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04th Aug 2019

Leeds settle nerves as the long climb to the summit begins again

Kyle Picknell

Nerves? What nerves?

You’d forgive Leeds United supporters for feeling somewhat apprehensive ahead of their first Championship fixture of the season and the last of the opening weekend in the football league before Huddersfield play Derby on Monday.

Lee Johnson’s Bristol City are a difficult proposition at Ashton Gate at the best of times, let alone with the fresh injection of optimism and hope that the new season brings, especially for a team that has flirted with the playoff places for the past two campaigns.

Despite Marcelo Bielsa’s commitment for another year, which is of mammoth importance in its own right, the mood amongst the Leeds fanbase was one of quiet despair (on Twitter, at least). There have been no new permanent signings bar the relatively unknown Carlisle winger Liam McCarron. Helder Costa and Ben White have joined on loan, but that has been counterbalanced by the sales of Pontus Jansson to Brentford and Jack Clarke to Spurs (although he will remain with Leeds for the season). The departure of last season’s top scorer Kemar Roofe appears imminent. There’s strengthening and then there’s treading water.

Whatever magic Bielsa might conjure from his players, it seemed for fans a bit of a fruitless task given the current state of their playing squad, which, on paper at least, will be inferior to the team that finished third last season.

Rather fortunate, then, that the game isn’t played on paper. Leeds looked every bit as good as their previous best during a 3-1 demolition of Bristol and dominated the game to the extent that 59% possession and 18 attempts on goal doesn’t really do it justice. City had brief spells at the close of each half where they looked dangerous, mostly thanks to the erratic goalkeeping of Kiko Casilla, but this was all Leeds. All Bielsa.

Pablo Hernandez, now 34, is still one of the best players in the division and proved as much when he opened the scoring with a rasping left-foot drive into the top corner from the edge of the area. Patrick Bamford, so often with the body language of a mistreated dog at a care home, which, in fairness, probably has something to do with him playing for nine different football clubs despite being only 25, looked increasingly confident throughout. He added a second ten minutes after the break, getting ahead of the Bristol defence with a well-taken near-post header following more good work by Hernandez.

Post-match, the Sky Sports reporter asked Bielsa to comment on the performances of ‘Pablo and Patrick’, which sounds like the title of a bad West End play. What followed sums up the attitude of the eccentric Argentine, as he chose to list Kalvin (Phillips), White and ‘the rest of the team’ as fellow standout performers.

In truth it was the new addition Ben White that shone brightest. The defender, on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion, looked superb on his Championship debut. Calm and tidy in all his defensive work and expansive on the ball, he regularly played switches of play to the opposite wing. He looks more than capable of filling the considerable Pontus Jansson-sized hole at the heart of the United rearguard for this season at least.

Leeds put the game to bed with a sumptuous counter-attacking move calmly finished off by Jack Harrison before Andreas Weimann added a consolation for the hosts to make the last ten minutes of regular time, and five minutes of stoppage, mildly nervy, if not entirely squeaky bum. Bielsa, true to form, could be seen going crazy at 19-year-old substitute Leif Davis about something as the 92nd minute ticked over, with the three points all but safe.

It says a lot about the character of the team, returning to this level of performance at the first time of asking after the substantial mental and emotional dismantling of last season. They threw away a comfortable lead at the top of the table at New Year and were knocked out of the playoff semi-finals against Derby County in heartbreaking fashion. They had Frank Lampard sing their own song at them. That’s enough to finish anybody off for good.

But it appears that Leeds, with Bielsa’s idiosyncratic managerial approach, and whatever memories of the disaster of last year remain, are still more than capable of taking this league by the scruff of the neck.

Whether they let it go or not? Well, that’s up to them.