves. Niki Maenpaa’s fingertips stopped Barry Douglas from finding the top corner with his left foot but in the 69th minute, Hernandez drove a shot into the box and Roofe was lingering in enough space to turn the ball past City’s keeper. Roofe had been subdued until then while Hernandez worked off the hangover from an unusually drunken night at West Bromwich Albion two weeks earlier but there are faithful elements of Bielsa’s team which so often emerge when he needs them too.
Saiz, a more changeable Spaniard who has been shuffling around the bench for a month, still has it in him to outdo everyone and his magical reverse pass in the 88th minute - a near repeat of Leeds’ consolation in their 4-1 stuffing at West Brom - found Hernandez waiting to float a delicate header over Maenpaa. That Latino telepathy killed the rest of the game, much as the death knell had already been sounded for City by Brownhill’s foul. Bueno, as Bielsa would have said.
Bielsa did not pretend that the first half had been a riot, a deflected shot from Roofe the only chance which put left keeper in trouble, and he saw a game balanced in a fog of mediocrity when Brownhill was dismissed but Johnson’s remarks - “they were lucky. They got away with it. Sometimes when your luck’s in, your luck’s in and that showed today” - drew a perplexed look.
“It's a point of view that we have to respect,” Bielsa said, in what felt like the most succinct of put-downs. “I could say that we virtually didn't concede any chances. For me it’s difficult for me to think that we deserved to lose the game.
“At the beginning of the second half and from minutes 25 to 35 we didn't dominate the game. For the rest of the time we dominated. The fact that we played with one player more made it easy for us but that is not the only argument.”
Johnson maintained that Brownhill’s “naivety” had taken hold when City needed it least. “We were looking like the side who were going to go on and win the game at that point,” he claimed, and Bielsa has been in and out of enough jobs to realise that Saturday’s line-up and Saturday’s performance, when 11 played 11, would not see him right every week. Leeds have more about than this and expect to be better than this. It was the perfect weekend to be hosting a club who, after cashing in on so much of the family silver in the summer, look like they do not.