Leeds United striker Tyler Roberts was right about Chelsea and Marcelo Bielsa got it right - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Tyler Roberts was right and so too was Marcelo Bielsa.

Sunday, 14th March 2021, 5:44 am
EVEN GAME - Leeds United created plenty of danger against a Chelsea side who aren't conceding goals under new boss Thomas Tuchel. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

Playing well enough and creating chances but not getting results, Leeds United were not in the best form as Chelsea loomed large, expensive and ominously in-form on the horizon.

Roberts declared this fixture, arguably the most difficult Leeds could face at this stage of the season, just what they needed.

It raised a few eyebrows, of course, but taking the road less travelled by is very much the done thing at Elland Road these days.

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This is a club and a team now well accustomed to doing what they're not supposed to do - lasting the course last season instead of 'falling apart' or 'burning out' and swimming instead of sinking in the Premier League playing the same insanely attacking football.

Shutting out a Chelsea squad laden with an embarrassment of attacking riches was justifiably regarded as an almost impossible task for one of the division's leakiest defences.

Even the thought of creating much in the way of danger, against a Chelsea who had conceded just twice in Thomas Tuchel's 11 games in charge, appeared somewhat far-fetched.

Factor in the illness that took captain Liam Cooper out of Bielsa's backline and the Whites were up against it.

With all of that said, Roberts was, remarkably, right. Leeds shut Chelsea out, relishing the challenge and rising to it, and on another day might even have nicked this one with the chances they created. A 0-0 draw felt very fair and entirely deserved, for the hosts. It was a positive result at a time when negativity was threatening to seep into the season.

Bielsa was predicted by many to replace Roberts in the starting line-up with the fit-again Rodrigo but the £27m man was once again on the bench.

A first half injury to Patrick Bamford did hand Rodrigo some match minutes, however the Spaniard is not yet fully up to speed after returning from the groin injury he sustained on January 31, and Bielsa felt the need to substitute the substitute before the end.

Roberts outshone the vastly more experienced man and proved Bielsa was right to stick with him.

In the number 10 role he played a full part in an aggressive press that forced occasional mistakes from a side with enviable quality on the ball and wonderful technical ability all over the pitch. As a number nine in the second half, Roberts led the line well and helped put and keep Leeds on the front foot and in the final third, where Chelsea could do least harm.

There was a lot to like in this performance, from the audacious shot he curled up and over giant Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy, who just about got his fingernail to it and ensured the ball hit the crossbar and not the net, to the neatest of second half turns that took Leeds out of a pocket of pressure and into wide open space in the Blues' half.

An offside flag, one of those infuriating delayed ones that assistant referees are directed to give, ruled out his early goal after Bamford had crept just beyond the last shoulder to run in behind and set Roberts up for a tap-in.

For all his toil and overall contribution, a first ever Premier League goal would have been deserved.

The 22-year-old has not yet arrived but he at least gave the appearance of a player who is in the process of arriving. He admits he's not happy with the lack of goals and assists but while they're not flowing, he has to at least show Leeds that he's heading in the right direction. You can't be a player with potential forever so consistent end product will be needed if he is to be part of the Leeds project as it moves forward but this performance, Bielsa said, showed an 'evolution' in Roberts' game. It was a step forward.

Bielsa talks about player form going up, then down, then up again. So the job for Roberts will be to show he's ahead of the player who started the season and that he's learned from the dips.

"Move Tyler," has become Bielsa's catchphrase, a cry that reverberates around empty stadia when the Welsh international plays for Leeds.

Movement, sprints, dummy running, blindside running, defensive running, Leeds needed relentless energy and aggression from every player if they were to have a chance of matching Tuchel's Chelsea.

N'Golo Kanté not only eats up ground at lightning speed, he's clever with the ball and his mere presence on the Elland Road pitch demanded a huge amount from midfielders Stuart Dallas and Kalvin Phillips, who ran off an early knock.

The hosts' eagerness to do everything at pace perhaps contributed to some carelessness in possession, handing Chelsea the ball too easily, but off the ball Leeds were snappy, Roberts, Pascal Struijk and Jack Harrison all disrupting visiting moves.

Struijk is another player who has proved Bielsa right. The Argentine backed his 21-year-old centre-back to meet the Premier League standard and he continually does so.

He and Diego Llorente both produced solid performances in their first outing together and although the Blues threatened with a number of crosses that flashed through the area, Leeds were very rarely cut open or made to look fragile.

With Bamford off the pitch, Chelsea looked more comfortable and assumed a worrying level of control, yet the closest they came to an opener was Luke Ayling's clearance that cannoned wildly off Llorente, over Illan Meslier and off the woodwork.

Meslier's biggest moment came early in the second half, palming Kai Havertz' fierce drive over the top after the dangerman had drifted in behind Struijk to receive César Azpilicueta's pass.

It was a fun game, for a 0-0, and thanks to Leeds' exhausting efforts, an even one.

Mendy had to be at his best again to save Raphinha's shot on the turn, from a Roberts' cross knocked down by Rodrigo.

The hosts could have nicked it. Roberts slid the ball toward the byline for Raphinha and his cutback was hammered goalward by Llorente, a deflection taking it off course. A Raphinha corner found Rodrigo completely free and his header was straight at Mendy.

A point, however, was more than good enough, Leeds negating the gulf in quality with a willingness to run to the very end.

At some stage, if Leeds are to narrow the gap between themselves and the mega-rich, they'll need players whose quality alone is enough to do that. For now, while still a newly promoted club, this kind of performance and this team will do just fine.