Marcelo Bielsa talked about 14 ways of scoring before last night’s derby at Hull City and then watched as Leeds United fluffed a fair percentage of them. It was there, with the whites of the goalkeeper’s eyes in front of them, that their problem lay until Tyler Roberts produced a goal which compensated for every miss.
His 51st-minute shot from 25 yards out, a thumping finish from a striker who saw no harm in having a go in the circumstances, came at the point where Leeds suspected something special would be needed to cure their short-term block in front of goal. Good chance after good chance slipped away before half-time, the best of them bouncing by an open net, but in the end it was as Bielsa promised: that persistence would make something give.
It had refused to give at Hillsborough on Friday, an evening when Leeds stabbed at Sheffield Wednesday relentlessly without delivering the coup de grace, and there is no disguising the fact that they have paid for their finishing through the second month of the season but the gap in class which was apparent in Sheffield showed itself again last night, for all that Leeds took time to click. Sheffield Wednesday withstood the onslaught. Against a less-than-middling Hull team, Roberts’ moment of clarity was all Bielsa required.
His team are back at the top of the Championship this morning, albeit in the knowledge that West Bromwich Albion might return there this evening, and it is beyond question that with 22 points on the board already this is a better start than last season’s and an early surge holding up convincingly. Bielsa was bemoaned missed chances in previous games from a position of strength, and with the cavalry waiting to return from the treatment room. His gripes are the sort that other managers would like.
The Argentinian is approaching United’s fixtures without much thought about team selection. He has not changed his line-up since the beginning of last month and from his comments on Monday afternoon, it is apparent that he does not believe in rotation for rotatiton’s sake. “When a team wins regularly, nobody is tired,” he said. The evidence is in front of him.
There will come a time soon when Bielsa is faced with decisions - Kemar Roofe for Roberts, Pablo Hernandez for one or other of his wingers - but the early injuries this season have been a good examination of the depths of his squad. Leeds have lacked the same impetus without that pair but are ticking over in the Championship at a steady rate; eight points from five games in their absence.
Hull have an air of being beaten, or at least downtrodden, before a whistle sounds on Humberside, so flat are their attendances these days, and they mustered no verve after Roberts found a way through. Leeds required a good dose of patience on the night. City’s crowd will need plenty of it all season.
There was no soft sparring or tentative opening; just Leeds finding space from the outset and turning Hull’s midfield as Bielsa tried to mix it with his 3-3-1-3 system. Mateusz Klich was served up with the type of chance he has devoured this season in the sixth minute - a lay-off by Gjanni Alioski into his feet at the edge of the box - but bent a low finish the wrong side of a post. Moments like that have been a recurring theme for Bielsa this past fortnight.
Hull tried to rein Leeds in with deep positioning and compact lines of defence and it did not take long for congestion to develop in the centre of the pitch. Bailey Peacock-Farrell was briefly threatened when Tommy Elphick met a corner with a header which struck a body in front of United’s goalline but City’s tactics invited Bielsa’s players to come at them. By the 20th minute he was out on the edge of the technical area, looking for sharper and less wasteful passing and a rise in the tempo.
Inside half an hour he changed his formation, ordering Kalvin Phillips to step forward from his position on the right side of a back three and play in the centre of midfield. Unlike Leeds’ defeat to Birmingham 10 days earlier, when a low block brough errors aplenty from United there was no great threat on Hull’s part; merely an acceptance by Bielsa that a dearth of dynamism was glaring.
In the flashes when it showed itself, the killer touch was consistently lacking. Alioski found himself clear 10 minutes before half-time but swung at the ball and hooked it wide after Tyler Roberts’ touch played him through. Luke Ayling guided a header over the crossbar from a few yards out when a corner found Hull’s defence wanting and Barry Douglas, having hit a post from close range at Sheffield Wednesday on Friday, skewed a shot beyond an empty City net after losing his footing as an Alioski cut-back ran to him. The 14 types of finishes Bielsa spoke about ahead of the game began to mount up as half-time approached.
But seven minutes after it, Roberts quelled all frustration and tension with an opportunistic hit from 25 yards, driving the ball beyond David Marshall’s fingertips and into the bottom corner after a wide gap in the centre of the pitch encouraged him to shoot on sight. Hull had hoped to resist for longer in a derby where a goalless draw would have done for them but a glancing header from Elphick aside, there was nothing for Bielsa to panic about until Bailey Peacock-Farrell pushed away a prodded effort from substitute Nouha Dicko five minutes from time. Class told, and more narrowly than it should have done.