In the end it was a comfortable victory. A goal from Christian Pulisic in second-half stoppage time gave Chelsea a 3-1 lead and finally put Saturday’s Premier League game beyond Leeds United. Over the course of the 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge, Frank Lampard’s side were worthy winners. After an even first half, they took the match away from Leeds after the interval.
Even so, there was much to admire in the visitors’ performance. It was they who took the lead in the early stages, Patrick Bamford latching on to Kalvin Phillips’ wonderful pass and sliding the ball inside the near post. They had further opportunities to find the net in the opening 45 minutes and continued to pose a threat – albeit more sporadically – in the second period.
On this occasion, Leeds’ approach did not bring a tangible reward. But it would be a mistake to chastise them for being too open at the back against one of the Premier League’s hottest attacks. True, Leeds’ desire to always play on the front foot leaves gaps that skilled opponents can exploit. Chelsea racked up 23 shots on Saturday and scored three times.
Yet Leeds would not be better off by adopting a more cautious approach. They have reaped the rewards from Marcelo Bielsa’s high-intensity, attack-minded style throughout the Argentine’s tenure. Despite their defeat in west London, they are comfortably clear of the relegation zone with almost a third of the season gone. More than anything else, Bielsa’s style and managerial acumen is what got them back to this level in the first place.
Chelsea have spent much more on their squad than Leeds, and consequently have better players in their ranks. That is part of the reason they ran out 3-1 winner in the latest meeting between these two old rivals. But there is more to the story than that.
Frank Lampard’s men took advantage of Leeds’ front-foot mentality and their willingness to throw bodies forward in attack. Chelsea’s forwards stayed high up the pitch when the opposition had the ball, before counter-attacking into the space vacated by the Leeds full-backs. The fact that those full-backs, Luke Ayling and Ezgjan Alioski on this occasion, are so regularly caught offside is a measure of Leeds’ fearless, forward-thinking mindset.
It is sometimes easy to forget that Leeds are a newly-promoted team. Most sides that come up from the Championship do not play this way at grounds like Stamford Bridge. They instead focus on packing men behind the ball, sitting deep and not over-committing in the attack. They might hope to nick a goal in transition or from a set-piece, but they rarely arrive with any intention of taking the game to their hosts.
Unlike most mid-table sides, Leeds never change their approach. They only know one way to play, which involves non-stop running, heavy pressing, man-to-man marking, and overloads down the flanks. They played some excellent soccer in the first half against Chelsea, and it was hard not to be impressed by some of their one-touch passing triangles.
This approach did not work on Saturday, but it has paid off on other occasions this season. They drew 1-1 with Manchester City early on and were unfortunate to be held to a 0-0 tie with Arsenal last month. They produced arguably the performance of the Premier League campaign so far in vanquishing Aston Villa 3-0, and have defeated Fulham, Sheffield United, and Everton too.
Bielsa’s side has posed a considerable attacking threat throughout the season. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Arsenal are the only teams who have kept clean sheets against Leeds, who have scored 16 goals in their 11 encounters. They average 14.6 shots per game, a tally bettered by only Liverpool, Manchester City, and Aston Villa. In their matches against Everton, Villa, Arsenal, and Manchester City, they had 87 attempts on goal. The Whites also have the fourth-highest average possession in the division, as well as being sharp and incisive in transition.
Leeds’ open, attacking style also produces many opportunities for their opponents. They rank fourth in another category – shots conceded per game. Chelsea had 11 attempts on target on Saturday, and Illan Meslier has been among the Premier League’s busiest goalkeepers this term. Crystal Palace and Leicester City both took advantage of Leeds’ shortcomings to register 4-1 win over the Yorkshire outfit.
Bielsa told BBC Sport after the game:
We failed to neutralize them from set-pieces and at the end it was important. It was difficult for us to stop them playing out from the back with their centre-backs and N’Golo Kante. The difficulty for us was we didn’t manage to take the ball off them in their own half. I never question the refereeing decisions and this game was not decided by the referee. He did not decide the game. Always defeats are an opportunity to learn something.
Neither Bielsa nor Leeds fans will be unduly concerned by this result; Chelsea has been in fine form and has some outstanding individuals to call upon. The fact that Leeds are offered at +1400 for relegation by DraftKings Sportsbook shows that the bookmakers also have confidence in their ability to stay out of the dogfight. A top-four finish is also unlikely, but optimistic Leeds supporters might be tempted by the +2500 available on that eventuality.
Wherever they end up finishing, Leeds will be worth watching throughout this season. Their style of play is unique among Premier League clubs and the fact they do not change for anyone is a refreshing outlook. Their attacking approach did not pay off at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, but there will be many more games in the future in which it does.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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