West Ham United 2-3 Leeds United: Party fears three - The Square Ball 17/1/22
Written by: Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman
Marcelo Bielsa liked it when, in his post-match press conference, someone said his team had been ‘brave’. “I think the word you used is one of the ones that best defined the team today,” he said. “I think it was a triumph for the players, where each of them did things that indicated a very big desire to win.”
When it was West Ham manager David Moyes’ turn on the Zoom calls, he had a different take.
“Today was really tough for us to get back out,” after Wednesday night’s win over Norwich, he said, a fixture rearranged from 18th December due to Anglian Covid. “We did not feel the Norwich game should have been put in, but they refused our request. We played as [if] it had an effect today … Leeds have two [postponed] games to play and were not asked to play midweek but we were.”
At least West Ham turned up. Arsenal hid from Tottenham this weekend, crying off with a squad depleted by the long-scheduled Afcon tournament, deciding to let two players leave on loan, others being suspended through their own ill discipline, and one case of Covid. All that, and I’m sure they could have named a more expensive and experienced squad than the one Leeds took to London this weekend. United flew, losing the chance to save on Archie Gray’s child rail ticket.
It’s only a game of football which makes talking about the Peacocks’ bravery feel a little absurd, but it’s still much less embarrassing than the cowardice of the rest of the Premier League. Bielsa’s personal management style was called into question at the London Stadium, when he subbed off the sub, teenager Lewis Bate, on his debut. What might that do to the young footballer’s confidence? But think about Arsenal, and the vast investment their squad represents, the headline makers from their academy, and about how Mikel Arteta would rather call a game off than let their young players go near the pitch. Or what about West Ham’s Under-23s? They stayed top of Premier League 2 last Monday with their ninth win from nine home games, their team too strong for Leeds Under-23s in the second half. This season they’ve won eleven, drawn two and lost three, and have a positive goal difference of 21. Moyes has used two players under 21 in the Premier League this season: Sonny Perkins, whose first four minutes came against Leeds in this game, and Harrison Ashby, who has played seven minutes.
Leeds United, meanwhile, are proceeding as seamlessly as is possible when an already depleted team loses two more important players to simultaneous hamstring pulls after twenty minutes. The injury crisis has been bad enough without adding sympathy pains to the problems. As Moyes observed, Leeds did call two games off over Christmas, although his displeasure at us not playing either of them this week is answered by Aston Villa’s Monday night match elsewhere, Liverpool’s on Thursday. All season long, though, Leeds have been struggling to find fit first team players, still always filling a bench, and never baulking from bringing a youngster on when needed. Sometimes the low minutes accrued by young players, compared to the number of debuts, is used to say Bielsa doesn’t give youth much chance; we’ve waited a long time to see Bate, for example. When there’s a senior player available Bielsa will use them, because experience is important. But if Leo Hjelde is next up then Leo Hjelde will play, and he’ll play well, because whether they’re on Premier League pitches at the weekend or not, United’s young players are trained and educated and trusted to be ready.
Those early forced changes made Moyes sound even more ridiculous. The Peacocks started superbly, and if the Hammers were feeling jaded, no wonder they didn’t want to face Leeds in this mood. Dan James pressed their defenders into mistakes, Adam Forshaw and Robin Koch took control of midfield, incisive passes down the wings, where West Ham didn’t want them, opened the clarets up. Luke Ayling’s long pass in the tenth minute upset Aaron Cresswell by putting Raphinha behind him, then in front of him, then he laid the ball off for Mateusz Klich; his shot was saved but Forshaw was on the edge of the six yard box — yes, Forshaw — for a thoughtful turn and pass to Jackie Harrison, who buried a shot. Leeds deserved it, and I wonder how the game might have turned out if that harmonious eleven had played all of it.
