Leeds United edged a tight affair at Elland road to take all three points, with the key moments of the match being characterised by incompetant officiating.
The teams lined up for this post-Boxing day clash with several ‘square peg in round hole’ situations in both starting XI’s. Marcelo Bielsa’s side were lacking any senior centre halves, with Luke Ayling and Pascal Struijk filling in, whilst the Clarets were without wingers Dwight McNeil, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Robbie Brady, forcing Erik Pieters and Josh Benson into the wide positions.
Leeds entered the game in their typical high energy fashion and, within the first five minutes, a fantastic diagonal ball from Luke Ayling caught the Burnley defenders sleeping and finding Patrick Bamford in behind. A poor touch gave Nick Pope an opportunity to close down the striker and win the ball.
The players collided and the ball span away, with both players looking to have gotten a piece of the ball, but referee Robert Jones decided that the collision was illegal and awarded the home side with a penalty.
In the modern Premier League era, we see every key decision scrutinised by VAR, even when it seems quite evident that nothing untoward has occurred. So why was this incident barely analysed by Michael Oliver and the rest of the VAR officials?
The replays, as well as the resulting direction on the ball, clearly indicate that Nick Pope has gotten a fair amount of contact onto the ball, thereby making the tackle fair. It’s a poor decision from the ref, but the lack of review by VAR is criminal, and screams of the inconsistency shown throughout its use in the league this season.
Patrick Bamford stepped up to take the penalty, in preference to usual taker Mateusz Klich, and showed great confidence to send Pope the wrong way and put the ball into the top corner to score his tenth goal of the season, against a former club who never really saw the best of him.
Leeds continued to dominate the half, with Burnley not really firing up in the first 15 minutes, but the Elland road residents were unable to improve on their advantage, with Rafinha missing several chances to put his side 2-0 up.
Burnley were able to shape their first goal scoring opportunity from free kick just inside the attacking half. As Ashley Westwood floated the ball towards Ben Mee, the Leeds keeper Illan Meslier travelled a long way from his line to collect the ball.
When travelling so far from your line, you must ensure you take the ball. Meslier didn’t. He crashed into Mee in dangerous fashion as he comically fumbled the cross, causing the ball to drop to Ashley Barnes, who adeptly spun and fired into the empty net.
But Robert Jones whistle had blown.
But for what? A premature awarding of a certain goal? No. A penalty for the reckless challenge by Meslier? Not quite. A foul on the goalkeeper? Bingo!
The inexperienced Robert Jones, taking charge of his fourth Premier league tie, showed that he wasn’t really ready for the call up to the big league as his rash awarding of the free kick not only prevented Burnley from scoring a perfectly fine goal, but also meant that VAR was unable to fully review the situation.
There is no way that the incident can be seen as a foul on the keeper, with Burnley skipper only ever having eyes for the ball before receiving a knee in his back for his troubles. But Robert Jones spared the blushes of the young keeper and VAR, unable to award the goal, refused to intervene to award the foul to the away side.
Unfortunately, this error has not come as a surprise to many, as in the modern game, goalkeepers are far too protected. For several seasons now it has seemed that any contact on the keeper seems to award a free kick regardless of the degree of contact, preventing a lot of would-be goals resulting from keeper errors. Training for referees to help them understand and notice the difference between an improper aerial challenge and poor cross collection.
The home side continued to push for a second, with the lively Rafinha nicking the ball off a sluggish Ben Mee. The Brazilian drove into the box before cutting a cross to Jack Harrison, but could only found Nick Pope’s oustretched leg.
The first half remained tight. Chris Wood had the opportunity to score against his former employers, but he couldn’t get above the ball well enough as he fired over. Shortly after, a fizzed in cross found Rodrigo’s head, who also fired over.
Half time: Leeds United 1-0 Burnley
The away side came into the second half much the stronger, and dominated the play in the second half but struggled to create many clear cut chances. Josh Brownhill was able to shape a few shots from distance after some nice interplay, but his efforts only found the empty stands behind the goal.
Burnley kept pushing high up the pitch, pinching the ball off the midfield and putting crosses into the box, but the lack of wingers in the team was evident by the quality of the crosses, with the Leeds defence able to clear up most of the balls into the box.
The makeshift defenders of Ayling and Struijk performed terrifically, and coupled with one time Burnley target Kalvin Phillips being deployed in a sweeper role, the Leeds defence, that was previously leaky, stood firm.
Burnley always looked dangerous from corners or set pieces where they could put the ball just above the Leeds keeper who had proved to be poor from aerial situations, but the referee’s whistle often protected him from any circumstance that looked threatening.
The best chance that Burnley created came as Ashley Westwood threaded Ashley Barnes through, but the angle proved too much and he could only force his shot straight at Meslier.
An acrobatic Alioski clearance led to an opportunity for Leeds attackers to rush forward, creating a five on two opportunity, which substitute Pablo Hernandez really should’ve done better with, as he forced a decent yet expected save from Nick Pope.
As the final whistle blew it was clear that Burnley rued their inability to score given the territory they were allowed. After his goal in the last game, Ashley Barnes looked very bright and was probably unlucky not get on the scoresheet, but Chris Wood was quite sloppy in possession and still looks like a player playing with little confidence. A far cry from the striker he was at the back end of last season.
In his post match interview, Dyche bemoaned the lack of the ‘fine details’ to his sides performance, but also highlighted the positives that could be seen, especially in the second half. The midfield were very impressive, with their characteristic high work rate matched with their eye for a pass.
Dyche also took the chance to call out the decisions that cost his side any rewards from their performance. Whilst poor decisions are part of the game and often something to overcome, the decisions completely changed the direction of the result.
However incompetent referering in the premier league should not come as news to anyone.
Full time: Leeds United 1-0 Burnley