Chelsea 3-2 Leeds United: no happy endings - The Square Ball 12/12/21


CHEERS

Written by: Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

This beloved blessed sport of games of football we all love to enjoy. Leeds United went to Stamford Bridge expecting nothing, grasped something, got nothing anyway, then people felt worse. Minute for minute United’s performance at Chelsea was much, much better than last season’s there when Chelsea under Frank Lampard Junior were much, much worse. Things were still kinda fun then but the same result this season is a disaster. Why would you even try, then? Go all that way to London, to play football, in that weather? You’ll be wasting your time, young men of Leeds, and don’t expect anybody to thank you for it when you come home again with nothing.

The lesson in United’s performance is that when Marcelo Bielsa sits stoutly looking to us like King Canute barking at Leeds’ tide of injuries, his resolution is sane because he’s the only coach mad enough to have trained the waves. The reserves dropping in are more than names plucked from a database, they’re people Bielsa has been preparing every day, some of them for years, to be better than you remember them. If you hadn’t seen Junior Firpo in Brighton you’d think he was a top player. If you didn’t know Pat Bamford or Joe Gelhardt existed, you’d admire Dan James’ ferocious, penalty-winning mania for unsettling defenders. A few weeks ago Bielsa pointed out that he is paid a lot of money, and it is linked to his confidence in the second stringers. “I always work so that the difficulties harm us as little as possible,” he said when asked, before playing Chelsea, about how his squad would cope. Bielsa doesn’t worry about injuries because solving the problems they create is his job and he’s being doing it a long time. Relentless, stubborn, destructive to Blues, inventive for themselves: Leeds were better against Chelsea than anybody expected, except Bielsa.

The other lesson isn’t novel. When you’re playing the European champions you won’t get away with mistakes. That’s how Chelsea scored their winning three. Illan Meslier’s chip put Stuart Dallas under pressure he couldn’t resist, and even before the ball was lost Chelsea players were rushing towards the space United’s crumpled right-back was leaving. No sooner was the ball won than Mason Mount was punishing Meslier inside the post he wasn’t protecting.

Mistakes two and three were penalties, after Chelsea had given Leeds the first goal the same way, proving they’re not infallible. James’ forceful dribbling caused panic and Marcos Alonso’s tackle on the turn chopped him. Raphinha’s penalty style is as cruel to his own fans as to his old Rennes’ teammate Édouard Mendy. The goalie couldn’t deal with his terrifying pause and poke technique, and neither can I, but it works.

In the second half Raphinha gave the lead to Chelsea by tackling Antonio Rudiger in Leeds’ box without the cleanliness VAR Mike Dean demands, for example like how Joe Willock stomped through Dan James’ ankle in Newcastle where Dean saw nothing wrong. Here we remember that one reason mistakes are punished so harshly by the Premier League’s big clubs is that they get a lot of help. Jorginho scored this penalty. Then the whole trick was repeated for Chelsea’s painful stoppage time winner, after Leeds had equalised, when they were trying with Charlie Cresswell’s help to leave London with the point they’d earned. Rudiger again, just inside United’s area, Mateusz Klich on his heels, tapping them as if this was a midfield tussle and it wouldn’t matter. After the VAR review had gone on long enough for Mike Dean to be sure his name had been said on the worldwide commentaries, Jorginho scored again.

Later that night Klich deleted his Twitter account, presumably sick of his mentions there. Klich is the member of Leeds United’s squad I’d most like a beer with, because he seems so good natured that it would be a chill affair, and because I’m pretty sure that during the second pint you could ask him what’s been going on with his game over the last year and he’d tell you what he thinks, without sparing himself any criticism. Copy-pasting Arsenal fans’ tweets from 2017 and rehashing them with Klich’s username won’t get that conversation going, as was seen on Saturday night. The curious thing about this behaviour, apart from its off-the-shelf unoriginality, is that something that’s so performative, done for likes, doesn’t get them. The searchable traces of the account formerly known as Cli5hy is a boneyard of copycat insults pockmarked by solitary likes given by bots and weirdos, rendering the whole exercise as pointless as it is ungrateful.

