Leeds United fought to a difficult 2-1 win against a much-improved Newcastle team after two spectacular goals from Raphinha and Jack Harrison moved Marcelo Bielsa’s team to within three points of the top half.
Neither side was in great form coming into this fixture. Newcastle had only scored once in eight games, failing to win in that time and earning only two points since these teams last met in mid-December. Leeds had picked up more points in that time but hadn’t even scored in 2021 having lost 3-0 to Tottenham, 3-0 to Crawley and 1-0 to Brighton most recently.
Both teams made several changes following their most recent defeats, Steve Bruce brought in Jacob Murphy and Ryan Fraser to replace Andy Carroll and the injured Javier Manquillo. Allan Saint-Maximin was named on the bench for the second game running as he neared full fitness and Bruce would be looking to him as a game-changer if Newcastle needed a goal.
Marcelo Bielsa gave a first league start to Diego Llorente following his return from injury. Illan Meslier was fit as well and stepped back in between the sticks in place of Kiko Casilla and Kalvin Phillips, back from suspension, moved into the midfield in place of Mateusz Klich. This was Klich’s first time on the bench under Marcelo Bielsa, only missing the dead-rubber against Derby County at the end of last season since the Argentine came in.
The game was nitty to start with. Neither team playing with any freedom and there were a number of early interruptions. First, Fabian Schar had to step off the pitch to get treatment on his shoulder after the Swiss landed awkwardly following a Stuart Dallas tackle, the defender was fine to continue though. Only five minutes later and there was heartbreak for Leeds fans as Diego Llorente was forced off the pitch with a hamstring issue. The Spaniard hadn’t even hit the ten-minute mark of his full debut before being struck down, he left the field in tears.
The ever-impressive Pascal Struijk stepped into the void, with Liam Cooper moving over to the right of the defensive pairing and the game then proceeded to open up. First, Stuart Dallas picked out Jack Harrison at the far post, the Englishman attempted to place a spectacular volley into the back of the Geordies’ net but instead unleashed a vicious air-shot and was left red-faced.
It didn’t take long for Leeds to take charge though. On 17 minutes, Leeds countered after Ezgjan Alioski stole the ball away in the centre of the pitch and laid it on to Patrick Bamford. Leeds’ top scorer found the run of Rodrigo brilliantly, the Spanish international slowed play down, picked out Raphinha on the edge of the box and the summer signing stroked home deliciously into the bottom corner.
In typical Leeds United style, there was an assault on the Newcastle box, but each time the final pass was ever so slightly off target. Newcastle did threaten the away side in return. Jamal Lascelles’ header was put wide thanks to pressure from Liam Cooper. Ryan Fraser arrived late into the box and planted a half-volley over the bar from the edge.
There were a few more injury scares in a fraught first half. Illan Meslier, who missed the Brighton game due to illness, took a Murphy knee to the head after he rushed to shepherd a Fraser cross out behind his goal, and Stuart Dallas seemed to take a hit to the knee which saw him forced from the pitch for a moment. Luckily for Marcelo Bielsa, no more early substitutions were required and the game continued.
As the break approached, the away side was well on top. Rodrigo, who’d been exceptional thus far, was played in behind the Toon defence, cut back onto his left foot but took a touch too many and saw his shot blocked by a recovering defender. Raphinha picked up the loose ball and hit the post from a narrow-angle, though perhaps he should have picked out Patrick Bamford, who was all alone in the six-yard box. There was time for one more chance and it fell to Rodrigo once again. A Jack Harrison cross picked out Ayling at the back post, the right-back’s header fell to Rodrigo on the edge of the box. Leeds’ record signing put it on his strong side and smashed a low shot towards the near post, it just glanced wide though and smashed into the side-netting.
At half-time, the score was only 0-1, neither manager reached for a change at half-time but, despite Leeds’ dominance, the game was far from over.
The second half started with Newcastle playing higher up the pitch in an attempt to stop Leeds from playing out from the back. It was initially fruitless as Stuart Dallas put the ball in the net within four minutes of the restart. It transpired though that the ball had gone in off the Northern Irishman’s hand and the scoreline stayed the same.
Newcastle did grow into the game though and, after a particularly stressful Alioski moment saw Steve Bruce’s side win a free-kick on the edge of the area, Bielsa made his second change of the game. The North Macedonian was replaced by the dropped Mateusz Klich, with Stuart Dallas moving into his more familiar left-back role.
