Marcelo Bielsa’s worries about Leeds United’s form might come to be known as first-world problems in the Championship. The regression has been brief and his team cleared their heads last night, returning to the top of the division by bullying a club who know what real trouble looks like.
It is not in dispute that the first month of Leeds’ season was better than their second or that their league position sagged in the meantime but Bielsa has 30 years of coaching to draw on and players in reserve like Pablo Hernandez. One touch from the Spaniard at Elland Road, the delicious cross which made the opening goal against Ipswich Town, was enough to remind Bielsa of the poise and control he had been lacking.
United’s head coach was careful not to paint Hernandez as a silver bullet while Hernandez spent seven matches recovering from a hamstring strain, his nemesis at the age of 33, but there is no-one at Leeds who punishes possession out wide like him.
The midfielder’s name rang around the ground after the ball flew into net in the 22nd minute, even though Kemar Roofe tucked the ball away, but their mutual contribution is blindingly obvious: Roofe scoring or assisting seven league goals so far and Hernandez doing likewise, including the pass for a second-half coup de grace from Liam Cooper. Across their entire squad, Leeds have scored 25. It was no coincidence that with those two on the field they rode over Ipswich in second gear before going to town in the last 20 minutes.
Last night’s visitors have the look of cannon fodder; not a side who will lose by a cricket score every week but a side who will know better than most how defeat feels by the time this season ends. Bielsa sat for what felt like an eternity on Tuesday highlighting the features of United’s recent performances which were annoying him but if Ipswich’s manager, Paul Hurst, had the nerve to laugh he would chuckle quietly at the extent of Bielsa’s personal crisis. “A lost opportunity” was Bielsa’s description of Leeds’ league position before yesterday’s game. Ipswich are simply lost.
Elland Road, in spite of the Championship table, has become a temperamental environment in the past few weeks: Bielsa rattled by the way his team were playing and the sight of results sliding, and Leeds vexed by what they perceived as unfair treatment from the establishment.
Two pages of last night’s programme were set aside for managing director Angus Kinnear to rant in his own delicate way about the draw with Brentford earlier this month which ruffled feathers and dealt Pontus Jansson a one-match ban late on Tuesday afternoon. Added to defeat at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, the build-up of tension was going to be taken out on someone.
Jansson’s suspension as it occured could not have been timed better, arriving on the back of the birth of his daughter and enforced on an evening when Bielsa planned to leave him out anyway. Certain teams in the Championship would have smelt blood in a defence deprived of a centre-back as in-their-face as Jansson. Ipswich are not one of them. Gaetano Berardi stepped into his shoes before leaving the pitch injured before the half-hour. Leeds and Bielsa barely blinked.
Ipswich are in that horrible predicament where points are spilling everywhere and Hurst is facing questions about his job. His predecessor, Mick McCarthy, faced plenty of those as time was slowly called on his tenure but it is becoming apparent that McCarthy’s unpopular, mid-table finishes went some way to disguising the level Ipswich were headed for.
Bielsa set up with a back three against them and confidently lodged Kalvin Phillips in the centre of it. Ipswich met him with tight lines of four and tight was how the game remained for all of 22 minutes. It took no longer for Leeds to serve up the calibre of goal which is giving Bielsa his trademark in England.
Mateusz Klich and Samuel Saiz worked the ball between bodies and out of midfield, wide to Hernandez on the right. With one deft cross, whipped perfectly onto the head of Roofe, Hernandez answered the question of whether the absence of his skill had been felt. Roofe couldn’t miss and smashed a header through Bartosz Bialkowski’s hand.
Bielsa’s side had been painful wasteful on the flanks at Blackburn, a day when no fewer than 16 crosses came from Gjanni Alioski alone, but Hernandez saw the gaps in Ipswich’s fragile skin from a mile away. One well-chosen cut-back found Samuel Saiz inside Ipswich’s box before the half-hour - Saiz swung rashly and hooked the ball into a crowd of defenders - and the injection of confidence brought increasing control from a deep-lying Klich. It was not a stellar first half but Ipswich demanded far less than that. Matthew Pennington’s free header from Adetayo Edun’s free-kick, down the throat of Bailey Peacock-Farrell passed as their only chance.
The second half was even more of a procession, intensified before the hour by Bielsa introducing Adam Forshaw and Tom Pearce. By the end of it Ipswich were aching for the final whistle after Gjanni Alioski hit the inside of the post and Bialkowski clawed Forshaw’s shot wide. But with 68 minutes on the clock, Hurst’s defence were caught sleeping at a corner and Hernandez’s pass inspired a clever dummy from Phillips. Cooper met the ball with a gem of a finish, caressing it into the roof of the net from 20 yards. Whatever Bielsa’s underlying standards, it cannot be bad when a centre-back is weighing in with goals like that.