Leeds United had to battle to pick up a fifth clean sheet of the season as they moved up to 11th place with a 1-0 win over a resilient Burnley side.
Leeds came into this important scrap of the back of a thrashing at the hands of Manchester United and needing three points to further distance the Yorkshire club from the relegation zone.
Marcelo Bielsa was forced into selecting his team from an ever-narrowing roster of players. Senior centre-backs Robin Koch and Diego Llorente had already been out for a number of weeks and, with captain Liam Cooper ruled out after an injury sustained in last weeks’ drubbing at the hands of the Red Devils, youth-teamer Pascal Struijik returned to the first team to partner right-back Luke Ayling in the centre of defence.
Burnley themselves were struggling with injuries and were without any wingers, with central midfielders Josh Brownhill and Josh Benson forced out wide for Dyche’s team. The Lancashire side was on an impressive run heading into this game, having not lost in four games and picking up two wins in the process. It guaranteed to be an interesting battle between the two northern sides.
Leeds have made a habit of pretty much guaranteeing early action in games. Early goals in matches against West Ham, Chelsea and Manchester United mean that Burnley could not afford to be caught napping in the early stages. They were.
Luke Ayling, one of Leeds’ most consistent performers since their promotion, sent a diagonal ball over the Burnley defence and found the run of Patrick Bamford. The prolific striker let the ball bounce and was swiftly felled by Nick Pope inside the Burnley area. A penalty was awarded and the Englishman stepped up himself to tuck the ball away with aplomb.
Leeds, having not surrendered the lead in 25 games ahead of November, had lost against both West Ham and Chelsea since, and so would have to work overtime to protect their advantage.
Initially, they tried to improve on their good start. Some nice play around the edge of the Burnley box gave Ezjan Alioski a great crossing position from which he could only spoon the ball over the bar. Raphinha picked up a loose ball inside the opposition half and played it to Rodrigo, who hesitated a second too long before tamely hitting his shot into the arms of Nick Pope.
The pressure was maintained, the tiresome Jack Harrison looped a weak-footed cross directly onto the head of the vivacious Raphinha, but the Brazilian couldn’t keep his attempt down.
Things got dramatic in the 18th minute when a Burnley free-kick was fumbled by Illan Meslier and he went down in a heap with Ben Mee before Ashley Barnes stroked the ball home. The ref had already whistled though, for a foul on the Leeds ‘keeper. Outrage ensued, and rightly. Meslier had put his knee into the back of Ben Mee, rather than any intervention the other way around and, with the referee whistling before the shot had been converted by Barnes, VAR could not intervene.
Burnley failed to follow up on this opportunity though and Leeds took ahold of the contest once again. Jack Harrison had a golden opportunity inside the area after Raphinha had once again stolen the ball away from the Burnley defence, only for the on-loan Manchester City winger’s shot to strike the leg of Patrick Bamford.
Chris Wood then had Burnley’s best chance of the game as he failed to convert a header from three yards out under pressure from Luke Ayling. Erik Pieters then had a volleyed attempt from a Charlie Taylor cross wide of the near post.
Leeds, hoping for their third home win of the season, pressed with a late flurry. First, Raphinha had an impressive first-time effort which required the safe hands of Nick Pope to keep the scoreline low. This was followed by Rodrigo, who had been on an upward curve following his return from coronavirus, failed to keep his header under the bar after a dangerous Jack Harrison ball had picked him out perfectly inside the six-yard box and that spelt the end of the first half.
The second half played out very differently, Sean Dyche told his side to get a foothold in the game and so they did. Within a few minutes, Westwood picked up the ball after a loose touch from Mateusz Klich and sent in a dangerous cross which had to be dealt with by Alisoki at the back post. Matthew Lowton then had a weak shot from the edge of the area collected by Meslier
The game became more stretched as the game continued, Raphinha had a low effort blocked by Ben Mee and Kalvin Phillips was forced into a vital intervention to stop an Ashley Westwood cross from reaching Chris Wood. Marcelo Bielsa brought on Pablo Hernandez to try and restore Leeds’ control of the game, but Sean Dyche’s men still had the better of it.
Leeds still had chances the best one coming when substitute Hernandez forced a great save from Nick Pope when Leeds had four men on the counter-attack. Burnley became more and more desperate though as the match continued. Illan Meslier was called into action continuously, cutting out crosses and making two important saves from Ashley Barnes to keep his team ahead.
None of it was enough though and even sending Nick Pope forward to attack the last few set-pieces failed to yield any effective results. Leeds walked away 1-0 winners, a mightily different game to what we have become used to since promotion, but a very valued clean sheet being the important takeaway from the game. It is West Brom next who, at the time of writing, are sat in 19th place in the table.
Illan Meslier: 7
Got lucky with the disallowed goal but more than made up for it. The Frenchman is far from the finished product, but us well on his way to being an excellent goalkeeper.
Stuart Dallas: 7
Solid. That’s all that needs to needs to be said really. Solid performance.
Luke Ayling: 9
This man is playing out of position, try and let that sink in. It was an unbelievable performance from the right-back. Didn’t grant Wood or Barnes any space on the ball and his aerial performance was much improved. What a player he is turning out to be.
Kalvin Phillips: 8
Another brilliant performance from the Yorkshire Pirlo, this time playing as more of a Yorkshire Cannavaro. He performed excellently in the sweeper role and mopped up wonderfully. Best performance since the game against Everton.
Pascal Struijik: 8
Having not played in defence for a number of weeks, and limited first-team appearances anyway, there was cause for concern when it was announced ahead of kickoff that Diego Llorente would not be fit. In the end, it was a dominant defensive performance from the young Dutchman, he dealt with Barnes and Wood brilliantly and there is a bright future ahead for this player.
Ezjan Alioski: 7
Really seems to prefer the extra cover granted to him by a three-at-the-back formation. Performed well for large portions of the game and, although he lost the ball in a few risky decisions, his defensive interventions were vital.
Mateusz Klich: 6
Not his best performance this season. He doesn’t seem to thrive in this system. Found some nice passes and took a few shots that went as wide as reasonably possible. Forgetful performance.
Good game, brilliant in the first half but seemed to struggle when the going got tough in the second. Had a few chances to score and should have had an assist. The right decision for him to be replaced in the second period.
Very similar to Raphinha, he was exceptional in the first period, brilliant passing and forward play but lost track of the game when Burnley got on top. Constantly improving and you get the sense that West Brom might be the ideal f=game for him to pick up a couple of goal involvements.
Brilliant defensively and should have had a number of assists in the first period. He needed to score the chance that Raphinha laid on a plate for him in the first period, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say Bamford got in the way. A small dose of composure away from being an unbelievable player.
His goal was vital and he did well to get to the ball ahead of Pope for the penalty. Led the line very well in the first period and pressured adequately in the second. Has been better, has been worse.
Pablo Hernandez: 6
Saw some flashes of brilliance, but didn’t have the desired effect. Should have passed instead of shooting when Leeds were countering but we got the points so we’ll move on.
Ian Poveda: 6
Made some good passes and was sprightly with the ball at his feet but didn’t always make the right decision. The defensive covering was exceptional though, was the right move to bring him on.
Jamie Shackleton: 7
Klich was struggling and there was a notable change when Shack came on. Is the best presser in the team for my money and showed that repeatedly. A cracking wee player.