Those who believe in omens will remember what happened the last time Leeds United won at Bramall Lane and even the more rational thinkers, of which Marcelo Bielsa is one, know results like these are what tend to shape the Championship.
The result of the club’s victory there in 1992 - a first division title and for Howard Wilkinson, the keys to the city of Leeds - was worth the 26 fallow years that followed but Leeds have paid enough for a defining moment away at Sheffield United. Bielsa was in charge of Newell’s Old Boys when it played out, ensconced in his first job as a coach, but if the historical resonance of Saturday’s derby passed him by, the current-day significance of it should not.
There is no telling Chris Wilder that his Sheffield United squad are a force in the Championship and there was a grain of disillusionment in his tone as he analysed their league position after a 1-0 loss to Leeds. The summer transfer window sold Wilder short and the presumption that Sheffield United are pound-for-pound rivals for the division’s top six does not wash with him. “Seriously, we shouldn’t be anywhere near,” he said. “We're getting the maximum amount of the players, the absolute maximum. We shouldn’t have been anywhere near it last season either.”
They are near, though, and Wilder attack-dog spirit and tactical ideas - some of which, like overlapping centre-backs, Bielsa has taken an interest in - left Sheffield United’s home defeats over two-and-a-half years in single figures before Saturday. That Leeds were gifted the goal which took them out, an 82nd-minute winner from Pablo Hernandez, did not lessen the value of scalping a club in the play-offs or detract from the way in which Leeds kept themselves in an uneasy derby which eventually got to Blades goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
Sheffield United 0 Leeds United 1: Phil Hay's player ratings as Pablo Hernandez strikes late
Earlier in the season, a prime time fixture would have played out with more freedom and abandon but the swings in impetus caused by results like this are starting to register. There were chances and there was controversy, the controversy owing to a referee who let the worst of some predictably heavy fouls go, but Bramall Lane was on the edge when Henderson stabbed a hurried clearance to the feet of Jack Clarke and watched Clarke steer a cross to Hernandez in front of an empty net. “Pablo does things you cannot teach,” Bielsa said last week. Most players would have taken that opportunity in their sleep.
The match was at the stage where something decisive was needed - a stroke of acumen or a nervous twitch as bad as Henderson’s - and Sheffield United had already missed the best of their chances: Billy Sharp heading into the ground from point-blank range late in the first half, and Bailey Peacock-Farrell using his leg to deny the ever-elusive David McGoldrick after Leeds’ defence split apart midway through in the second. In the 93rd minute, an overhead kick from Blades substitute Conor Washington smashed back off the face of the crossbar and Bielsa appreciated how finely-balance the derby had been.
“If the result had been a draw we couldn't say it was unfair,” Bielsa said. “We had to defend a lot and when we started to play out we just played long balls from the goalkeeper. It’s not a good thing to evaluate our style because when we play like that we share the ball with the opponents.”
As ever, the afternoon had its complications. Liam Cooper, United’s captain, collapsed with pain in his knee at the end of a Sheffield United attack in the first half and made way for Aapo Halme, the 20-year-old Finn whose season is getting increasingly interesting. Bielsa’s defenders are disappearing with injuries like a game of Guess Who? but aside from one misplaced header, forcing Peacock-Farrell to deny McGoldrick with a knee, Halme’s was nerveless in a baptism more heated than his debut against Bristol City last weekend.
Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa confirms "serious" Liam Cooper injury
“He was not (worried) by the importance of the game,” Bielsa said. “He played at a good level.” Halme’s first touch just before the half-hour, a toe-poke as a free-kick dropped to him, sent Henderson into a sprawling parry on his goalline.
There was movement and aggression from Sheffield United, the football Wilder pins his colours to, for the first 20 minutes but extended periods where the game was caught in a logjam of pressing and fouls. Oliver Langford, the referee, missed McGoldrick raking his studs down the shins of Mateusz Klich and gave Enda Stevens the benefit of precious little doubt when the left-back, who had already been yellow-carded, went through Stuart Dallas before half-time.
There is, apparently, no level of injustice which will tempt Bielsa into digging out dubious officiating but Wilder spoke for everyone inside Bramall Lane by criticising Langford. The only question was whether Leeds or Sheffield United had been more seriously hampered by him.
“For both side there were some really strange decisions out there,” Bielsa said. “He became quite involved. The best referees go about it quietly and let both teams get on with their business. He certainly didn’t.”
At half-time Bielsa passed judgement on it by withdrawing Gjanni Alioski for the second game running and giving Clarke another go on the left wing. Alioski has been playing his way out of Bielsa’s line-ups for several weeks but his aimless trawl through the first half was not the only issue.
Sheffield United 0 Leeds United 1: Marcelo Bielsa hails "beautiful win" over Blades at Bramall Lane
In different fashions, Bielsa and Wilder like to bully the opposition - Bielsa through the overbearing weight of passing and positioning - but United’s head coach is relying on Leeds punishing teams in briefer moments of dominance. For the first time this season they conceded the larger share of possession on Saturday and Bielsa would be first to concede that his players have taken nine points from their last three matches without performances worth writing home about. But still the points keep coming.
Bielsa’s wanted to wrap Sheffield United up by pinning down McGoldrick, Oliver Norwood and Chris Basham. He admitted afterwards that the principle had not worked well in practice but as the second half took shape, Sheffield United became more vulnerable. Henderson dived to meet a shot from Klich after the midfielder skipped by two tackles inside the box and Kemar Roofe’s header on 72 minutes was so close to Henderson’s near post that the striker thought it was in.
Ten minutes later, Egan overcooked a pass to his keeper, Henderson scuffed the ball to Clarke who held his nerve, spotted what was to his left and presented Hernandez with a sitter.
Bielsa called it a “beautiful win” but was not inclined to give the result much significance. “It’s not convenient to make any comparisons with other teams in this moment of the season because we’re not sure the top six today will be the same at the end of the season,” he said.
“But this was a serious opponent. It was hard for us to find a solution against Sheffield United, not because we didn’t know the features of the team but because our plans didn’t work.” His counterpart felt the same after seeing a point slip away.
“It's a bit of an unjust result in terms of the score,” Wilder said. “We were causing them just as many problems as they were causing us.” In a league where the margins are exceptionally fine, a margin as fine as Saturday’s might count.