The goal conceded by Leeds United at Millwall was telegraphed from the very start. Three long throws from Ryan Leonard dropped into their box inside 16 minutes, a trademark tactic which duly paid off in the early stages of the second half.
Millwall did what they do in that moment, causing enough havoc for Jed Wallace to side-foot home at close-range. Jake Cooper nudged Pontus Jansson to win a header from Leonard’s throw and Wallace slipped the attention of Barry Douglas before meeting the flick at the back post. As the ball nestled in the net, it seemed that Millwall had been visualising those exact touches all week.
Leeds were ragged in that instant but over 90 minutes Marcelo Bielsa’s defence produced an exhausting effort to counter Millwall’s set pieces and aerial threat. Jansson, who started in place of the injured Gaetano Berardi, was equal to much of their pressure, making 17 clearances - four fewer than Millwall’s entire team - and six tackles to keep United in touch. Alongside him, Liam Cooper’s clearances totalled 13 and his blocked shots three. It was there, more than anywhere else, that Leeds’ late point was earned.
Bielsa has favoured Berardi over Jansson this season, preferring the pace and the accuracy of Berardi’s passing from the back, but Saturday was an afternoon for Jansson’s height and power. Cooper, too, came up with key interceptions twice in the first half, one of which redeemed Jansson’s bad loss of possession on the halfway line. Fatigue seemed to tell in the 92nd minute when Tom Elliott got in amongst Bielsa’s defence and headed against a post but United’s head coach was grateful for the resistance he saw.
The Argentinian’s formation was a break from his usual 4-1-4-1 system, with Kalvin Phillips dropping in as a third defender and Mateusz Klich playing in a more withdrawn midfield role. Phillips was coached by Bielsa as a centre-back in pre-season and Bielsa revealed afterwards that a back three was his answer to any team fielding two strikers. Neil Harris, the Millwall manager, used a standard 4-4-2 with Lee Gregory and Steve Morison at the front of his line-up.
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Bielsa admitted that the opening goal had forced him to think again and replace Klich with Lewis Baker, a switch which repositioned Kalvin Phillips and allowed Baker to provide support for an overloaded Samuel Saiz.
“One of the defensive principles I take into account is that I always play with a third defender when the opponent has two strikers,” Bielsa said. “As they did this, I asked my number four (Phillips) to go as a centre-back.
“I abandoned this idea when the opponent scored and told him to play in front of our two centre-backs. I decided that Baker would play closer to Saiz. And as you see, tactics are always very boring.
“It was hard for us to play well. The position of Klich was new for him. He played in front of the three centre-backs so he couldn’t use his main skill, which is to make offensive actions. He’s not used to making the link between the defence and attack.
“When he could do that he played well but it was hard for us to give the ball to Saiz. He’s our player who can create.”