There was value for Leeds United’s in draws with Middlesbrough and Millwall – more than there might have seemed at face value – but an uncompromising 3-0 defeat of Preston North End was the right result at the right time. “To win is a necessity,” Marcelo Bielsa said beforehand and his players are back in that zone.
Bielsa had no cause to stress with Leeds unbeaten and at the front of the Championship field but three draws from four games was the slight break in momentum which clubs who escape this league only tolerate for so long. Preston still have the distinction of being the only side to best Bielsa this season but they were flogged at Elland Road last night, exposed by the football and the swagger which swamped other groups of players last month.
Leeds unbeaten start stretched to eight matches with September flying by and it takes a trawl back to 2009 to find the last time the club put together a run so consistent. United nosedived under Thomas Christiansen’s management this time last year, unable to make anything of seven matches without defeat, but Bielsa’s side moved through the gears against Preston as the desperation of Saturday’s 89th-minute equaliser at Millwall gave way to slick, searching control.
That Preston were in touch and 1-0 down at the start of the second half was the only gripe. Either side of Liam Cooper’s 37th-minute opener, Mateusz Klich showed uncharacteristic panic at the end of two one-on-one chances and North End felt the sinking feeling of a team whose season has started like a car crash. “A special team,” Bielsa called them on Monday, saying their position near the very bottom of the table was a warped reflection of their talent but their inability to compete with Leeds made them look like a side who are second from bottom and in trouble. Last month’s Carabao Cup victory over United feels some way behind them.
There was a structure to Leeds’ football and productivity in the final third of the pitch which Bielsa had not seen in more than patches since a 3-0 pasting of Norwich City at Carrow Road three and a half weeks earlier. Cooper’s goal came from that proven source of assists, Barry Douglas’ left-foot at a corner, but Preston were savaged in open play before the break and kept in the game by United’s finishing.
His fuse lit by his goal against Millwall, Jack Harrison stepped out of the shadow of the injured Pablo Hernandez and buzzed around Preston’s box like a fly, denied by a post 19 minutes from the final whistle. Soon after that miss, Tyler Roberts negated the absence of Kemar Roofe by finding the lethal touch which refused to show itself in Bermondsey over the weekend. With one deft lob the night was over. For good measure, Roberts headed in a third in the closing stages.
North End had been at the same ground so recently that Ryan Ledson, their Scouse midfielder, was serving the last match of the ban incurred by him at Elland Road. Red cards and injuries had driven a coach and horses through Preston’s midfield and Bielsa’s players did the same, despite Alan Browne overcoming a calf strain in time to start.
Presently there is little more in the way of choice for Bielsa than there is for Neil; only the 18 players United’s head coach can pull together. The weakened line-up he fielded against Preston in the League Cup was similar to last night’s team but no longer a matter of squad rotation. Both Bielsa and Neil had resources beyond their reach, much as the league table disguised United’s issues. In the end only one manager looked bereft.
Leeds had invited their League Cup exit with errors from the outset – a penalty conceded after 45 seconds the worst of them – and Preston threatened an early goal again when Bailey Peacock-Farrell clawed a curling Callum Robinson effort away from the top corner in the seventh minute. There were shades of tension in Bielsa’s defence to begin with but a religious commitment to passing out from the back.
Before long, Leeds found that Preston’s backline was giving up chances. A deflection off Roberts was hacked off the line by Daniel Johnson after a corner bounced through North End’s box and Klich’s miss on 14 minutes was a big let-off. Preston failed to track his run and were nowhere when Harrison picked it out but Klich drew Declan Rudd before hooking a shot beyond the goalkeeper’s far post.
It took that chance to get Leeds going. Harrison began to bully Preston down the right and was unnecessarily unselfish when he headed a Samuel Saiz pass back across goal instead of attacking Rudd. There was enough purpose in those exchanges to make Bielsa think that the pressure would pay. Preston felt the creep of momentum too and held off from committing numbers forward.
Minus Hernandez, and latterly Roofe, the fluency of Bielsa’s football dipped either side of the international break but the cohesion returned, helped by Harrison doing far more of what Hernandez does on the same side of the field. Gjanni Alioski had the ball in the net on 29 minutes, rounding Rudd after Jansson found him from deep, but was shot down by the latest of offside flags. It nonetheless kept Preston where Leeds wanted them.
Nine minutes before half-time, North End’s increasingly wobbly resistance broke. Douglas whipped in a corner from the right and Cooper met it with a diving header which Rudd palmed weakly onto a post and into his net. Johnson, guarding the upright, somehow failed to intervene.
Preston were rattled and by half-time, Klich and Alioski could have made it 3-0. The former’s poise deserted him again when Saiz played him in behind, inviting a shot which Klich lashed over Rudd’s crossbar. Bielsa would have wanted a wider scoreline at the interval but the balance of the game promised that more goals were coming.
One almost came at United’s end of the field when Robinson stabbed Darnel Fisher’s cross goalwards on 57 minutes but another delayed reaction from the nearside assistant ruled Robinson offside before goalline technology was called for. A swing in impetus was evident but Leeds avoided gifting Preston any useful chances and eventually turned the screw after the 70th minute.
Harrison struck the base of a post first after picking up a pass from Saiz and when Kalvin Phillips sent Roberts bursting away three minutes later, the striker showed healthy instinct by ignoring an unmarked Alioski and steering a lob over Rudd’s head. With eight minutes left, Klich appeared on the right and dinked in a cross which Roberts cushioned beyond Rudd’s reach. A breakthrough for him and a breakaway from Leeds, three points clear at the top of the table.