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A pedestrian island on a road outside Leeds’s stadium is adorned with an evocative sign declaring: “In Bielsa We Trust.” That belief is far from broken but, for probably the first time since Marcelo Bielsa took charge, it is coming under slight strain.
With six Premier League games completed, his fabulous to watch yet self-destructively flawed side are still yet to win this season and could have done without Michail Antonio’s 90th-minute winner for David Moyes’s impressively resilient, if slightly fortunate, West Ham.
“Leeds are difficult to play against and it was a really tough game,” said Moyes. “But we got there in the end.”
While West Ham glimpse Europe on the horizons, their West Yorkshire counterparts have a more restricted outlook. “These are two teams with different realities,” said Bielsa. “A draw wouldn’t have been unfair – but evidently all our sacrifice didn’t crystallise.”
Injuries and suspension deprived Leeds of three senior centre-halves but afforded Charlie Cresswell a league debut at the heart of a back line which swiftly found itself under siege.
Cresswell ultimately shone but he and his fellow defenders had the excellent Illan Meslier to thank for a series of important early saves, most notably from Antonio and Saïd Benrahma.
With Benrahma seizing every opportunity to highlight Jamie Shackleton’s relative inexperience at right-back, Leeds took time to get the London side’s measure.
Then, almost imperceptibly, Stuart Dallas began diminishing Tomas Soucek’s customary influence in midfield before forcing Lukasz Fabianski into a fine, flying, save.
For the first time West Ham looked a little ruffled and within minutes they came thoroughly undone when Soucek miscontrolled the ball and surrendered possession to Rodrigo, whose cut back was collected by Mateusz Klich. He cued Raphinha up for a left-footed shot which the Brazilian delighted in curling into the far corner of Fabianski’s goal before throwing Covid protocols to the wind and celebrating with home fans.
It seemed Moyes’s gameplan had flown out of the window. His side appeared unnerved by Raphinha’s every touch and looked relieved when his menacing shot struck a post.
The power balance in midfield temporarily swung well away from Declan Rice and Soucek, leaving Kalvin Phillips, Dallas and Klich dictating play while Rodrigo’s attacking movement perplexed Kurt Zouma and Angelo Ogbonna.
Rodrigo has waited patiently for Patrick Bamford to vacate Bielsa’s lone striker role and, finally, the latter’s ankle injury left the £30m Spain forward occupying his preferred position.
Indeed Rodrigo’s relocation from midfield seemed to benefit Leeds as a whole, enabling them to press more effectively than at almost any point this season.
Attack, though, is always Leeds’s default form of defence these days and much as it made for a thrilling, fast-paced contest, such persistent risk-taking ensured West Ham always retained hope of an equaliser.
Meslier was beaten following Aaron Cresswell’s free-kick early in the first half but a VAR review revealed the goalkeeper dropped the ball only because Antonio’s elbow caught him full in the face and, as medics struggled to stem the blood flow, Soucek’s ensuing strike was disallowed.
At this stage Leeds were still playing some exhilarating one- and two-touch stuff but West Ham simply bided their time and waited for fatigue to precipitate mistakes.
Admittedly luck played a part when Jarrod Bowen’s curling left-foot shot took a hefty deflection off Junior Firpo before arrowing past the wrongfooted Meslier but, after that equaliser, much of the energy seemed to drain from Bielsa’s players, particularly the fast-fading Dallas.
Leeds were increasingly susceptible to counterattacks and from one such break Rice cleverly played in Antonio. He dodged Shackleton and his shot then evaded Meslier, prompting delirious visiting celebrations and defiant chants of “marching on together” from home fans determined to demonstrate their faith in Bielsa.