Targetless Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United make mugs of prophets of doom - Graham Smyth's Verdict on beating of Tottenham Hotspur

Football isn't just unpredictable, it's unknowable, especially when Leeds United are concerned.

Sunday, 9th May 2021, 4:45 am
KNOWN QUALITY - Stuart Dallas has been a consistent performer and provider of goals for Leeds United this season. His strike against Tottenham Hotspur was his eighth of the season. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

No one could have known that a week after an underwhelming, toothless performance at Brighton the same players would go in at half-time well worth the lead they held over Tottenham Hotspur.

Not even Gjanni Alioski would have predicted that he would not only keep his place after a torrid first half by the coast but bounce back to produce arguably the best display of his Leeds United career, contributing mightily to the eventual 3-1 win with a role in each goal.

Herein lies the beauty of football and its infinite possibilities.

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When a game kicks off, not a human on earth knows what will happen over the course of 90 minutes. The same can be said at the start of each new season. Anything can happen.

Had Biff Tannen sidled up to you at full-time of the play-off semi-final defeat to Derby County clutching his Sports Almanac and told you not to worry because in May 2021 Leeds would be beating Spurs to move into the top half of the Premier League, while the Rams were scrapping for their Championship lives, it would have taken all the fun out of the last two years. Not that you would have believed him, in any case.

Predictions are a mug's game, in this game. The endless variables presented by each match of association football join forces in ways you simply could not ever foresee to make you look desperately silly.

Commentator's curse is very real. Pundit's foot, that delicious moment when a talking head opens their mouth, sticks their foot in it and confidently prophecies the very opposite to the reality that unfolds, is just as real. "Get back in your box Leeds United fans, you are going to struggle - it’s going to be a long, hard, tough season," declared one former player back in September.

STEP CHANGE - Marcelo Bielsa's step-by-step approach has taken Leeds United on a path that has been as entertaining as it has been impressive. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

Marcelo Bielsa was making no predictions. He never does. He didn't even set a target. Instead, holding firm to the privately-held thought that it might just be possible for freshly-promoted Leeds to compete as equals with the very best sides in their new division, he set about preparing for the first game. Then the second. Then each one that followed, as it came to him.

All season long he has taken the Premier League path step by individual step, analysing the opposition to the nth degree and picking the team he thought was best suited to tackle them, not knowing what would happen.

If he bothers to look up for a moment from his analysis of next week's opponents Burnley, he'll see that the steps he and Leeds have taken have led them in the direction of a top-half finish.

The step he took for the visit of Spurs was to keep faith in the team who lost and underperformed at Brighton, knowing his players are better than that game.

He didn't know that Leeds would start so well, but he knows that the intensity and aggression that has been drilled into them could create problems as it has done for so many in the top flight since September.

He knows that if Alioski intercepted the ball and looked up, the width with which Leeds play would mean the switch should be on. With 13 minutes on the clock, Alioski intercepted, looked up and spotted Stuart Dallas free on the opposite flank. The perfect pass he sent to the right started a move that swept back the way of the North Macedonian on the left and when he fed Jack Harrison, the winger sent in the kind of cross Bielsa knows he's capable of, the kind absent at Brighton, the kind defenders facing their own goal like Sergio Reguilón hate. The Spaniard's touch was horrible, Hugo Lloris had to claw it off the line and Dallas was there to lash home the opener.

It was deserved. Bielsa's team were finding space on the ball and making life difficult for Spurs off it.

When they didn't manage the latter, they were instantly punished. Dele Alli wasn't closed down quickly enough and he killed the Leeds back line with a pass that Son Heung-min raced onto, to level.

Leeds were unlocked again by Alli, whose movement out wide gave him just enough space to pass the ball onto the toe of Harry Kane who dinked it over Illan Meslier, only for VAR, the ultimate unknowable factor in football, to rule his big toe offside.

There was no panic from Leeds, who set about doing what countless Thorp Arch training drills have made second nature and conjured up a near-perfect Bielsa goal.

If you press you can win the ball. If you press high you can win it and create danger within a couple of passes, with your opposition out of kilter.

Dallas won a second ball deep in Spurs territory, found Tyler Roberts and he pushed it wide to Harrison, who knew Alioski would be on the overlap and the left-back cut it back for Patrick Bamford to score.

He now has 15 Premier League goals for the season. Who predicted that?

Spurs had a real go in the early part of the second half but when Kane got in to beat Meslier he was offside again and when Son got in he shot wide.

As space started to open up it suited Leeds and they played lovely football in it, creating a chance of their own for Mateusz Klich who was denied by Lloris.

Serge Aurier's near-post blast that Meslier saved expertly and Kane's free-kick that clipped the crossbar were about the last of it for Spurs, who ran out of ideas as Leeds, with Raphinha and then Rodrigo on as substitutes, ran riot on the counter.

Klich saw a shot saved from Raphinha's pass and Harrison twice fired over before Alioski won the ball in his own area and started another wonderful move that killed the game.

His pass down the line found Klich, he fed Robin Koch in the middle and the German sent Raphinha away down the left, his pace taking him into the area where he squared it for Rodrigo to slam home.

Their attacking play, so poor at Brighton, was so good in this one.

Four-time Champions League winner Gareth Bale's 67 minutes of near anonymity said it all about their defensive play.

The overall performance, with positive contributions all over the pitch, rewarded Bielsa's preference for making conclusions about his players over a much longer period than one poor 90 minutes.

The result completed a remarkable, odds-defying unbeaten Elland Road record against the 'big six' which begs the question, what next for Bielsa's Leeds? The answer is not an assault on the top six, bolstered by summer signings. It's Burnley away. One step at a time.