5 Talking Points from Leeds United’s 3-1 victory over Bristol City in the season-opener
Leeds United’s pursuit of promotion to the Premier League might have ended in disappointment last season but those demons hardly played a part when Marcelo Bielsa’s side made a thumping start to the 2019-20 campaign of the Championship with a resounding 3-1 victory over Bristol City at Ashton Gate on Sunday.
Many would have expected the Yorkshire giants to be in a hangover of the agony of blowing away a golden chance to make it to the Premier League last season but the Whites answered their critics in the best possible manner over the course of the 90 minutes in their 2019-20 Championship season-opener at Ashton Gate.
Indeed, in a dominant display that reflected the team’s tough character and strong mentality, Leeds sent out a strong message to the other promotion-chasing teams that they are ready to battle it out for the Championship’s ultimate prize – promotion to the Premier League.
Bielsa’s side caught the game by the scruff of the neck right from the very start as the Whites controlled possession with authority, never really allowing the Robins to get into their rhythm. They even managed to carve out some impressive chances of their own.
Pablo Hernandez’s wonder goal midway through the first-half followed by goals from Patrick Bamford and Jack Harrison in the second half was enough to seal all three points for the West Yorkshire giants, as Andreas Weimann’s deflected near-post strike eleven minutes from time proved to be just a mere consolation.
On a matchday where all the newly-relegated teams from the Premier League – Fulham, Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town, suffered shock defeats, the fans at Elland Road have every reason to be happy with the fact that Leeds managed to overcome the jitters in their opening fixture.
Looking back at how things went for the Whites over the course of the ninety minutes at Ashton Gate, Marcelo Bielsa should have plenty of positives to take from his team’s victory and he is supposed to be the happiest of the lot given that all his hard work in stitching the team together during the pre-season seemed to have paid rich dividends.
With that in mind, let us analyse Leeds’ performance in detail and jot down a few talking points from their 3-1 victory over Bristol City.
1. Old is Gold – Pablo Hernandez is simply the best
Cometh the hour, cometh the man – it was none other than the 34-year-old Pablo Hernandez, who lit up the scenes at Ashton Gate with some eye-catching moments of individual brilliance to play a starring role in what was an excellent team performance.
The fans would probably have feared that this season would be the beginning of Hernandez’s decline given his advancing years, but the Spaniard once again reminded everybody of the old cliche, ‘age is nothing but just a number’.
Hernandez’s excellent close control and skilful turn to shift the ball on to his stronger foot, followed by an incredible curling strike into the top corner of David Bentley’s goal opened the scoring for the Whites in the first half, leaving many to wonder as to how the 34-year-old continues to produce such mesmerizing moments even at this age.
That, however, was just the beginning, as Hernandez continued to create problems for the Robins’ backline with his pace, guile, skills and subtle movement. He was once again in the thick of things in the second half, with the Spaniard setting up the second goal on a platter for Patrick Bamford.
Indeed, the season-opener was a reminder that Hernandez will need to play a key role once again this season if Leeds are to get over the promotion line.
2. Ben White’s impressive debut
Debates on how Leeds United would cope with the absence of Pontus Jansson at the heart of the defence have been raging in the media ever since the Swedish international switched to Brentford earlier in the summer.
Well, those talks are expected to cool down now given that debutant Ben White showed in the 3-1 victory that he is certainly capable of filling in Jansson’s shoes at the back despite his obvious lack of experience.
The critics might still argue that it is just the start of the season but the 21-year-old Brighton loanee did put up a strong performance in his first game for the Whites.
Deployed at the heart of the backline alongside the experienced Liam Cooper, White showed plenty of composure on the ball and in all honesty, his passing was comparable to a central midfielder.
The youngster registered a total of 65 passes at an accuracy rate of 84.5%, including 6 successful long balls, 3 aerial duels, 1 tackle, 1 interception and 3 clearances, figures which are a testament to his fine start at Elland Road.
3. A confidence booster for Patrick Bamford
If there was anybody in Leeds’ ranks who needed a goal to regain confidence, it had to be Patrick Bamford.
The former Middlesbrough man had netted only 9 goals in the Championship last season and never managed to nail down a regular starting role due to recurrent injuries, but with previous season’s top-scorer Kemar Roofe departing the club, Leeds desperately needed Bamford to deliver the goods this term.
And the elegant playmaking forward produced a fine performance up top in the 3-1 victory to begin his campaign on a positive note. His passing was slick, movement subtle, and he grabbed his scoring opportunity with both hands when Hernandez set it up for him with a fine piece of skill in the second half.
The fans will be hoping that this performance wasn’t a mere flash in the pan, and Bamford certainly needs to build on this start and make a habit of finding the net every week.
4. Bielsa’s persistence with his midfield trio
Bielsa, apparently, wasn’t too keen to experiment heavily with his team dynamics in the season-opener and the Argentine went into the game with his preferred 4-1-4-1 system.
While the likes of Bamford, Hernandez and Harrison stole the show with their goals, central midfielders Mateusz Klich, Adam Forshaw and Kalvin Phillips were also equal to the task and made a key contribution in the victory.
Despite a few moments of sloppiness, Phillips was an influential, robust and an authoritative presence in his deep role in the midfield as a shield for the rearguard.
The 23-year-old not only won possession back, but also retained the ball at his feet to set the tempo of the game and stamped his authority in the air. He also unleashed some wonderful long passes to turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye.
Klich and Forshaw, who operated in a more advanced role, also contributed equally to both the defence and the attack, also linking up very well with each other to carve out a few chances. In fact, it was Klich’s shot that led to Harrison’s goal in the second half.
5. A few question marks
While Leeds definitely have plenty of positives to take from a few individual performances and good team performance in their season-opener at Ashton Gate, Bielsa would probably have noted down that a few players at the back need to pull up their socks. And goalkeeper Kiko Casilla is certainly one of them.
It would be unfair to say that the Spaniard was outrightly poor on Sunday but he never really looked in complete control of the proceedings inside his penalty area, with his improper decision making threatening to put the team in trouble on a number of occasions.
Casilla made some good interventions but he sometimes came out of his zone and got nowhere close to the ball, signs which probably won’t go down too well with the manager. He was beaten at the near post for the goal he conceded, which isn’t a pleasant sight for any goalkeeper, although there was a slight deflection.
With Bailey Peacock-Farrell now out of the frame, Leeds will need the former Real Madrid star to raise his game and prove his worth between the sticks.
Casilla wasn’t the only one who showed some signs of early-season rustiness, as full-backs Stuart Dallas and Barry Douglas looked shaky on a number of occasions.
If their performance on Sunday was anything to go by, Bielsa would probably want the likes of Luke Ayling Ayling and Ezgjan Alioski to be available as soon as possible.