Had Bristol City’s Nahki Wells found the side of the net from the inside, rather than the outside with nine minutes remaining on Saturday, it could have been the same old story for Leeds United. But it was not.
At this time of year, the result is all that matters, and the Whites not only got the win, but a first clean sheet in 13 matches. It was back to the days before Cardiff City, of “only” winning 1-0, rather than not winning at all.
With the victory banked, with all other results going their way to put a gap between Leeds and the play-offs once more – three points – fans could revel in their outstanding football.
The 1-0 scoreline grossly flattered an unambitious Bristol City, and would have done even if two shots had gone in rather than out off the crossbar, and if Daniel Bentley had not made an astonishing fingertip save to deny Helder Costa what looked a certain goal. The numbers – 69 per cent possession, 21 shots to three, all 12 of the game’s corners – told the one-sided story.
It was one win, and in the Championship you should never read too much into a single result, but it felt significant, especially with other results playing into Leeds’ hands.
The role of the Elland Road supporters in the victory should not be under-estimated. It was the sort of cold, windy, wet day that appeals to true fans, the sort of day when you show your commitment, rather than just paying your way in. With their team wobbling, criticism mounting and their coach developing a bunker mentality, they knew the job they had to do.
How many of the 35,000 wanted Kiko Casilla’s name on the team-sheet is hard to know. There certainly does not seem to have been many supporters – or many others beyond coach Marcelo Bielsa, for that matter – leaping to the goalkeeper’s defence, but as he ran to his goal to start the game, the Don Revie Stand sang his name enthusiastically. Patrick Bamford, whose place is seemingly only ever not under question when he is scoring, soon got the same treatment. Leeds responded in kind.
“We were bang at it from the start,” said Cooper, proudly.
“The performance in general and individually was positive,” commented Bielsa. “The team controlled the match, defended very well and attacked very well. We ran a lot, we won a lot of 50-50 balls, every player won back a lot of balls and we didn’t lose important balls. We imposed ourselves in the one-v-ones, the dribbles, the passes in behind, and showed character.”
With a number of players under the weather, Bristol City’s strategy seemed to be a survival plan, not concerned with pressing, just happy to sit off, pack the penalty area and keep the Whites at bay. They managed all but the last bit.
The game was just a minute-and-a-half old when Jay Dasilva was throwing himself in front of Costa. That gave the fans encouragement and they returned it with interest. A forceful Cooper tackle on the ineffective Andreas Weimann topped the enthusiasm after 12 minutes.
Leeds were playing as they do at their best, with crisp passing and plenty of width. They moved Kalvin Phillips into the back three to provide extra insurance against Bristol City’s 4-4-2.
That only added to the freedom of former Robin Luke Ayling who, along with Costa, was the first half’s key figure, bursting with energy down the right. He made his mark in the 17th minute putting in his third shot of a frantic passage of attacking in the Robins’ penalty area – Stuart Dallas had a crack, too.
Two minutes later, Costa forced a save, and Dallas’s follow-up deflected onto the crossbar. When Bamford hammered the loose ball into the roof of the net, the offside flag was up. Bentley’s next save from Costa, low down, was even better.
How the visitors made it to the 34th-minute mark only 1-0 down is anyone’s guess. But manager Lee Johnson took advantage of Weimann lying injured on the turf to call what was effectively a time out and make a substitution, changing to three at the back.
You wondered if it would be a turning point, particularly as City ended the half with their first effort at goal, if you could call Jamie Paterson’s glancing header that.
But Leeds came out for the second half even more rampant. If Johnson was livid referee Tim Robinson thought Niclas Eliasson’s shot hit Ayling’s rib cage, not his arm, in the penalty area after 49 minutes – and he was, calling it “an unbelievably bad decision” when he had calmed down – his team could not channel it into anything meaningful.
There then followed either a brilliant or deeply frustrating display from Leeds, depending on whether you are glass half-full or half-empty.
Jack Harrison led the way, but smashed a shot against the crossbar. Bentley made brilliant saves from Bamford and Costa but had either been the Premier League-calibre forward they aspire to be, he would not have had the chance.
There were brilliant passes, great touches, good dribbles, dangerous crosses, but never all together with a finish at the end.
Fortunately for Leeds, Wells could not finish either, wasting Bristol City’s only good chance of the second half when played clean through.
Had it been one of those days for Leeds, he would have scored and snatched a robbery of a point. For once, though, it was not one of those days.