Leeds United 3-1 Stoke City Six Things: Bielsa’s Whites thrill and enthrall

 

Cooper celebrates Leeds’ third – https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport

Marcelo Bielsa’s introduction to English football – or should that be vice-versa? – went off with a bang as Leeds United thrashed Stoke City 3-1 on the opening day of the 2018-19 Championship season.

Brilliant Leeds

Leeds were outstanding in that first half. They were first to second balls, they were strong in the challenge and played with a combination of speed and precision that the Championship has arguably never been seen before. Samuel Saiz was the chief threat and, after some good work from Mateusz Klich, he went on a mazy run to slip the midfielder through and the Pole finished with composure.

Slow Stoke

Oghenekaro Etebo looked jaded after a great World Cup, Badou Ndiaye allowed opponents to get in behind him at will while Joe Allen looked a shadow of the controlling influence we expected him to be. The problem was that midfield didn’t have a creative outlet, which contributed to a lack of care in the opposing half. Tellingly, their only half-openings came either from a flash of individuality from Tom Ince, or one player closing down a Leeds centre-back; Gaetano Berardi was guilty of giving the ball away on 28 minutes but Stoke and a half-hearted Benik Afobe were too meek to capitalize.

Butland’s blunder

It would be wrong to blame Stoke’s defeat on an innocent mistake from Jack Butland, who was so often let down Ryan Shawcross’ lack of pace plus the lackadaisical performances of full-backs Moritz Bauer and Erik Pieters. After an excellent turn from Ezgjan Alioski however, the wide man fed Pablo Hernandez and Butland was unable to keep out his soft effort from the edge of the box. Hernandez though absolutely deserved his goal, because his incredible movement and quick thinking was fundamental to Leeds’ threat.

Douglas delivers

There was potential for a nervy second half for Leeds when Berardi fouled Ince and the otherwise anonymous Benik Afobe dispatched the penalty. The West Yorkshire outfit though soon re-stored their two goal advantage thanks to an excellent set piece from Barry Douglas, who had been so impressive for Wolves last season. The Scot didn’t necessarily pick out Liam Cooper, who grabbed the third, but he swung the corner into a good area with pace, allowing the ex-Chesterfield man to plant a header into the far corner. Could we be witnessing this season’s title-winners?

Can Stoke challenge?

Given the above, it would be wrong for Stoke to overreact to one poor performance. While there can be little doubt that they still have a better squad than at least half the Championship, it remains to be seen whether, with Rowett’s simplistic tactics, they can compete with the division’s modernizing elite.

Great start for Bielsa

If one performance can tell us anything, it is the importance of a great coach. Leeds had looked distinctly average for much of 2017-18 under Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom; and apart from Douglas, every player that lined up on Sunday was part of last season’s side, highlighting Bielsa’s influence. With favourites Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest, West Brom and of course Stoke all failing to win this weekend, the odds have surely been cut slightly for Leeds to go up to the top flight – indeed a number of Premier League betting sites it’s been reported have already begun to slash the odds on Leeds finally making it back to the Premier League and the big boys. The early signs are that Bielsa’s intense, demanding methods could help drag this Leeds squad to new heights.