Liverpool money men don't see the ball as Leeds United continue to rough up big boys - Graham Smyth's Verdict

See the ball.

Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 7:10 am
PUNCH UP - Leeds United went toe-to-toe with another Premier League big boy and more than held their own. The draw was a blow to European Super League founding member Liverpool, struck on behalf of football. Pic: Simon Hulme.

It’s a mantra of Marcelo Bielsa’s, when his Leeds United side are defending. ‘See the ball,’ he screams as his full-backs face up to a tricky winger, or when a set-piece is lined up.

See the ball. The thing we watch the most. The thing we can’t walk past without taking a swing or attempting a few keep-ups. The thing that flies into the top corner and makes us fall in love with the game as young boys and girls. The thing Maradona said could not be stained.

Ignore the price tags and the salaries of the men kicking it around the pitch. Just see the ball.

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On a night when the world was focused on Elland Road for reasons other than the match itself, when Whites and Reds gathered in a joint protest outside the ground, when Gary Neville railed against the money men in charge of his club and the other five joining them in the European Super League, it was a tonic to just see the ball.

Leeds have a nice way with the ball and tried to play some attractive stuff from the off, but Liverpool’s press was problematic. Leeds have a nice way off the ball too and they posed problems of their own by harassing the red shirt in possession.

The Reds countered effectively in two ways, going direct and carrying the ball past defenders. Sending it over the top allowed Roberto Firmino to beat Illan Meslier to the ball but he could only send it behind for a goal-kick. Fabinho beating a number of white shirts allowed Liverpool to create danger that Stuart Dallas averted with a timely back-post intervention.

Leeds were a threat too and should have taken the lead when Kalvin Phillips nicked the ball deep in Reds territory and sent Patrick Bamford in on Alisson, a heavy first touch making life tougher than it had to be for the striker who was denied by the goalkeeper.

It was the ball in behind the Leeds defence that brought the opener, Meslier beaten to it by Trent Alexander-Arnold who had caught Jack Harrison napping and with his perfect first touch gave Sadio Mane an empty net to roll the ball into.

For a club with the motto ‘this means more’ it was difficult to work out exactly what that goal meant, given their taste is no longer for Champions League football and given the unhappiness of their fanbase.

For Leeds it meant a flat first half was punished. Their struggles with Liverpool’s press and a lack of sharpness on the ball meant they were unable to land the kind of blow that would have been heard and celebrated around the world.

It didn’t help that Raphinha, the scourge of so many Premier League defences in his first season of English football, missed out through injury. And Rodrigo’s continued struggle with niggling injuries left Tyler Roberts carrying the can for playmaking, something he was unable to do in a quiet first 45.

There were a few moments, half chances if you could call them that, and a penalty shout for handball that earned them a spin of the VAR roulette wheel but nothing more.

Bielsa replaced Helder Costa with Ian Poveda on the right, yet it was the left flank that yielded a first real opportunity of the half, Roberts and Harrison both showing quick feet before the latter’s near post effort was beaten away by Alisson.

And that heralded a better spell.

They came even closer when Luke Ayling’s brilliant ball into the area was controlled by Bamford and lofted over the keeper and onto the crossbar.

When Poveda slid the ball to Roberts in space inside the box and he could only find the body of Alisson when a goal seemed inevitable, it felt very much like it might be one of those nights.

The thing about this Leeds team, however, is just like the saxophonist who played ABBA’s Money, Money, Money outside the ground throughout the evening, they just didn’t stop.

With the game in its final minutes Harrison swung in a corner and Diego Llorente saw the ball all the way, meeting it with his head. Suddenly, deservedly, it was level.

‘See the ball,’ bellowed Bielsa, imploring his men to concentrate in order to keep what they had and maybe even better it.

It was not to be the bloody nose the football world wanted to see, though. But hot on the heels of a win, with 10 men, against Manchester City, this 1-1 draw was another good result for Leeds.

Since promotion from the Championship was earned they’ve given the big boys a few scares here and there, including Liverpool on the opening day of a season that hasn’t gone to plan for the Reds.

So it’s little wonder the owners of teams scrapping for their Champions League lives would want to tilt what is already not a level playing field further in their favour to safeguard their status as top dogs.

The sad thing is that, VAR and empty stadia aside, the Premier League has been really good this year and all the better for Leeds’ involvement.

It just hasn’t been good in the way the bigger clubs want it to be.

They want the goals, the thrills and the action but they want it to come with guarantees that their brands and status and league positions will not be harmed or jeopardised in any way.

Leeds can come to the party but they, West Ham, Leicester and the rest should not pull focus.

Leeds have had the temerity to go toe-to-toe with everyone and it has been brilliant, for Whites and neutrals alike.

The ‘big six’ don’t see that. They don’t see the ball. They see only pound signs. That's their loss. That's why they can never win.