Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United beat Everton and prove you can have Premier League cake and eat it - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United put the magic in the word 'and'.

Sunday, 29th November 2020, 11:53 am
DOMINANT - Kalvin Phillips broke up play and found space to spray passes left and right for Leeds United against Everton. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Beautiful football and results. Purism and a place among the elite. Talent and graft. Home grown superstars like Kalvin Phillips and imported quality like Raphinha.

The key to having your cake and eating it, as the Whites showed yet again with a 1-0 win at Everton, is simply holding your nerve.

In the hours before the Whites went to Goodison for the first time since 2003, Newcastle United boss Steve Bruce spoke on BBC 5 Live about whether or not he ever thinks 'let's just go for it' as he sets up his team.

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"We'd all like to play like Liverpool and Manchester City, let's be brutally honest, we'd all like to play the way they play, they like to make the pitch as big as they can, they try and open you up, there's no secret to it," he began.

"But the big thing they've got, they've got great, great players. If you go up against them and leave yourself open and go wide open, in my experience you get turned over and can get turned over big style too."

Herein lies the very reason why every Leeds fan's cup should be overflowing, not just half full. The style of football they get to watch, the temerity to play it against everyone, regardless of the presence of great, great players, and the ability to carry it out effectively, is just not for everyone.

"Marcelo's team has personality and this comes from the manager," wrote Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti in his programme notes about the man responsible for the elixir to which Leeds fans are hopelessly addicted.

THE WINNER - Raphinha, a deadline day signing for Leeds United from Rennes, smacked a long range shot past Everton's Jordan Pickford to give Marcelo Bielsa a 1-0 win at Goodison. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Along with a shared desire to play eye-catching, attacking football, the two men have each carved out careers and reputations that allow them to pick and choose jobs. Yet where Ancelotti has often answered the call of European football's big beasts and brought them the required silverware, Bielsa has opted for projects that captured his imagination and employers who might not simply understand his methods but trust in them.

That the two world-renowned coaches first engaged in managerial chess in a game between Everton and Leeds says much about the clubs' status as sleeping giants. Bielsa has given Leeds a good shake and got them on their feet again while Ancelotti is jolting Everton from their slumber.

It was evident that the two men are at different stages of their work, however. Everton played like a team who knew they were good at attacking, Leeds played like a team who knew exactly how best to attack.

It was destined to be a good game, from the off, the visitors getting in behind through Raphinha's pace, the home side relying on the brilliance of James Rodriguez to find forward passes, despite the presence and pressure of Stuart Dallas.

Leeds thrive in a basketball game, when play is end to end and there is space to run into.

Whether it was Phillips breaking up play and pushing forward down the middle to spray passes left and right or Raphinha taking Leeds from halfway to the Everton box in a flash and setting up Jack Harrison who steered wide, Bielsa's men found the space they crave.

Goals felt inevitable before kick-off but as the game was played out, they felt fated and only the goalkeepers prevented a high-scoring affair.

It helps, when you're pouring forward and committing bodies to attacks, to know you have an able shot stopper behind you.

Illan Meslier saved from Richarlison's deflected effort, before Jordan Pickford denied Patrick Bamford with his feet then clawed away Raphinha's towering back-post header, Harrison's follow-up cleared off the line.

Alex Iwobi, standing in for the injured Lucas Digne, came under real pressure from Harrison who looked to steal in on his blindside on every given opportunity and used that very tactic to head against Pickford's post, while the Leeds back line creaked when James or Richarlison got on the ball in the final third, both having goals chalked off for offside.

There were 'infinite modifications' during the game, Bielsa said after, but neither manager made a half-time change and the pattern of the game remained largely the same, attack begetting attack.

In one frantic phase, Meslier saved from Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Leeds broke from the resulting corner and a Bamford shooting chance went begging before Everton broke themselves and Calvert-Lewin shot wide.

The longer it went on, the more important the first goal became.

And yet Bielsa kept record signing Rodrigo on the touchline, backing the players on the pitch to go the distance if necessary, in the face of a breathless, exhausting battle.

Ancelotti blinked first, replacing both wing-backs.

Frustration had just begun to creep into Leeds' play and body language when, with 11 minutes left, Raphinha took responsibility on his shoulders, backed his ability, set his sights from distance and whacked a low, hard drive past Pickford.

In a game that promised goals, only the Brazilian delivered.

But his team-mates held their nerve to make it the winner. The flowing passing moves and marauding attacks remained but they became more about bloody-minded determination and desire to keep sprinting, than technical ability or skill. Phillips continued to dominate, Mateusz Klih continued to pass and run into space. Dallas and Luke Ayling took on energy gels, the latter cramping up, as Leeds refused to exercise caution or play the percentages to get the result.

Substitute Ian Poveda ignored a call to go in the corner, believing in himself and beating two men on the right to create another good chance, Helder Costa foiled by Pickford in what was the last action of a thriller.

That moment perfectly explains how Leeds will approach this season, after 16 years away from the Premier League.

A win at Goodison put them on 14 points from 10 games, level with Newcastle United, proving nothing yet but hinting that it might just be possible to survive and have fun, in a way many don't believe is possible, at the highest level.

The top flight's prodigal son will not bow the knee to newly promoted convention, they will attack against every single opponent. Risk and reward. Magic.