By the lofty standards of a period when Premier League surfaces are a million miles away from the mudheaps of the ground’s golden era, Leeds’s has been a bit of an embarrassment.
Post-Christmas it turned into a bit of a pudding and the Whites decided they could not wait until the summer to rip it out as they had planned to until Covid-19 ruined the 2020’s closed season.
It matters because the observation defeated Millwall manager Gary Rowett was making around the time the decisive moments in this game were playing out about Barnsley’s direct football taking the pitch out of the equation is the exact opposite of the passing patterns preached by Marcelo Bielsa, the high priest of the beautiful game.
A new £300,000 stop-gap pitch was bought from Tottenham Hotspur and hastily installed. Too hastily, it seems. Players are sliding around like they are on the next-door ice rink.
They are stuck with it now. With six home games remaining there seems little point replacing a pitch put down without time for it to properly settle in with another one that would have to go in under the same circumstances.
That said, Leeds’s are not the only set of players having to get to grips with it, and it is hard to pin a home injury on it, which is just as well because the thinness of their squad is being tested.
When Rodrigo’s legs “separated too far on the grass” as Bielsa likes to explain it, straining his groin and leaving Tyler Roberts to shoulder an attacking burden he was not up to against Villa with Pablo Hernandez having seemingly lost his coach’s confidence, the Spaniard was at Leicester City, not in Leeds.
The hand of fate could be detected against Villa, forwards from both sides slipping on the confidence-undermining surface but only one benefitting from it. That the player who came up trumps was a former Bielsa acolyte, ex-Lille winger Anwar El Ghazi, the prominent figure of the only part of the game when goals felt likely, was ironic.
It was El Ghazi who was sent off for striking Patrick Bamford in the acrimonious fallout to the last controversial game between these sides at Elland Road, when Leeds scored a goal distasteful enough to the honourable Bielsa that he ordered his side to down tools whilst Villa were allowed a freebie equaliser.
El Ghazi was sent off but Albert Adomah’s gifted goal meant his side won his time off the field 1-0. Both clubs made the Championship play-offs but Villa won them. El Ghazi’s red card was rescinded, Bamford banned for falling to the ground clutching his face under what was shown to be no contact.
This time the result was much more clear-cut: Bamford 0, El Ghazi 1.
The game was only seconds old when the Leeds man took a shot and his slip almost turned it into a pass for Raphinha, agonisingly short of a tap-in. In the sixth minute a corner found its way to Ollie Watkins, who more or less copied Bamford, except for picking out EL Ghazi, played onside by Liam Cooper. The Dutchman scored.
If the upshot of those early chances was fortunate, the result was far from inevitable.
When Leeds finally found their feet in the contest, they could partly thank their luck, partly goalkeeper Illan Meslier, that El Ghazi failed to find the net again from some presentable chances.
Leeds had plenty of time and possession to take misfortune out of the equation but lacked the inspiration to do so.
Let us not forget, this is a first-season Premier League side and squad. To be challenging for a top-half finish is some achievement, to expect consistency in a season when only Manchester City have managed it is unrealistic. More depth and more experience will be needed to get there.
A continuation of Tuesday’s second-half of verve and adventure against Southampton would have been wonderful, but Roberts looked the callow understudy he is, Pascal Struijk is no Kalvin Phillips, Helder Costa failed to justify his selection ahead of the out-of-form Jack Harrison, and Villa’s excellent defenders were able to subdue Raphinha and Bamford – second time lucky in the case of the latter.
“All the crosses and passes from out wide were imprecise,” said Bielsa. “In the set pieces, which we had plenty of, we also didn’t manage to unbalance.”
Emiliano Martinez is a fine goalkeeper, an excellent signing by Villa, but only Roberts – ironically at the time when Villa and El Ghazi were dominant – really allowed him to show it.
A rusty Hernandez touch stopped him making anything of a Raphinha cross and the best chance of the game was put on the winger’s head by a centre from substitute Harrison. Raphinha nodded it into the turf and it bounced up, over and wide in the 89th minute.
This was Leeds-lite and they are not yet good enough to take points on off-days. Their own failings counted for more than luck did.
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