Ungrateful? Klich’s a rich, envied footballer. Does he need gratitude as well? Yes, and that has been the point of Bielsa’s champions all along. I’ve seen players like Michael Brown at Leeds, chugging along until their contract extension kicks in then taking the rest of the season off. Klich played 92 consecutive games for Leeds, and you can double that for murderball, that were a huge part of giving Leeds United fans the thing they’d begged for sixteen years. Then, screaming drunk into an Instagram story, celebrating in our place in the away end at Pride Park, posing with a cigar, nipping out for beers in Harrogate wearing an old Leeds shirt he’d bought himself off eBay (he was still looking for a Champions League era one), he gave us a bunch of iconic moments that will always be part of how we remember the weird summer of promotion and lockdown. The beauty of players like Klich, and the way they took us into this cold Premier League, is that playing for Leeds United has meant more to them than wages, they worked for something more than money. Howard Wilkinson’s 1992 title winners have been dubbed The Last Champions, I wonder if 2019/20’s were The Last Romantics. There were easier ways for them all to earn a footballer’s wage over those two punishing seasons than working for Bielsa, and working for us, trying to achieve what we’d started to think was impossible after a decade of watching players not bothering.

That was 2020, though, now it’s nearly 2022, so time and a higher level look to be having their way with Klich’s form. That happens. What sick urge haunts Leeds United that in a moment people will turn their back on their heroes and spit that they got their money and that was their reward, that saying thank you depends on them playing the same way forever? If you want to thank Klich for something, don’t even worry about promotion. Go back ten minutes from the penalty at Chelsea and watch him holding off that same Rudiger in midfield, winning the fight Stuart Dallas started from Chelsea’s throw-in with Callum Hudson-Odoi. Just as Klich got us into the Premier League so we could lose games and hate it, he made the equaliser that was the reason we hated the defeat. Maybe with hindsight he shouldn’t have bothered, but after dealing with Rudiger he got the ball back from Firpo and Jackie Harrison in new space and invited Tyler Roberts to run, to go get a pass that broke Chelsea’s line. Roberts’ low first time cross was exquisite, and here are two questions: how did he know Joe Gelhardt would be making his run? And how did Gelhardt get there, arriving in the six yard box from outer space to bury the cross before Jorginho, Silva or Mendy even knew he was on the pitch?

Roberts’ next significant task was keeping a gentle grip on Joffy as the boisterous teenager looked ready to go berserk in front of or even in the away end, a pink-cheeked explosion of punching joy like a toddler on a bungee rope running headlong for a ball pool. The goal made it 2-2, and made Gelhardt United’s youngest Premier League goalscorer since James Milner. It’s tempting to wonder why Gelhardt, with timing and finishing like this, isn’t starting games like these, but maybe Bielsa is onto something by letting others do the donkey work and letting Joffy have these opportunities to thrive. Gelhardt’s time will come. Probably also the time will come when his mum is deleting her Twitter account because her kid has missed a big chance or moved on to another club or whatever else, but one thing at a time. We’re still at the point of building a hero, and Joffy is making himself easy to adore.

In the meantime Leeds go to play Manchester City on Tuesday, looking better equipped for the game than anybody expected when Bielsa published his teamsheet at Chelsea. It was first greeted like a document full of curses and doom, turning out to be the script for a daring near-miss result that didn’t put any league points on the table in the end and got some people angry and made some people sad. What things you have to do to make people happy.

Popular posts from this blog

Leeds United CEO's traditional input absent as errors and relegation peril render words futile - YEP 3/5/22

Forgetting the script - The Square Ball 9/5/22

Jesse Marsch on 'incredible' Joe Gelhardt skill and anti-board chants during big Leeds United draw - YEP 15/5/22