Leeds United should learn Sheffield United lesson but already look in better shape than 2020 Blades - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Led by a manager that liberated a fanbase from apathy and orchestrated eye-catching football en route to promotion and a subsequent Premier League midtable existence, there are obvious parallels to draw between 2021 Leeds United and 2020 Sheffield United.

By Graham Smyth
Sunday, 4th April 2021, 5:44 am
TOO GOOD - Raphinha was too good for Sheffield United, giving Leeds United a constant threat on the wing and setting up the opener. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe
TOO GOOD - Raphinha was too good for Sheffield United, giving Leeds United a constant threat on the wing and setting up the opener. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Chris Wilder is the god to Blades that Marcelo Bielsa is to Whites. But only one of them still has his job.

Sheffield United, bottom of the Premier League and already talking about next season when they'll play Championship football, could be seen as a cautionary tale for the side who beat them 2-1 at Elland Road on Saturday.

It's not some fabled 'second season syndrome' that has done for the men from Bramall Lane, nor is it a case of Wilder's football being found out, but a poor summer recruitment strategy left them standing still. What they needed was top flight quality additions to give propulsion to a squad that had performed miracles and squeezed every last drop out of their promotion momentum.

Instead, they went shopping in the Championship, struggled to get the cream of the crop and exposed themselves to the potential horrors that can befall a club lacking strength in depth. When injuries struck brutally, Sheffield United were in trouble.

You could argue, however, that Leeds are already better placed than the Blades were, for a second season in the elite.

The Whites added enough Premier League quality ahead of their first season in the top flight that this summer's shopping list need not be extensive.

Raphinha has lit up the Premier League with regularity and made as much a mockery of Blades defenders on Saturday as he has the £17m fee it took to bring him to Elland Road.

Against Sheffield United he picked up his sixth assist of the season to go with the six goals he's scored since arriving from Rennes, racing into the area to take a Tyler Roberts pass, gliding gracefully to the byline and rolling the ball across the box for Jack Harrison to tap in the simplest of openers.

This wasn't his best performance of the season, there were some wasteful moments in possession, and yet he was still far too good for the visitors.

Bielsa welcomed captain Liam Cooper back into the heart of the Leeds defence and paired him with Diego Llorente, a Spanish international who produced another fine performance. He was adventurous with the ball, stormed forward to join attacks and looked comfortable for the most part, defensively.

As is also the case with his fellow summer 2020 arrivals Rodrigo and Robin Koch, Leeds are yet to see the very best of him. In fact Leeds are yet to see all that much of any of them.

A series of injuries has kept Llorente from playing much football at all, Rodrigo's season has been stop-start due to Covid and a couple of knocks and Koch sat out for three months after knee surgery.

When Koch came off the bench for the last few minutes on Saturday, it was the first time all season that Bielsa could field his four new signings at the same time.

So all things considered, the Leeds squad who won the Championship have performed minor miracles of their own to sit 10th on 42 points.

And if the quartet of 2020 signings are joined by a class of 2021 consisting of a quality left-back, central midfielder and striker, Leeds should be adequately equipped to avoid the fate that will soon cut the Blades from the Premier League.

They should be just fine. Here comes the but.

Things that should happen, don't always. Saturday was a prime example of that. Elland Road was bathed in sunshine and should have been saturated in thunderous applause as the two teams came together to pay tribute to the life of Leeds legend Peter Lorimer, who died last month, and mark the 21st anniversary of the tragic murders of Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight.

The stadium was empty, as it has been since last March, due to a pandemic that has not yet allowed our lives or our football to return to normal

There should have been a roar that touched the heavens, when referee Graham Scott blew his whistle to end the minute of applause. Someone should have been able to put an arm around Eddie Gray, who stood in the directors box and clapped his hands together for yet another friend who has slipped away from him.

And he should have been treated to a landslide scoreline, like the one he and Lorimer famously helped put together against Southampton in 1972.

Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips were in a merciless mood from the off, the former starting the nutmegs early, the latter pressing relentlessly, nicking the ball off the dozing John Lundstram and forcing a smart save from Aaron Ramsdale.

Stuart Dallas, a player who showed once again that he's a Premier League operator and no longer the midtable Championship player that interim Blades boss Paul Heckingbottom managed in his four month stint in charge of Leeds, was next to have a go, Ramsdale saving again.

The confidence was flowing and so too was the football, Dallas winning the ball and feeding Tyler Roberts before Raphinha took over to set up the opener.

The floodgates should have opened.

When Patrick Bamford's pass was dummied by Raphinha and Roberts reached the ball just ahead of George Baldock to put Harrison one-on-one with Ramsdale, it should have been 2-0, but the keeper saved brilliantly.

Baldock, who should have been sent off for going in two footed on Roberts, banged his head viciously on the turf and should never have been allowed to come back on, before being replaced a few minutes later as the effects of a suspected concussion fully set in.

Leeds should have gone in at the break ahead, yet an ill-advised flick in the midfield by Raphinha set the visitors on a rare attack and Gjanni Alioski should have been in position to stop Oliver McBurnie before he drilled the ball across goal, Ben Osborn nudging it home.

The second half was less than five minutes old when Leeds retook the lead with a fine move the Blades finished off.

Luke Ayling pinged the ball into Bamford, he found Roberts and the attacker switched it perfectly to the left for Harrison whose first touch was perfect and his cross impossible for Phil Jagielka to defend, an own goal the outcome.

It reminded Leeds of their superiority and they imposed it, Dallas clipping the woodwork at the end of a razor sharp move before the hosts ran through their repertoire of through balls, without finding a finish.

There were numerous counter attacks, that mostly stemmed from Blades corners, and they should have put this game to bed.

Yet somehow the Blades were still in it right to the very end, Rhian Brewster and Oli Burke sending shots wide.

It could have ended a draw. It should have ended a rout.

These two sides won't meet again in league action for at least a season. The job for Leeds now is to get this summer right and ensure that come this time next year, there are no more parallels to draw.