Why Leeds United don't need the lesson learned by Rennes, Bristol City and the 'big six' - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Manchester United draw
Football is littered with those who did not know what they had until it was gone. Time has taught so many that lesson.
Take Rennes, for example, who have had to watch Raphinha perform so brilliantly in the Premier League, adding millions and millions to a price tag that now dwarfs the £17m fee Leeds United paid them last summer.
They simply must not have known what they had until he was wearing white and turning Gary Gahill to jelly.
All of us, to some extent or another, have been taught the lesson by the pandemic. Match attendance, away days, the pub with friends and hugging family members - all things we took for granted, all things we didn’t fully realise we had until they were gone.
For Brentford, it’s Stuart Dallas. For Bristol City, Luke Ayling. For FC Lorient, Illan Meslier. For the 'big six', their souls.
But Leeds know they’re onto a good thing. Even after a 0-0 draw with the old enemy Manchester United, a game with a flat first half that livened a little after the break but still bore plenty of frustration, Leeds know that what they have right now is special.
Five points from encounters with Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United. Unbeaten in six Premier League games, safe from the drop, eyeing a top-half finish, the Premier League 2 second-tier title wrapped up by the Under-23s. It’s all good stuff.
Even if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men had taken three points from Sunday’s meeting, the light at the end of the tunnel for the Whites would have still shined brightly.
When Whites supporters return to Elland Road next season, their club will be embarking on phase two of the grand plan to restore domestic and European credibility.
Thanks to Marcelo Bielsa, their side is already a credible Premier League outfit. Manchester United were certainly taking them seriously, Solskjaer preparing his men for a ‘unique’ game.
By the time referee Craig Pawson has put his whistle to his lips for the umpteenth but final time, Solskjaer was speaking of his pride at the fitness levels shown by his second-placed team, against a side he says can ‘steamroller’ their opposition as games reach their latter stages.
It wasn’t a great game, it wasn’t a patch on some of the thrillers Leeds have been involved in since promotion, yet it showed once again that the Premier League should hold no fear for this team with Bielsa at the helm.
An early chance for Marcus Rashford aside, when his poor first touch robbed him of space and time having dashed in behind to reach a Victor Lindelöf long ball and he shot tamely across Illan Meslier’s goal, Leeds settled well without creating.
Their best spell came around the 20-minute mark when Jack Harrison finally looked up and saw space before curling in a cross that was deflected away from the unmarked Helder Costa by the outstretched arm of Luke Shaw. We didn’t know what we had when we could confidently explain what was and wasn’t a penalty for handball. This wasn’t, according to Mike Dean in charge of the VAR roulette wheel.
A Dallas drive from the edge of the box went straight into the hands of Dean Henderson and the Ulsterman then squandered a chance to find Harrison on a promising break, after Lindelöf passed the ball straight to Patrick Bamford.
Leeds lacked their usual attacking threat but showed a new-found defensive assurance, Kalvin Phillips striking the perfect balance of controlled aggression, only a needless free-kick outside his area blotting the copybook all afternoon. Bruno Fernandes sent that over the top. There were others however, Leeds falling foul of Pawson and tricky attackers who needed no encouragement to hit the deck. Ayling’s slip took out Rashford to earn the right-back a yellow, Tyler Roberts slid in on international team-mate Dan James and joined Ayling in the book.
The final action of the half was a free-kick, Rashford forcing the first save from Meslier and a fine one it was too.
What transpired after the break at least more closely resembled the kind of fare these two sides should serve up when they meet, with a bit more action and a lot more intensity.
Switched to the right, Costa ran onto Dallas’ cleverly dinked pass and hammered the ball through the visitors’ area, then found himself beaten far too easily by Aaron Wan-Bissaka at the other end, the cut-back giving Fernandes a glorious chance that he sent wide. The game opening up brought opportunities at both ends, Meslier saving from Rashford, Gjanni Alioski making a vital tackle on James and Costa shooting just over the top, via a deflection.
Leeds’ frustration at the rising foul count against them started to bubble over and the sight of play going on after Costa was slammed to the ground in a challenge that forced him off with a back injury, led to a booking for Bamford for kicking the ball away. Tempers were fraying, players were sliding into tackles and snarling at one another. This was a bit more like it.
Had the ground been packed, the temperature would have been a few degrees higher and someone might have gone.
But the final stages were all about control. Manchester United had it, in possession and Leeds had it in defence.
Robin Koch came on to partner Phillips in the midfield and combat Paul Pogba, while behind them, Pascal Struijk and Diego Llorente defended brilliantly to secure a well-deserved clean sheet.
A half-chance for Mateusz Klich came and went at one end before Alioski’s huge block on a Mason Greenwood shot completed the action. There were no match minutes for exciting Under-23s duo Sam Greenwood and Crysencio Summerville, both included on a Premier League bench for the first time, but they and others continue to knock on a door Struijk has kicked down. A penny for the thoughts of Ajax academy bosses who were quite happy for him to leave for a life in Yorkshire, as he puts in performance after performance in the English top flight. You don't know what you've got...
If the present is bright, the future could be blinding.
Marcelo Bielsa, who was ‘moved’ by the efforts of his team, is content that his players have learned from their mistakes this season and continued to get better.
The head coach’s future was the topic of conversation for Andrea Radrizzani again this week and, for all the owner’s talk of contingency plans and the vision being bigger than Bielsa, he’s fully aware of what he’s got in the Argentine and will do his utmost to keep him.
After a rollercoaster 2019/20, things have been on the up, streadily climbing. The era of Radrizzani and Bielsa is yet to peak. Peak it must, as all things do but, right now, riding a wave of momentum and togetherness, the dopamine is flowing.
These are the good old days, being lived out and everyone at Leeds United knows it.