We should know better than to be surprised by Leeds United, even after astonishing beating of Aston Villa - Graham Smyth's Verdict
No one should be surprised by Leeds United, not at this stage and yet they continue to leave Premier League eyebrows raised and jaws on the floor.
A 3-0 battering of an Aston Villa side who were flawless in four games going into this one and more than competitive before the first half ended goalless, was a stunning result.
A hat-trick for Patrick Bamford was thoroughly deserved and even though it’s always a possibility due to the sheer number of chances his team-mates create for him, it still stunned everyone. The striker himself looked bemused when the third one went in.
Maybe, by now, we should know better. But consider the context. The result was against the odds and so were Leeds, missing two key players in a defence that had to deal with a Villa front three of frightening ability.
It was Luke Ayling, not Liam Cooper, who led the men in green and blue stripes out at Villa Park, the club captain missing out with a groin injury. And there was no Kalvin Phillips, who hurt his shoulder on Monday against Wolves, so Pascal Struijk played in front of the reshuffled back four.
It seems, however, that no matter who plays, the way that Leeds go about their football and their ability to execute it remains consistent.
Their attacks are by now so recognisable that when Huddersfield, managed by Marcelo Bielsa’s former assistant Carlos Coberan, scored a lovely goal from a flowing back to front move earlier this week, the comparisons to ‘Bielsaball’ were instantaneous.
Keeper to centre-half, wide and over the heads of the opposition forwards to a winger who springs his full-back and he bombs forward to cross to the middle.
That was exactly how the first Leeds attack of the night went and it could easily have brought an opener.
Ayling, playing in place of Cooper, looked every inch a Bielsa central defender when he controlled, looked up and pinged a perfect pass out to Jack Harrison on the left. He swivelled to release Gjanni Alioski and he produced a superb cross that Patrick Bamford headed wide.
Everyone knows what Leeds are going to do but knowledge is not necessarily power, you still have to stop the wide ball, get to the winger before he feeds the full-back and stop the cross.
When it’s all done at pace, as it always is with Leeds, stopping any of it is easier said than done.
Likewise, everyone now knows what Jack Grealish will do. He picks up the ball somewhere on the left and pauses for a split second before picking a direction and drifting away from pressure and drawing defenders into challenges they shouldn’t make. When he left Stuart Dallas in his wake Struijk jumped in and the inevitable yellow card came out.
A minute later the Dutchman was a little lucky not to see a second yellow and the writing on the wall said two things - a sending off or a substitution.
Before Struijk did leave proceedings, to be replaced by Jamie Shackleton, there were chances at both ends, Rodrigo shooting wide off the body of Tyrone Mings, Ayling clearing a Grealish shot off the line.
There are no easy games to come into after just 21 minutes, especially not in the Premier League, but Shackleton knows where to be and what to do to make ‘Bielsabal’l work. His energy, pace and ability to keep things simple with quick, one-touch contributions through the middle helped him look the part.
For his part, Grealish continued to look dangerous, doing everything expected of him, including a tumble in the area when Helder Costa ran across the back of him, a VAR check confirming there was no foul after a tense few seconds.
Leeds didn’t make life easy for themselves with too many sloppy passes in their own half allowing Villa to spend time in the visitors’ half, but little came of it.
Instead, Bielsa’s men should have ended the half ahead, Shackleton knowing a little nod forward would spring the counter, knowing Harrison would be sprinting into space. The winger crossed, knowing Bamford would be there yet he could only steer it wide.
The pattern of the second half was, barring one very dangerous Grealish break that necessitated a fine Meslier save and a Konsa effort from the resulting corner that forced an equally good one from the Frenchman, very different.
Leeds played their football and stopped Villa from playing, nipping in to take it off Grealish before he could get going. The result was largely one-way traffic.
Harrison saw a shot saved, Costa had one blocked and Alioski’s very nearly gave Villa a throw-in.
Now in full flight, it was only a matter of time before Leeds created another good chance and Shackleton was involved again, playing it quickly and cleverly to his left to feed the run of Rodrigo who exchanged passes with Harrison, drew a save from Martinez and then celebrated with Bamford who was right where you knew he would be to knock in the rebound.
His second goal was not a thing of familiarity but a thing of beauty. He received a ball to his feet 25 yards out, back to goal, turned and curled it into the top corner.
And he wasn’t finished. A Villa defence who had been physical with him all night, desperate not to give him an inch, afforded him the freedom of Birmingham inside their own box and he danced into the space, opened up his body and dinked the deftest of shots into the other top corner.
Villa were beaten, well beaten but still Leeds came and still Bielsa bellowed from the touchline. “Quickly,” he demanded, imploring his hat-trick scoring centre-forward to do more work.
Bamford obliged, leaping to nod a Shackleton cross goalward, Martinez saving comfortably.
Bielsa, wanting more, sent on Pablo Hernandez and Raphinha and they got involved with some neat attacking play. It was as if he knew Villa weren’t quite done and the hosts proved him right with a pair of chances, the first hammered across goal and wide by Watkins, the second fired over the top by John McGinn.
There were no more goals at either end and Villa’s perfect record was ripped from them by not just a first defeat but a battering.
The pre-game talk centred on what Dean Smith’s team can do but this game was all about what Bielsa’s team know they can do. The result was unexpected but that's exactly what Leeds, under this head coach, are capable of. If you didn't know, you do now.