Even last Easter, as the Whites were preparing to belatedly clamber into the Premier League, the Blades were making good ground, claiming a top-half finish when football came out of lockdown.
Now the tortoise has hared way in front.
The scoreboard said Phil Jagielka’s own goal was all that separated the sides on Saturday, but the footballing gulf was huge. Before long, Sheffield United will be back in the second tier, and Leeds United will hope to emulate their top-half finish of last season, just not what followed.
For both, the remainder of the season is about looking forward.
“We have to think about finishing as positively as possible and think a bit bigger,” said the Blades’ interim manager Paul Heckingbottom, back in the Elland Road dugout for the first time since being sacked to make way for Marcelo Bielsa.
His words applied equally to Leeds. Now they are moving in the right direction, they will not want to stop. The quality of their football shows what an excellent foundation they have to avoid the second-season syndrome which has so brutally afflicted their neighbours. Mere survival will not do. This is an excellent team playing for a big club still not yet punching its weight.
Bielsa is a man of few words – his frequent instruction at the weekend was “Again!” as he demanded his players match his intensity – but he hit the nail on the head when he said: “It’s very difficult in the Premier League to imagine a comfortable victory, at least for us.”
For all the massive improvements since he succeeded Heckingbottom in 2018, making his team more ruthless is one he cannot yet crack.
Two years ago, his side outshot the Blades 17-10 yet lost to a solitary goal from Chris Basham. This time it was 23-9, Ben Osborn scoring from the visitors’ only shot on target.
Yet the shouts from the bench – and inevitably sporting director Victor Orta’s seat – became more frequent and anxious as the game reached its conclusion knowing the relegation-doomed visitors were one lucky break or moment of brilliance from a smash-and-grab point. Substitutes Rhian Brewster and Oli Burke put shots narrowly wide in the last five minutes of regulation time and Bielsa introduced centre-back Robin Koch for extra reassurance.
They got the job done, but it should not have come to that.
Stuart Dallas skimmed a shot against the corner of post and crossbar minutes after Jack Harrison followed his early tap-in with the cross Jagielka could only turn past Aaron Ramsdale. The Blades goalkeeper was again on good form, but as Bielsa said: “We had sufficient amount of chances to score more goals and especially we had many dangerous situations that didn’t end in shots.”
Sheffield United have not got much to cling to at the moment, not after also losing two defenders to concussion, but can at least take small comfort from going down with a fight.
“Leeds are a good side and if you let them, they can run over you. We stood up to the task and matched them in that respect,” said Heckingbottom, whose team could easily have caved in, having conceded an own goal five minutes into the second half after ending the first with the unexpected encouragement of Osborn’s goal, blocked by Luke Ayling but from well behind the line.
“The players will fight, they’re proud and you have to be that way. They didn’t get to where they are as footballers by not being tough and willing to work hard.
“Everything else – luck of the ball, something dropping for us to get that goal and that win, all those moments of quality we keep striving to get better at, that’s what we’ll work at.”
There is much to do.
“We gave them too many opportunities on the counter where we lost the ball but a lot of that’s down to Leeds and how well they win the ball back and break on the counter,” he acknowledged.
Leeds were brilliant. Harrison applauded the move which saw Tyler Roberts play Raphinha in to wriggle to the byline and lay a tap-in on a plate for him after 13 minutes.
In their many breathtaking counter-attacks, their minds as well as their football were as sharp as Bielsa’s lockdown haircut.
A 33rd-minute move demonstrated cleverness and braveness, Raphinha stepping over Patrick Bamford’s pass – Harrison created Dallas’s shot against the woodwork that way, too – and Roberts going in for a challenge he knew he would get hurt in to touch it to Harrison. Ramsdale glanced the shot wide with his right ankle.
“He’s been excellent for the last few months, he seems to have really grown into the position and taken a lot of responsibility,” said Heckingbottom of Ramsdale, showing the bad starts too many of Chris Wilder’s summer signings made are retrievable.
George Baldock should have been carded and could easily have been sent off for his lunge into Roberts but instead suffered concussion which saw him substituted, just not immediately. Jayden Bogle went straight off after Ezgjan Alioski’s forearm caught him in the face in the second half.
Had Baldock been dismissed, it could have been a real hammering, but then again perhaps not.
As they look to push on this summer, Leeds need to get meaner in front of goal. The team they have left behind would love a problem like that.
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