Leeds Proved They Are Made of Stern Stuff - But Must Now Find Winning Formula

Nischal Schwager-Patel
Leeds United celebrate their goal at Anfield.
Leeds United celebrate their goal at Anfield. / Pool/Getty Images

After 16 years of pain, anguish and hardship, Leeds United are finally back in the Premier League.

It is no surprise that it was in 2020, the most unpredictable year of the century, that the Whites returned to the top flight - and based on their opening day performance, they are not looking to leave any time soon.

A trip to Anfield to face champions Liverpool was the toughest possible return, but the best possible test of Marcelo Bielsa’s renowned footballing philosophy. Leeds were back where they belonged, and they had a serious point to prove on Merseyside.

That point was quickly dampened.

Leeds conceded a penalty after three minutes, when debutant Robin Koch handled in the box, allowing Mohamed Salah to blast home the first of his three goals.

Leeds United after conceding an early penalty.
Leeds United after conceding an early penalty. / Pool/Getty Images

It was a soft first goal to concede, but Leeds looked more motivated to show what they were capable of because of it. Kalvin Phillips and Jack Harrison combined excellently to strike back, a constant theme of the visitors’ fluid attack. They were sharp going forward and gave Liverpool no time to breathe, meriting credit for scoring three fantastic goals at Anfield.

Nevertheless, they should have defended better against Virgil van Dijk’s towering header, while the late winner was another daft penalty to give away in such tense circumstances. Losing to an 88th minute penalty is bittersweet: a painful way to lose after an outstanding performance, but the right call after a rash challenge from Rodrigo.

The result may not be surprising, but the scoreline certainly was.

Leeds had to send a statement to the rest of the Premier League, and what better place to do that than at the home of the champions. The loss sends them hurtling down the table, but it is a marathon, not a sprint. The Whites can be proud of their debut performance, really putting Liverpool to the sword on their own turf.

Leeds celebrate scoring at Anfield.
Leeds celebrate scoring at Anfield. / PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Going forward, Leeds were nothing short of brilliant. Bielsa’s brand of football shone through in beautiful fashion, their first goal an example of route one football with a south American twist. Their high energy pressing forced the hosts into mistakes, maintaining their energy and winning desire right until the final whistle.

They really made Liverpool work hard for the win, themselves pushing for all three points but agonisingly missing out. It is proof that their Championship-winning style can transfer into the Premier League, and that Bielsaball is here to stay.

Last season, Championship winners Norwich City played Liverpool on the opening day of the season. But they could not cope with the eventual champions, crashing to a 4-1 defeat without a whimper. Eleven months later, they went hurtling back to the second tier, bottom of the table on a measly 21 points.

Leeds’ performance on Saturday drew similar parallels, albeit through a completely alternate narrative. They also struggled to contain Liverpool’s extravagant attack, also conceded four goals and were also beaten at Anfield. But while the Canaries did not stand a chance, Leeds showed that they meant business, flexing their own attacking prowess at the other end.

Leeds United join Norwich City on losing to Liverpool on the opening day.
Leeds United join Norwich City on losing to Liverpool on the opening day. / Pool/Getty Images

To draw level not once, not twice, but three times against Liverpool is a statement achievement, even if they head back to Yorkshire without any points. They will be a joy to watch this season, and must be considered a force to reckon with.

But the balance is not yet there.

Leeds were magnificent in attack, but their defending was calamitous. All of Liverpool’s goals, with the exception of Salah’s second - a fabulous strike into the top corner - were preventable. Both penalties were avoidable and careless fouls to concede, while Van Dijk should not have had the level of freedom he had to head home.

Leeds United look dejected having conceded the eventual winner.
Leeds United look dejected having conceded the eventual winner. / Pool/Getty Images

The Whites can be successful by playing attacking football, but if they cannot perform at the other end and stay tight at the back, it will all be for nothing. The Anfield defeat should be taken as a learning curve, and a sign to Bielsa that he must sort out his defence and find a balance between stubborn defending and fluid attacking.

This is a work in progress for Leeds and Bielsa, both needing to adapt to the challenges of the Premier League. We saw two sides of Leeds’ game on Saturday: the stunning football that wins games and silverware, and the hapless defending that can hold them back over 90 minutes.

They have work to do, though the early signs are there. It is going to be a rollercoaster season for Bielsa’s Leeds United, but if the problems can be addressed in these early stages of the season, the only way will be up.

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