Tottenham Hotspur, like West Bromwich Albion, can be characterised as a safety-first team. Some of the Whites’ critics think they do not even put safety third.
Jose Mourinho, Spurs’ charismatic manager, is all about results, and his side go into 2021 in contention to win a title that has eluded them since 1961 because he has struck a good balance between their defensive platform and scoring goals on the counter-attack, largely through the brilliant Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son.
Leeds are not title contenders – to expect them to be in their first season back in the top flight for 16 years would be wildly unrealistic – but whilst they have won three fewer points (Spurs have a game in hand), they have won more friends.
Most people would rather watch Leeds right now.
The traditions Arthur Rowe and Yorkshireman Bill Nicholson laid down at White Hart Lane, burnished by many a manager and player since, are romantic and attacking but in this season’s Premier League, Leeds are one of the standard bearers – perhaps the standard bearer – for the beautiful game.
If, little more than a week ago, they were being criticised for the laxness of their defending, two festive clean sheets later they have broken even in the goal difference stakes. They may have the second-leakiest defence in the division, but they have the fourth-best goal-scoring record.
Leeds have always been an attacking side under Marcelo Bielsa, but transferring that from the Championship to Premier League is often the hardest jump to make. Patrick Bamford was thought incapable of it, yet he is in double figures for league goals this season, something Kane has not quite yet achieved.
Adding proven goal-scorers is often the big thing newly-promoted sides look for. Fulham loaned Ademola Lookman from Leipzig this season, whilst West Brom bought Karlan Grant from Huddersfield Town.
For all the praise Bielsa has quite rightly received this season, sporting director Victor Orta has not had enough, despite his coach’s attempts to redress that.
In Rodrigo and Raphinha, Orta has sourced and signed two players who have added the extra quality that has given Leeds’ attacking play the kick it needed. The defence has been strengthened, too, but with centre-backs Robin Koch and Diego Llorente both having injury problems, the impact there has not been so great.
It is probably fitting, given the Leeds mindset under Bielsa.
“Our team gives great importance to the offensive game,” says its coach. “The club has made an important investment to improve our offensive game by incorporating Raphinha and Rodrigo and managing to keep Helder (Costa) and Jack (Harrison, two wingers on loan last season). Bamford is scoring regularly.
“The club has also invested in the defensive part, which is also needed to attack, in (Robin) Koch and (Diego) Llorente.
“We’ve been helped a lot by the chairman (Andrea Radrizzani) in the development of the team. They are important investments which allow the team to grow.
“It’s been more difficult for us to consolidate defensively and our offensive game has been less difficult to achieve.”
We thought Rodrigo had come to replace Bamford, but Bielsa’s eye for the extra things he can get out of a player means he has complemented him. Spain’s No 9 has emerged as the replacement for compatriot Pablo Hernandez, ludicrously gifted but into his autumn years. Rodrigo’s play between the lines, his vision for a pass and his three goals have made an already very difficult-to-defend against side even harder to subdue.
Brazilian Raphinha does not stick anywhere near as rigidly to his wide berth as Costa, Harrison or Ian Poveda, but Bielsa does not appear to have tried to hammer the wanderlust out of him. It looks like it would be a difficult task.
Team-mate Luke Ayling was on the 24-year-old’s case to keep his standards high in Tuesday’s second half at The Hawthorns and the right winger responded with an outstanding finish to cap off the 5-0 win.
The best coaches indulge the best players because what they get out of them are worth the extra aggravation. The flair of Eric Cantona helped push Howard Wilkinson’s side over the line in 1992, and the red mist that descended over some of Don Revie’s players was worth it for the brilliance which came more regularly.
One wonders how much leeway Rodrigo and Raphinha would get from Mourinho, but one cannot argue with his record.
“They are a very difficulty team to face,” Bielsa says of Spurs. “In every position they have solid, good players, they have options. They have strikers who can unbalance and they have a very clear style of how they want to play.
“You can clearly see the influence of the manager and they’re very competitive.
“Tottenham have developed a way of playing that is very consolidated, very firm and in all the lines they have players who can hurt you, whether in defence or attack.
“One of the most positive things abut our next opponent is that the system and the way they play corresponds to the players they have. For us every game is a new challenge.”
There is more than one way to play football. Leeds’s is more fun.