Old making way for new at Elland Road but against West Ham Leeds United's familiar problems lived on - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Elland Road as a stadium is a mix of the old and the new, the wooden seats of the West Stand sitting empty directly under the dazzling floodlights recently installed to help elevate the ground to Premier League standards.

Saturday, 12th December 2020, 5:45 am
NEW LIGHTS - Leeds United's set-piece issue was under the spotlight at Elland Road when West Ham visited on Friday night. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

Some of those seats have gone since promotion, ripped out to accommodate a spruced up press box, the old making way for the new.

Leeds United as a team boast a similar composition. Kalvin Phillips has been steeped in the club’s traditions since childhood and joined the academy 10 years ago. Liam Cooper, another boyhood White, signed six years ago, Stuart Dallas followed in 2015 and Luke Ayling a year later.

As a quartet they help set the culture in a dressing room that has welcomed new faces, recently recruited to help elevate the side to top-flight standards.

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Winning the Championship did not bring a rebuild for the club’s footballing department and nor could it. Marcelo Bielsa would not have countenanced a departure from the continuity theme that underpinned their successful promotion bid and Championship title success.

Players deemed and proven good enough to get the club out of the second tier were entrusted with its Premier League hopes and dreams.

There has been no ripping out, but there is already a suggestion that elements of the old guard have had to make room so that Bielsa can accommodate the shiny new signings.

Pablo Hernandez, the man who took huge amounts of responsibility on his shoulders during the business end of last season, all the while nursing an injury, has started just four games since the start of this campaign, albeit having picked up injury once again.

Rodrigo, a £27m investment the club made in the summer, did not swap Mestalla Stadium for Elland Road to spend his time in the LS11 ground’s old dugouts and when Bielsa lost Diego Llorente to a fresh injury and elected for a defensive reshuffle instead of a defensive replacement, it was Rodrigo to whom he turned to come into the side to face West Ham.

He and fellow new boy Raphinha have been two sources of excitement and promise for the newly-promoted side, but they weren’t able to solve two problems that predate them at Elland Road – set-pieces and breaking down an organised defence.

Set-pieces did the damage for West Ham, accounting for both goals in a 2-1 win, and their back line did the rest.

Mateusz Klich spoke in the week about the importance of scoring first and taking chances, so he was a relieved man when VAR handed him a second go at an early penalty.

Cooper’s anticipation, interception and incisive through ball put Patrick Bamford one-on-one with Lukasz Fabianski and the keeper brought him down.

Klich rolled a tame 12-yard effort to Fabianski’s right and he saved easily.

Mercifully for Klich, he was marginally off his line and after a lengthy delay, chiefly brought on by the Hammers’ complaints, Klich backed himself to take it again and this time converted.

David Moyes’ side possessed so much pace, skill and threat through Jarrod Bowen and Said Benrahma that they weren’t ever going to go away and soon had Leeds scrambling.

Bowen was getting in behind Gjanni Alioski, who went on to take a yellow for fouling the winger, and Said Benrahma was keeping Phillips busy.

For all that trickery and speed, it was an all-too-simple set-piece, another one, that brought the Hammers level. Bielsa spoke about it in the week after Chelsea caused Leeds serious issues from dead balls and scored from a corner.

That was the route West Ham took to parity. A poor first half from Jack Harrison included the concession of a corner, it was sent to the back post where Tomas Soucek towered in both height and leap over Dallas and Illan Meslier couldn’t get his positioning set in time to make the save.

Leeds looked less vulnerable in open play the longer the half went on and they gained a measure of control with some nice ideas in possession and half chances, without finding the perfect execution to regain the lead.

Bielsa responded to what he had seen with the introduction of Helder Costa and Jamie Shackleton for Harrison and Alioski.

Shackleton took no time to make an impact, involving himself numerous times in an attack that ended with Bamford’s turn and off-target shot.

Lots of the pre-game talk centred on Phillips and his ‘rivalry’ for an England place with Hammers captain Declan Rice and when the latter made a surge right through the space in the middle of the park and got to the edge of Leeds’ area, it was the former who was there to stop him.

There were far more influential battles on the pitch than that one, though. Cooper’s arm-wrestle of a tilt with Sebastien Haller, Dallas’ ascendancy over the fading Bowen and Rodrigo’s efforts to free himself from the attention of Rice were noteworthy if not entertaining, the game going flat as the defenders stayed on top of attackers.

Neither side could find the necessary space or magic to unlock the opposition back four, so the long-range shooting contest began. Benrahma had two efforts whistle past Meslier’s posts and Fabianski saved from both Phillips and Klich.

West Ham began to look the stronger of the two sides as things opened up again, Pablo Fornals slipping the ball inches wide of Meslier’s post and Fabian Balbuena drawing a top-class save from the young Frenchman with a header from a free-kick.

Given their struggles to defend set-pieces, Leeds unwisely continued to concede free-kicks in dangerous positions and eventually paid the price.

Costa gave a cheap one away, Aaron Cresswell delivered to the back post and Angelo Ogbonna rose above Cooper to head home.

There was a chance for Rodrigo to be a hero, but aside from his header that landed in Fabianski’s hands, Leeds couldn’t knock a hole in the Hammers and fell to a second straight defeat.

A new division, new faces and the same old problems.