Worry as Marcelo Bielsa's yet-to-warm-up Leeds United wilt under Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool's glare - Graham Smyth's Verdict

Elland Road was filling up, the warm-ups were well under way and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp assumed his traditional position just shy of halfway in order to stare at the Leeds United players.

Monday, 13th September 2021, 4:45 am
INFERIOR PLAN - Marcelo Bielsa took the blame for Leeds United's defeat by Liverpool, saying his plan was inferior to Jurgen Klopp's at Elland Road. Pic: Tony Johnson

The German’s habit of watching the opposition team prepare has been highlighted on numerous occasions and he’s referenced it himself, revealing in 2020 film The End of the Storm, which chronicled Liverpool’s title-winning season, that the professionalism of Tottenham’s warm-up ahead of his first game in charge helped educate him on the size of his task at Liverpool.

Many of his counterparts, Marcelo Bielsa included, simply don’t emerge from the belly of stadiums to take any part in the warm-up, so Klopp’s routine draws attention and begs an obvious question - what is he looking for? Signs of weakness, perhaps, sluggishness or tell-tale signs of nerves in a player’s body language, anything that can be used to give his side an advantage.

Just before 3pm with the stadium full and the atmosphere fitting for a big game against a big club, Klopp emerged from the tunnel a second time and took off his cap to embrace Bielsa on the touchline.

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What the Leeds United boss was looking for, against a Premier League title hopeful, was something special.

Last season he admitted that even just to compete as equals with the top sides, Leeds had to produce an incredible physical effort. And the rest, of course, if they wanted to stand any chance of winning.

Worryingly, in the three Premier League outings that preceded the international break, Leeds were some way off the standards they set last season en route to a top-half finish so, to beat Liverpool, it would require a dramatic return to 2020/21 form.

The initial signs were promising enough, Diego Llorente showing that he had come to play with some aggressive defending to win the ball, holding off a pair of red shirts and then turning smartly out of trouble.

And when Kalvin Phillips sent a raking ball over the top of Andy Robertson into the path of Raphinha, the Brazilian was able to dance his way into the area and pick out Rodrigo. Elland Road held its breath, the Spaniard set himself and shot straight at Alisson. That golden chance soon took on the feel of a distant memory as a short period of basketball-style action gave way to Liverpool dominance.

Several half chances came and went, Sadio Mane had tricked Liam Cooper into a clumsy foul and a yellow card with the speed of his movement and Diogo Jota had forced Illan Meslier into a save with an eye-catching volley.

As Klopp discovered exactly a year prior to this meeting, keeping Leeds quiet is a difficult task even for the elite and some lovely skill took Jack Harrison past Trent Alexander-Arnold to set up Junior Firpo for a shot that was blocked.

But Leeds were being served reminders too, of a lesson they too learned on the opening day of last season - the elite are so called for good reason. Liverpool’s pace, skill and intelligence up front makes defensive perfection a necessity and the hosts were falling some way short.

It was never more evident than for the opening goal. A patient build-up, aided by Rodrigo allowing Joel Matip to run into an area where he could hurt Leeds, gave way to an injection of urgency, sharp passes working Alexander-Arnold into all the space he needed to cut the ball across goal for Salah to prod in the opener.

It was his 100th Premier League goal in 162 appearances, a record that lays bare just how little help he needs from defences. Leeds, however, were creaking under real Reds pressure, the left flank in particular looking fragile as Jack Harrison was forced into frantic defensive action to try and bail out Junior Firpo.

When Llorente went into the book, but much more alarmingly back into the treatment room having picked up yet another injury, it was even more obvious that it really was going to take something special to rescue a result.

Pascal Struijk took Llorente’s place just before Harvey Elliott shot wide from distance. Those two would later be involved in the game’s major talking point, but the game was already slipping away from Leeds.

Only Phillips, who was showcasing the kind of forward-thinking passing his England critics seem to think is beyond him, was coming out with any credit. He scooped a pass over the top for Rodrigo to cross, Luke Ayling kneeing over at the back post.

Rodrigo was hooked at the interval, again, having struggled once more to remain on the same page as his team-mates or give Leeds anything like control in the middle of the pitch, Tyler Roberts coming on.

If Bielsa was looking for an immediate reaction to his half-time team talk, it did not arrive. Instead Struijk was forced into a goal-saving tackle to deny Salah goal number 101 and then, from the resulting corner, van Dijk escaped Cooper and Fabinho lashed home at the second attempt.

The Whites did muster a half-chance for a Roberts header that was easily saved and then a much better opportunity that he shot wide, before Struijk was sent off and it was no longer a case of requiring something special but needing a miracle.

His challenge on Elliott allowed him to come away with the ball but, as Klopp and his staff leapt in the air in horror and concern, it became apparent the 18-year-old was badly hurt, his ankle grotesquely twisted. Although referee Craig Pawson had not blown for a foul before the physios were on and play was halted, he produced his red card and both players left the pitch, one on a stretcher, the other down the tunnel.

Leeds soldiered on bravely, attempting to attack and managing to find space - Raphinha haring off on the counter attack and crossing for Patrick Bamford who was denied by Alisson - but that chance came on the back of a desperate last-ditch block by Luke Ayling on Mane. Liverpool looked dangerous every time they attacked and Cooper produced a similar block to Ayling’s as Mane threatened to add a third.

Bamford saw an audacious effort from just outside the centre circle tipped over the bar but, with the game stretched and Leeds tiring, a third goal for the visitors was all but inevitable, Mane finally and deservedly getting on the scoresheet. The debut, off the bench, of £25m deadline day signing Daniel James was but a footnote.

In truth, 3-0 was more flattering to Leeds than to Liverpool. Had the away side been a little more clinical in the penalty area, it would have been much uglier. Bielsa later took the blame for what he said was an inferior or less effective game plan than the one Klopp put together, Leeds failing to turn attacks into chances and then failing to prevent Liverpool from attacking almost at will. There were times when it appeared as if Phillips was a one-man band trying to play several songs all at once. There were times when Leeds were completely discordant, giving the ball away so carelessly. And Bielsa, once again, could not get a tune out of Rodrigo.

Perspective is needed, given the quality of the opposition. Leeds wilted under the glare of Klopp's truly talented team and a front line who are a dream to watch and a nightmare to try and stop. But a response to this game is also needed. With four games gone Leeds are still looking for their first win. At some point soon they need to produce something that much more closely resembles the performances that made last season so special. The worry is that they haven’t begun to warm up yet.