In a match that veered between mesmerising and utter madness, Leeds United marked their return to the Premier League with a pulsating seven-goal thriller against Liverpool.
The reigning champions secured the points in the end, with Mohamed Salah taking home the match ball in a 4-3 win, but Marcelo Bielsa laid down the gauntlet for the season: Leeds are willing to go toe-to-toe with any opposition, even Jurgen Klopp’s high-octane Reds.
The subplot was always the intriguing tactical battle between Klopp and Bielsa. Whose press-and-possess system would come out on top? Would Bielsa allow pragmatism to creep in, and tweak his own approach to stem the tide of Klopp’s world-class counterpress? Or would the quality of Liverpool’s individuals eventually shine through?
Of course, anyone who viewed Leeds’ 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Arsenal back January, in which Mikel Arteta compared playing against the Whites as going to the dentist, would have known that Bielsa’s side were never going to approach this game with an inferiority complex.
Not only did the travelling side match Liverpool in various departments across the pitch, but in certain aspects they bettered the Premier League champions. To do so against the Reds is impressive enough in any game, but in the league at Anfield is truly spectacular for a newly-promoted club.
It is only game one of course, but already it seems that certain question marks about this Leeds side have already been answered. The main one being whether they would be clinical enough in front of goal to truly challenge in the upper slopes of the top flight.
Leeds made 33 tackles against Liverpool, the most any team has made against the Reds in a single Premier League game across the past five seasons.
Leeds. Are. Back. pic.twitter.com/iTnu4ljE6p
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 12, 2020
In the Championship last season Leeds missed a staggering 88 big chances (a clear-cut scoring opportunity), and tucked home only 36. To put that into some perspective, West Brom missed the next highest number of big chances with 60 (28 less), while the likes of Bristol City, Stoke City and QPR all outperformed Leeds for big chances taken.
That they scored three against a Liverpool side who only conceded 33 goals last term, and just 16 at Anfield, is almost diametrically at odds with those goalscoring metrics from their 2019/20 campaign. Couple that with Patrick Bamford — who was on a four-game scoring drought prior to Anfield — getting off the mark early doors, and this Leeds side will be full of confidence going forward.
- Everton: 3/10
- Southampton: 6/4
- Leeds: 13/8
- Burnley: 5/2
- Sheff Utd: 3/1
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Many felt Bamford, who netted only 16 goals in 45 Champions games last season, could struggle to find form in the top flight. But, he created opportunities for himself, and most importantly, opened his account at the first time of asking.
But, arguably the biggest power grab from Leeds, and a sign of the truly unique yet effective philosophy of Bielsa was the possession statistics. Leeds finished the match at Anfield with a higher share of the possession (51.2 per cent to 48.8 per cent). Against the calibre of opposition, that is no mean feat.
The outcome may have been different, of course, if Bielsa had his tried-and-tested defence. Just before the match, club captain Liam Cooper picked up a reported thigh injury, meaning Pascal Struijk — who had just two starts for Leeds prior to Liverpool — was drafted in last-minute.
He formed a centre-back partnership with summer signing Robin Koch, making up a completely unrecognisable backline for Leeds. Perhaps if Cooper and Ben White (who is now back at Brighton) had started together, Leeds would have returned to West Yorkshire with more than just their pride intact.