Instead Junior Firpo limped off and Forshaw’s injury allowed Declan Rice — “an extraordinary player,” according to Bielsa — to take control in the middle for West Ham. But now according to Moyes and co it was Michail Antonio who was too tired to do anything with their attempted creativity. “He was out on his legs after the game but again what can we do?” he said. Maybe don’t play him for 95 minutes against Leeds last week, then 88 minutes against Norwich on Wednesday, if this is how he’ll cope? West Ham had more grip but it never felt complete; they did equalise about ten minutes before half-time, but their efforts were only worth a Jarrod Bowen header because Stuart Dallas lost him at a corner. Big deal Bowen celebrated as if worse teams than West Ham haven’t scored like that against Leeds, like, all the time. Otherwise, no problems, and Leeds kept their counter-attacking card on display. Three minutes after equalising West Ham also stood still at a corner, letting Ayling flick on to Harrison’s crotch for him to finish like Elvis at the back post.
To give Moyes some credit, as at Elland Road in September, he sent West Ham out after half-time with more of a clue. He is skilled at getting the one or two changes across that will kickstart his players. This time it seemed to be a reminder to Rice and Manuel Lanzini that their opponent in midfield was a debutant just turned nineteen, and they should stop him getting the ball from the Peacocks’ defenders. The ball came back at Leeds twice in a minute, the first time Rice shot over, the second time Pablo Fornals ran in from the wing and shot low to score.
Bielsa’s solution was the one senior player on his bench, Rodrigo, who could replace Bate, sending Klich into midfield to deal with Rice, a player so good it seemed natural to Bielsa that he should sub off his sub to keep giving him the strongest opposition. But that didn’t happen until after Leeds retook the lead, decisively, with the game’s best goal. Dallas stole a pass from Vlasic’s toe and put Leeds on the counter, Raphinha threaded a pass across the field that Pablo Hernandez would applaud, and Harrison, making a run to earn himself a hat-trick, sped up, slowed down, sped up, and lifted the ball first time over Łukasz Fabiański, composure and finishing anyone should appreciate, properly rewarded with the match ball, a cavalcade of puns, and three points.
The game still had plenty of ways to change. After Raphinha made a dope out of Issa Diop, Klich hit his cut-back into the net, but after Harrison scoring with his balls, the universe balanced by ruling this one out for a deflection off Rodrigo’s offside backside. Raphinha walloped a free-kick off West Ham’s post. From a long throw, West Ham got a stupendous double save out of Illan Meslier, then Andriy Yarmolenko headed in, but the whole affair was offside. Then the game’s last play, in stoppage time, when Leeds all but threw it away: nobody was watching Antonio at a quick free-kick, his cross deflected off Dallas, and with a certain chance to score a header Bowen used his chest to send the ball an impressive distance over the bar. Leeds’ lack of concentration at such a vital moment is the sort of thing hyperbolically called ‘unforgivable’, but I absolutely do forgive them. After his offside contribution to West Ham’s FA Cup goal last week, after his shushing the Leeds fans when equalising in this game, after his two goals in Hull’s 2-0 win at Elland Road just after Christmas in a past decade, I’m glad our players gave Jarrod Bowen this one big final glorious opportunity to make an absolute tit of himself.
Leeds, brave, played, won, didn’t whinge, and can now feel the cool breeze of nine points between them and the relegation places. Nine points in the other direction, after playing the same twenty games as Leeds, are Wolves, a point behind Manchester United, also twenty-played, in the UEFA Conference League qualifying spot. For a while in December, the unexpected heaviness of the drubbing at Manchester City and the predictable bullying off of Arsenal cast a doomy pall over our club, but beating West Ham has thoroughly lifted the fog. Maybe we shouldn’t get carried away. David Moyes will say Leeds took advantage of his team’s three game week, their injuries, their odd bit of Covid. But Moyes might note that Leeds played three games that mad week before Christmas, starting with their best performance of the season in an undeserved defeat to Chelsea. I’ll pop him a video of us against Arsenal and see what he thinks about that.
As this season has worn on, we’ve yearned for a bit of mid-table comfort that might make for more relaxing weekends. Meanwhile, half the Premier League has decided that not playing at all is the best way to cope with the stress. Leeds United, with their cursed alliance of fragile hamstrings and bumfluff, keep coming back for more, believing they’ve always got what it takes to win. They must have been tempted to make more of the Christmas Covid cases and get more games pulled from the schedule, or to whine more shrilly about the matches they have to play. We can be proud of what they’re doing instead.