Learning curve continues for Leeds United at Turf Moor

The pieces are coming together for Leeds United.

Goal: Rodrigo is congratualted after scoring the third. Picture: Simon Hulme

Two years ago to the day coming up just short in a pulsating Championship play-off semi-final against Derby County they dismantled a famously resilient Burnley on their own patch in the Premier League.

The second half of Marcelo Bielsa’s first Elland Road season fell away alarmingly, reviving mutterings about ‘Bielsa burnout’. Whether they learnt from it or simply adjusted to the Argentinian’s intense training methods, it has not happened again.

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The following season Leeds won the Championship, sprinting to the line with more or less the same squad, one year older, one year wiser, one year fitter.

In at the double: Rodrigo celebrates after scoring the fourth goal. Picture: Simon Hulme

The first half of 2020-21 was exhilarating, consecutive 4-3s to kick off, a draw against Manchester City and a 6-2 defeat at Old Trafford showing the good and bad of football which reinvigorated the Premier League.

As the campaign has progressed, a tougher defensive edge has been added. The backs-to-the-wall win at Eastlands was the peak but clean sheets against Manchester United and Chelsea showed it was no fluke. At the other end, though, a bit of punch had been lost.

In their last two matches, the Whites have scored seven goals, conceding one. For the vast majority of the game at Burnley they were the better side but still needed to defend well at times, and for their goalkeeper to pull off two good saves.

Bielsa warned in the build-up “vanity” could threaten the gains, but this has been a season – three years, even – to suggest Leeds will not follow the Premier League’s breath of fresh air last season and “do a Sheffield United” next.

On the attack: Raphinha is challenged by Charlie Taylor. Picture: Simon Hulme

They were only 1-0 up when Burnley came out strongly for the second half and Matej Vydra outmuscled Pascal Struijk to hit a shot which would have crept inside Illan Meslier’s far post had he not stuck out a left boot.

Jack Harrison having added a second, the game felt won when Jay Rodriguez played a clever ball to Johann Gudmundsson but the clean sheet was not without another terrific Meslier stop.

Just 21-years-old and not even Leeds’s first choice until Kiko Casilla’s suspension opened the door right at the end of February, 2020, Meslier has been learning more than most, but he is not the only one on a fast-track course.

Saturday’s team-sheet was the first with 21-year-old Struijk named ahead of captain Liam Cooper and apart from that moment with Vydra he fully justified it, in keeping with his season.

On target: Mateusz Klich bends the ball around Ben Mee and past Bailey Peacock-Farrell of Burnley. Picture: Sportimage

Alongside him in a back three were Diego Llorente, new to English football and not fit enough to play a full game until late February, and Luke Ayling, another Premier League first-timer.

Not that the defending began and ended with those four, but it underlines Leeds’ development.

“Particularly in the first half we had a great defensive performance,” reflected Bielsa.

“The resolve of the central part of the back three (Llorente) was very important, and also the contribution of our goalkeeper.”

Wide: Matej Vydra has his shot diverted past the post be the boot of Illan Meslier. Picture: Sportimage

Defending is hugely important but having seen what Leeds could do in the first part of the season we want to be entertained and the visitors more than fulfilled that part of the bargain, too.

A low save from Patrick Bamford apart, Bailey Peacock-Farrell did not have enough to do in the first half but Leeds turned up the heat until Raphinha found Mateusz Klich on the halfway line in the 44th minute.

The lack of pressure on the Pole was negligent but he used it brilliantly, carrying the ball close enough to curl a shot which gave the goalkeeper no chance.

“He’s at a similar level to his best level,” said Bielsa of a player whose form dipped in the winter. “It gives me great happiness that he’s playing as he’s capable of.”

Leeds took advantage of Meslier’s save on the hour when a corner was cleared only to Ezgjan Alioski. His shot was nowhere near as bad as the one which went out for a first-half throw-in but still needed Harrison to divert it in.

“A bit lucky,” was how the winger, unsure if he was offside, described it. A bit clever was perhaps more appropriate.

Then substitute Rodrigo stamped his class on matters with fitting finales to two great passing moves in as many minutes.

From the first, he took Harrison’s threaded ball with a touch that squeezed him between Burnley’s centre-backs, then dinked it in. Kalvin Phillips spread the play elegantly to Harrison for the next, and his pass was taken around Peacock-Farrell to create a much simpler finish.

Like Klich, Spaniard Rodrigo is hitting his straps shortly before a European Championships is about to finally kick off.

“Against Tottenham and at Burnley I think we saw a version of Rodrigo close to what he’s capable of,” said Bielsa and considering what he is capable of, that is quite a compliment.

Despite the misleading statistics, 4-0 was a fair scoreline.

It was not the perfect day for Leeds – that may never come.

The match was interrupted midway through the second half for referee Graham Scott to speak to both managers, then both captains and Alioski about an incident when Dwight McNeil fouled the latter.

We were told a Burnley player reported an incident to the referee, but nothing else.

Alioski’s face-pulling reaction to McNeil was playground at best, but what if anything else happened and the seriousness of it will be for those able to gather more evidence to decide.

To not get dragged into such matters is a lesson for Alioski, but if there is one thing this Leeds team are, it is good learners.