Patrick Bamford and Stuart Dallas ensure Leeds United pass tactical test
Afterwards, coach Marcelo Bielsa called the match away to one of the Premier League’s front-runners “a very, very difficult game,” but it was more like two very, very difficult games. The net result was a 3-1 win which was a reminder that whilst they might not be the most consistent, this is an excellent Leeds team at its best.
Leicester have put themselves in the title picture – some dismiss their chances, others are more cautious having fallen for that before – and Leeds needed discipline, self-belief, good goalkeeping from the sometimes-maligned Illan Meslier and a smidgeon of luck to beat them, but had them all. Those who only know the Whites by the lazy stereotypes would not have thought them capable of winning this way.
This is no “game of two halves” cliché about how one side dominated the first 45 minutes, their opponents another. It was more that the styles of both halves were in complete contrast. Leeds dealt with both.
The opening period was hugely entertaining and open, just the sort of end-to-end “basketball game” Rodgers warned his players about pre-match. Just 127 seconds separated goals for Harvey Barnes and Stuart Dallas, and a little over half an hour in, both sides had had goals chalked off for offside. Kasper Schmeichel made two good saves, Meslier one.
Unhappy with that, Rodgers closed the game up at the interval by bringing Caglar Soyuncu on as a third central defender, and his Foxes began to take control. But with Meslier in fine form, Leeds were able to dig in with discipline, and hit them on the counter-attack, Patrick Bamford, maker of the first goal, scoring one goal and unselfishly creating another for Jack Harrison.
If Bamford caught the eye, he was not Leeds’s most important player. In a match that demanded adaptability and tactical intelligence, Dallas was always going to be key.
Bielsa was talking in general terms when he said: “To be superior to our opponents we have to make them worse and manage to conserve our virtues. To try to do both things at the same time requires a massive physical effort.”
The Northern Irishman embodied it, as usual.
Dallas was chosen in midfield in preference to Mateusz Klich, and from there he provided the smooth finish to a swift and slick counter-attack but when Rodgers changed shape to 3-4-3 his job became less glamorous, man-marking James Maddison – nominally on the right of the forward line but with licence to roam.
It effectively took him out of midfield and left Ezgjan Alioksi in what looked a slightly no-man’s land position, but both stuck to their task and Dallas made Bamford’s tide-turning goal.
The cat-and-mouse contest the game had become only added layers to the starkly contrasting high-adrenaline opening 45 minutes.
It took just 13 minutes for the opening goal, former Barnsley loanee Harvey Barnes picking the ball up near the halfway line and making a diagonal run towards the right-hand side of Leeds’s penalty area, where he exchanged passes with Maddison before stroking the ball beyond Meslier.
The Whites’ response was instant, Luke Ayling intercepting Maddison’s attempted pass to Barnes and passing straight into Bamford, running into the corridor of uncertainty Leeds had been looking to exploit between centre-back Jonny Evans and left-back James Justin. Bamford’s pass to Dallas was excellent, and the finish much like the goal it cancelled out.
Ayoze Perez thought he had restored the lead only five minutes later, only for Sian Massey-Ellis to raise her flag. Leeds would soon suffer similar frustration.
Klich was introduced early when Rodrgio succumbed to what looked like a groin strain and joined in with the plan of getting the ball forward quickly with an excellent long pass for Harrison to volley. Schmeichel made a good save and when he kept Bamford’s header out from the corner, Klich’s into the net came from an offside position. Raphinha was also denied by a low save.
Part of the entertainment of Bielsa’s side – for the neutrals, if not his own supporters – is they give the opposition a chance too, and Perez, leading the line in the absence of the injured Jamie Vardy, got a faint touch to a Marc Albrighton cross to force a save late in the half.
If Leeds edged it, Leicester dominated the second period as a result of Rodgers’s tactical tweak.
Liam Cooper made a brilliant block from James Justin, Ricardo Periera’s shot did not match the turn which created it, and Meslier saved from Youri Tielemans, in too much space for Leeds comfort.
Then, in the 71st minute, Raphinha found Bamford, played onside by Evans, and the finish was magnificent.
“It was a beautiful goal,” said the normally reserved Bielsa. “You can shoot hard or shoot to that spot – what is difficult is to do both.”
Rodgers too praised the strike, though of course saw the defensive frailties that made it possible.
It was far from game over, though.
Leicester came again, Evans poking wide from a corner headed to him about a yard out by Soyuncu, and Meslier saving from Perez and Nampalys Medny.
But then Dallas got a toe to a wonderful pass to release Bamford, who drew Schmeichel and unselfishly squared for Harrison.
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