Timing is everything for Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United - Graham Smyth's Verdict on 2-2 draw with Brentford
Timing was everything for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United on Sunday.
The Argentine has made it his mission to keep his men focused solely on the present but the quartet of games looming large after the visit of Brentford has been difficult to ignore.
Trips to Chelsea and Manchester City, a home game against Arsenal and a Boxing Day visit to Liverpool, a sequence of fixtures from which any points at all would be a bonus, added urgency to the Elland Road meeting with Thomas Frank’s Bees.
This was the last of a mini series of contests with teams considered much more natural rivals for Leeds, teams they can regard as beatable.
A draw at Brighton and Tuesday’s win over Crystal Palace set them up nicely to make it seven points from nine, which would give the Premier League a much kinder look before four ‘big-six’ encounters.
That win over Palace, courtesy of a stoppage-time penalty from Raphinha, and the failure of so many teams to perform consistently enough to pull away from the Whites during a stuttering start to the season, had kept the table very respectable.
Beating Brentford, who had the disadvantage of playing on Thursday night and a considerable injury list even before star man Ivan Toney tested positive for Covid-19, would have built a very healthy eight-point cushion between the Whites and the drop zone.
Given the festive fixture list, it would have felt very much like Leeds had picked up results and points just in the nick of time. With the buzz of Tuesday’s late drama still lingering in the LS11 air, the return of Luke Ayling to the starting XI and Patrick Bamford to the substitutes’ bench only added to the optimism felt around the ground as kick-off approached.
Getting key players back just in time for a busy, challenging period, was a huge boost, leaving only Robin Koch and Pascal Struijk in Bielsa’s unavailable ranks and giving the head coach a bench with genuine game-changing options and a sense of seniority that has been lacking at times this season.
The sun even shone on Elland Road as the teams emerged for kick-off. It was almost too good to be true.
And a lovely move in the first minute might have given Leeds a dream start, a number of players involved before Junior Firpo attempted to send the ball back to Daniel James instead of shooting, squandering the opportunity and possession.
Brentford, though, began to make life uncomfortable for their hosts without creating much in the way of chances.
The first 15 minutes went by without significant action but the play was concentrated in the Leeds half and the game was in danger of spoiling the mood.
What changed things in Leeds’ favour was an enforced change, Liam Cooper twisting and landing awkwardly as he threw himself into an attempted block and limping off. Bielsa’s initial solution appeared to be Charlie Cresswell, before a change of heart sent Mateusz Klich to hurriedly warm up, only for the head coach to ask for Jack Harrison instead.
Kalvin Phillips moved into the back-three, then out of it again as Bielsa tinkered to find the balance he needed, eventually settling for a defensive line of Ayling, Diego Llorente and Firpo, with the England midfielder in front of them.
Once they settled into their new look, Leeds found it easier to get at the visitors and from 20 minutes onwards they were in command.
The crowd sensed it too, roaring on their pressing forwards and cheering Brentford’s forced errors like goals. Leeds cranked up the pressure but, like Brentford before them, couldn’t add a final ball.
Even when Raphinha, the player most likely and capable of producing magic, had time and space to deliver into the area, he hit the first man, ex-Whites defender Pontus Jansson.
Unfortunately for Jansson his header fell straight back to the feet of the Brazilian and his second cross was deadly, leaving defenders static as Tyler Roberts anticipated it brilliantly to arrive in the nick of time and steer the ball beyond Alvaro Fernandez.
The sound of his name ringing out at both ends of Elland Road must have been so sweet for a player making his 100th appearance without ever fully ascending to fan-favourite status.
It was his first home goal since July 2020 and, with Bamford’s every warm-up on the touchline being cheered to the rafters, somewhat ironically timed. The goal turned up the noise in the stadium and Leeds turned up the heat on the Bees, countering with break-neck pace and clever one-touch football to sweep from one end to the other before Roberts’ searing drive was tipped over by Fernandez.
All of a sudden the Welshman was at the heart of everything, drilling one cross in low and hard from the right to tempt Jansson into an intervention that could easily have ended up in his net, then blasting another in from the left that also begged a touch.
Brentford were looking a bit ordinary, a bit like a Championship team lacking the necessary quality to turn the tide in their favour, and Leeds didn’t have to do too much to stay on top.
They remained in control after the interval, Raphinha’s free-kick headed for the top corner by Ayling only for Fernandez to claw it away.
But the game was to change again and it was an enforced swap for the hosts that did it once more.
What was even worse about Phillips picking up a knock was that his attempt to run it off, having already had treatment, coincided with a Brentford attack down the left. With Leeds’ enforcer behind the play and signalling to the bench that he would have to come off, Rico Henry got the better of Stuart Dallas, Sergi Canos delivered a cross and Shandon Baptiste, in space that Phillips might well have occupied, beat Illan Meslier from the edge of the area.
Klich replaced Phillips, Forshaw dropped into a deeper position and Brentford assumed control, adding a second seven minutes after their first as Canos, who had just missed a back-post sitter of a header, was played in on Diego Llorente’s blindside after a Firpo giveaway, and roofed his shot.
It was Leeds’ turn to look ordinary and, as cries for Bamford grew more and more urgent, Bielsa turned to the striker.
His mere presence wasn’t enough, at first, because Leeds couldn’t get him into the game. It was frustrating, toothless stuff from Leeds and, with Brentford taking a relaxed approach to restarts, Elland Road grew restless.
Numerous offsides, passes cannoning off yellow-socked legs, routes to goal blocked by yellow shirts or poor final balls made it impossible to see where a goal was going to come from, until the 95th minute when Leeds won a corner.
Raphinha fired it in, Ayling flicked it on and there was Bamford to knee it home, off the bar, with the most perfect timing.
This was a game Leeds should have won and a performance that flattered to deceive but, viewed through the lens of last-gasp euphoria, it was a draw that was snatched from the jaws of defeat in the nick of time.
All’s well that ends well and, if that can be said as December gives way to January, Leeds will be fine.