Leeds United's destruction of Stoke City was vintage Marcelo Bielsa, finish line is in sight - Graham Smyth's Verdict
Everything about Leeds United’s 5-0 demolition of Stoke City, before, during and after, was vintage Marcelo Bielsa. And that is exactly what is going to end this club’s insufferable Premier League exile.
The Argentine watched Barry Douglas and Gjanni Alioski put in excellent performances against Blackburn yet it was back to old faithful at Elland Road, Stuart Dallas and Helder Costa restored to the starting line-up after recovering from their niggles.
He always goes with what he knows and despite the question marks over Costa’s contribution at times this season, the head coach has backed him again and again, just as he has Patrick Bamford. His faith was rewarded, handsomely. Dallas shut down Stoke’s only real threat, Tyrese Campbell scarcely getting a sniff, and claimed a gorgeous assist. Costa won the first half penalty that Mateusz Klich scored to put Stoke in a stick or twist scenario and grabbed a goal himself.
Liam Cooper and Pablo Hernandez made it a rout with the third and fourth goals after Stoke chose to twist, came out to play and were bent out of shape by the Whites’ ruthless counter attacking football.
The game was won with a little under 20 minutes left but in the quiet of an empty Elland Road one voice rang out repeatedly. “Again,” bellowed Bielsa as another attack broke down. His persistence runs throughout this team and they refused to settle for 4-0, running Stoke ragged to claim a deserved fifth just before the final whistle, Bamford slamming in his third in the six behind-closed-doors games. Hitting a bedraggled opposition on the counter attack in stoppage time, when 4-0 up, is nothing if not relentless. For 90-plus-whatever minutes Bielsa has no chill, no off switch and nor do Leeds.
If Leeds fans, who will remain quivering wrecks up until the very moment their Championship stay ends, can put their trust in anything, it is the knowledge that their team will not stop.
They need seven points from four games and could, whisper it, win promotion in the next seven days, theoretically. Even if it has to go to the last day of the season, Leeds will still be running themselves to a standstill and their opponents into the ground. That is vintage Bielsa. So is the post-match kindness, the attempts to soothe his wounded foes.
This fixture, in which Leeds had 19 shots, 11 of them on target, was not, he suggested, a five-goal game. The scoreline, of a game that saw Stoke clear off the line and rely on their crossbar, was exaggerated he said. His words, as gracious as they were, may not have taken the sting out of Stoke’s humiliation, or dampened the rising hope and expectation that is now beginning to buzz around Elland Road.
What was perhaps most impressive about this performance, which was put together in the knowledge that Brentford had won yet again and continued to pile on the pressure, was the patience Leeds showed.
An early goal is their dream scenario and nearly arrived inside 30 seconds, Tyler Roberts curling for the far corner and forcing acrobatics from Jack Butland. Stoke set up as Luton had, sitting deep, defending in overwhelming numbers and if Leeds were slow to get their passing going, they hit a wall. It wasn’t so much what they did with the ball, but the hard work that went on without it, that began to bring joy.
Mateusz Klich and Tyler Roberts scurried around until they were sufficiently free of attention to link the play and Luke Ayling stuck to the touchline and pushed higher and higher up the pitch to create overloads. The longer they spent in the final third and the quicker they played, the more cracks appeared in Stoke’s wall.
It crumbled completely, briefly, when Bamford played a quick one-two with Roberts and rushed alone into the box to dink the ball over Butland, only for James McClean to clear off the line, Danny Batth somehow blocking Roberts’ goal-bound follow up. Frustration could have set in as a chanceless period of time went by.
Stoke could have survived to half-time and cranked up the pressure on the hosts, had Tommy Smith not needlessly, naively chopped down Costa in the box.
Klich sent Butland the wrong way from the spot and Stoke’s fate was sealed.
They came out for the second half needing a goal, which meant pushing forward, which meant leaving space. Pablo Hernandez, sent on at the break, wasted no time in exploiting the favourable circumstances. It was the Spaniard with whom Dallas played a one-two, before the Ulsterman’s perfect throughball allowed Costa to finish.
The crossbar denied Bamford, Butland did too but a third was coming.
Hernandez worked the ball out of the left hand corner, sent it to the right for Kalvin Phillips and then suddenly appeared on that side of the box, missing only a puff of smoke as he found Liam Cooper who applied a lovely finish, off the post.
It was so easy for Leeds and Hernandez especially, his caress of the ball from 20 yards pushing it past Butland for the fourth.
The Potters were a formless lump of clay, being worked this way and that, pulled apart by a team that, by comparison, resembled a masterpiece, shaped and detailed to perfection by a craftsman.
Stoke had seen enough, Bielsa had not.
On came substitutes Douglas, Alioski and Jamie Shackleton, adding energy and more problems, particularly down the left, for Michael O’Neill’s men.
In time added on, just when it looked like they had escaped further punishment, Ayling burst forward, spotted Bamford’s run and found it with a ball over the top, the striker cutting his shot back across Butland and in off the post.
It was cruel, it was brilliant, it was vintage Bielsa.
Leeds stumbled out of the blocks after the restart but they’re hitting their stride and the finish line is in sight.