20/12/2020, in writing, looks like one of those dates where something catastrophic is written in fate: a meteor strike destroying the human race or a monstrous natural disaster wiping out an entire continent.
As with most ‘D-Day’ predictions, nothing of the sort happened. It was, however, a calamitous day to be a Leeds United fan. Still giddy from the euphoria of promotion and on the back of one of the best performances of the season in a 5-2 win against Newcastle United, Leeds made their trip across the Pennines to Old Trafford to re-ignite their age-old rivalry with Manchester United. Hopes were high...
For exactly two minutes. Scott McTominay fired in from 20-yards before bursting through a chaotic Leeds defence a minute later to make it 2-0. The Reds then preceded to rip Leeds to shreds like a Rottweiler with a cheap pillow. Bruno Fernandes dragged Kalvin Phillips across every blade of the Old Trafford turf, exposing an inexperienced and shellshocked back-line. It was 4-1 by half-time and 6-2 by full-time.
It was the first, and probably only, genuinely embarrassing defeat of the season. The defence was leaky and goals were inevitable at this point, but shipping four to Leicester felt like playing a team perfectly made to exploit Leeds’ weaknesses, and doing the same again at Crystal Palace the following week was a freak game and a freak result - Palace’s xG in that game was 0.9.
This was a lesson. It felt, for the first half at least, like Leeds were a Championship team. Dipping their toes into the piranha filled pool of Premier League football, and coming out with barely a foot to stand on. It hurt. It still hurts.
A lot has changed since then at Elland Road. Leeds have tightened up considerably at the back and have opted for a considerably more measured approach to matches - not that it could possibly have ever been more chaotic. They put five past West Brom in a rampant win but have only scored three goals on two occasions since. At the back they’ve conceded fewer than two goals in 12 of their last 16.
The regular inclusion of Diego Llorente has brought experience at the back, as well as a touch of international class, and goals conceded have been cut to just seven in eight. They haven’t conceded a goal from a set piece in over 500 minutes of football.
First round scores have been settled also. Leeds produced another contender for performance of the season with a 3-1 win at Leicester, looked leagues ahead of Crystal Palace when they met again in February and earned a hard fought but well deserved point at home to Liverpool. And we all know too well what happened at the Etihad a couple of weeks ago.
Leeds, and Bielsa, have smartened up to the big hitters - they have drawn all four home games against four of the self-titled ‘big-6’. They will not be opened up tomorrow like they were at Old Trafford.
Diego Llorente v Liverpool:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) April 19, 2021
85/91 successful passes ( most)
8 ball recoveries ( joint-most)
4 tackles won ( most)
3 blocks ( most)
3 defensive aerial duels won ( most)
2/2 successful take-ons
2 headed clearances
1 shot on-target
Epic display. pic.twitter.com/HDoYYn7VY7
So to Elland Road. Bielsa has already confirmed that two of Leeds’ big summer-signings, Rodrigo and Raphinha, are unavailable meaning that Leeds will once again be going toe-to-toe with one of the best sides in the country with just Llorente to bolster their Championship squad.
Pascal Struijk will be alongside the Spaniard, quickly becoming one of the most promising progressive centre-backs seen at Elland Road since Rio Ferdinand, and Illan Meslier behind them looks more and more accomplished every week, prompting the same bewildered reaction: “how old? 21?!”.
Phillips continues to produce effortlessly sterling performances week-in week-out, whilst Stuart Dallas has morphed once again into one of the best central midfielders in the league. Seriously, how does he do it?
In a slightly more streetwise system. Bielsa has found a compromise to his relentless man-to-man system which became exposed against top sides - particularly against Man Utd, with Fernandes dragging Phillips out of position and the likes of McTominay, Daniel James and Marcus Rashford exploiting the space left behind - and Leeds look all the better for it.
Bielsa will be more alert to any small tweaks Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might try - the inclusion of James and the freedom given to McTominay caused Leeds massive problems last time out - and the players will be desperate to keep it tight and not concede early-doors. This is a side that can manage games now, that can frustrate the top sides.
With Leeds sat comfortably in mid-table and Man Utd cemented in the Champions League places there are few league-wide implications for the result on Sunday - if Ed Woodward and the Glazers got their way this match would have no wider implications whatsoever - but there is something much more palpable at stake. Pride. Revenge.
Bamford on KP toning it down this week:— leedsunited_news (@leeds_utd_news) April 23, 2021
“He’s tried to tone it down a little bit, but the fact it’s at Elland Road makes it better. This week he hasn’t said much. He’ll probably talk more the day before, but being from Leeds it’s massive for him.”#lufc #mot #alaw ⚪️
Leeds will go into Sunday hoping to relinquish the last of their first half-season demons, and the biggest of them. They will be desperate to put to bed the nightmare of the reverse fixture and the labels of naivety and chaos.
More than anything, they would love to get one over on ‘scum’.