TOPPING the Championship in the first half of the season is not an unusual situation at Leeds United under chairman Andrea Radrizzani.
But not like this. Not in December and not under a head coach with the reputation of Marcelo Bielsa.
This, says striker Patrick Bamford, feels different, with the forward firing the Whites to the top of the division with a scrappy win at Bolton Wanderers – a game Bamford and company felt the Whites would have crumbled to draw last year.
Leeds topped the Championship after seven games under former head coach Thomas Christiansen last term, but a run of seven defeats in nine sent the Whites spinning down the table with Christiansen ultimately losing his job to be replaced by Paul Heckingbottom, whose men finished 13th.
Chairman Radrizzani then lured former Argentina and Chile manager Bielsa as United’s new head coach making the 63-year-old the highest paid manager in the club’s history.
Another notable piece of business saw striker Bamford become the club’s most expensive signing since Robbie Fowler joined the Whites in 2001 as Bamford was added to the Radrizzani revolution at a price of £7m from Middlesbrough.
On an abysmal afternoon weather-wise in Bolton, the influences of Bielsa and Bamford proved key as the striker returned from a three-and-a-half month lay-off with a knee injury as a 61st-minute substitute to score the winning goal just five minutes after his introduction.
The success sent United top – leapfrogging Norwich City who drew 2-2 at Bristol City – and Bamford says the 2018-19 Leeds squad is a different breed to the one that shrunk away last term.
United had to withstand a late barrage of pressure to record their latest victory and Bamford said: “That showed the unity of the team. Forsh (Adam Forshaw) came to me after the game and said, ‘Last year we’d have probably ended up drawing that game. We wouldn’t have hung on.’’
“That says a lot about how much we’ve grown and how much the coaches have had an influence on us.
“The belief amongst us has changed because it’s basically the same core group of players that were playing for Leeds last year, but the difference is massive.
“I didn’t watch Leeds much last year, but as you were playing against them you can see from then to now how much we’ve grown.”
Saturday’s clash also marked United’s first game without Spanish trickster Samuel Saiz, who is poised to join La Liga side Getafe after revealing he was seeking a move back to Spain for the benefit of himself and his young family.
Saiz missed a game played in temperatures of zero degrees centigrade, but with driving rain and a swirling wind making the RealFeel minus 12.
Leeds squandered the only two chances of a dull first half, first as a third-minute Pablo Hernandez header was tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Ben Alnwick.
Alnwick also saved from Mateusz Klich on the half-hour mark with Kemar Roofe putting the rebound wide.
Bielsa then took off Lewis Baker – recalled to fill the void left by Saiz – with teenage winger Jack Clarke introduced and Hernandez switched to a more central role.
Leeds improved with Bamford then replacing Roofe in the 61st minute and scoring five minutes later when latching on to a fine through ball from Hernandez to beat Alnwick with a first-time shot.
Bielsa’s men then had to dig in and survive some desperate and direct long-ball football from Bolton, who were dismayed to see claims for an 83rd-minute penalty dismissed as Kalvin Phillips tangled with Craig Noone.
Leeds held on with the Whites now one point ahead of Norwich and six clear of the teams outside of the automatic promotion places.
Bamford said: “In the Championship if you win a few games everything turns around.
“It’s the same if you lose a few games. It can turn around quickly and that’s why we’ve got to keep our mind on it.
“We can’t get carried away and I think the coaching staff will make sure that our minds stay on the task.”
Bielsa was full of praise for Bamford.
“He can be very important (for us),” said Bielsa. “For him it is very good for his confidence. He has worked very hard to gain his full fitness – and it’s important to have two important strikers in our team.
“It is very difficult to play in an offensive position for any team and to have different possibilities. But we also have Jack Clarke, Jack Harrison, Tyler Roberts and Bamford in offensive positions.”
Bolton Wanderers: Alnwick, Taylor, Lowe, Vela, Buckley (Wildschut 72), Noone, Hobbs, Olkowski, Williams (Oztumer 80), Magennis (Doidge 75), Wheater. Unused substitutes: Matthews, Donaldson, Wilson, O’Neil.
Leeds United: Peacock-Farrell, Douglas, Shackleton, Jansson, Phillips, Baker (Clarke 45), Klich, Alioski, Hernandez (Halme 89), Forshaw, Roofe (Bamford 61). Unused substitutes: Huffer, Davis, Roberts, Harrison.
Referee: Robert Jones.