The change failed to have the desired effect though and Newcastle had equalised within minutes. Patrick Bamford, who endured a tough game against the domineering Fabian Schar and Jamal Lascelles, lost the ball in midfield and a brilliantly quick passing move saw Callum Wilson eventually set Miguel Almiron free in the Leeds area. Despite the best efforts of Illan Meslier, who managed to get a hand to the shot, the Paraguayan levelled the score for the Toon.
Bamford was the next to leave the pitch, being replaced by Tyler Roberts who was looking to build on his positive cameo against Brighton. It didn’t take long for the sub to have an impact. Raphinha picked up the ball outside the opposition area, dummy runs from Roberts and Rodrigo freed up space for Jack Harrison inside the area. Raphinha’s ball was precise and Harrisons outside-of-the-foot volley was even more accurate, finding the bottom corner with aplomb. Leeds were ahead again.
Steve Bruce was not willing to let a point slip through his fingers though and, after a Jacob Murphy volley had flashed past the post, giving every Leeds fan a coronary as it did, Allan Saint-Maximin stepped onto the pitch.
The Frenchman was a nightmare to handle for Luke Ayling, he won free-kick after free-kick, created chances, took shots and was a massive threat on the break. The game really opened up and set up one of the tensest finishes that most Leeds fans are likely to sit through for a while.
Tyler Roberts, sprightly since his appearance from the bench, drew a piece of impressive goalkeeping out of Karl Darlow when he ran onto a Raphinha ball and, with the deftest of touches, slipped it through the legs of the nearest defender and sent it spinning towards the goal. Darlow managed to turn himself around though and collected the ball. Roberts was then active at the other end of the pitch when he deflected a Lascelles header onto the crossbar and away for another corner.
Jonjo Shelvey then had a chance from a corner, making a late run into the area and drawing a great save from Illan Meslier. Fabian Schar took a trademark run from deep and unleashed a shot from the edge of the box which again required saving.
Leeds ended the game with another great chance. Created by the impressive Tyler Roberts with a delightful backheel. Mateusz Klich collected the layoff and made his way into the area. The Pole tried to bend a shot into the far corner with his weak-foot. His attempt was blocked by the hands of Jamal Lascelles, no penalty though due to the recent rule changes.
As messy as the second half was for Leeds United, this is an important win for the Yorkshire side. It has arrested a run of poor form for the Whites and has moved them to within 3 points of the top half of the Premier League table. The difficulties that Leeds faced in the second half made the result even more impressive, as nice as it is to win by three or four goals, the ability to force scrappy wins is vital for any team wanting to compete at the top level and Bielsa’s men did that today. It is the perfect game to set up a tough game against an impressive Leicester City on Sunday as Leeds look to right the wrongs of the 4-1 defeat that they suffered at the hands of Brendan Rodgers’ team at Elland Road earlier in the season.
Illan Meslier: 6
Solid performance on his return to the side following a period of illness for the young Frenchman. Got his hand onto Almiron’s shot and had the save been made then his score jumps to a nine, simply because of how powerfully it was struck. Tidy in the possession and the save from Shelvey was impressive but, despite Newcastle’s sheer quantity of attempts, he wasn’t tested too much.
Luke Ayling: 6
Was pretty decent back in his natural position. Trademark runs weren’t as effective as they are capable of being, but it has been a while so we’ll give him a break. Took a while to get a handle on Allan Saint-Maximin when he came on, but eventually calmed himself down. An assured, if not spectacular performance.
Diego Llorente: 😢
Had a few nice touches in the opening period but wasn’t on the pitch long enough to assess. A painful moment for everyone when he left the pitch in tears. Hopefully only a short layoff.
Liam Cooper: 7
A captain’s performance. Had a few nervy moments admittedly, but did his job perfectly when asked to step across to his weaker side. Marshalled the defence well, was vocal. Knew exactly when to step in and steal the ball away and knew when to step in with a tactical foul as well when Ayling was struggling with Saint-Maximin. Textbook. Deserved a clean sheet.
Ezgjan Alioski: 6
I love the guy, but he is the only one who really seems to struggle when playing the ball under pressure. He is very left-footed and this is the second game in a row that his lack of right-footed proficiency has nearly cost us a goal. Not as incisive on the attacking front either. He did well to pressure Murphy consistently in the first period and it was Alioski who won the ball in the build-up to Leeds’ opener.
Kalvin Phillips: 7
As the game progressed, the midfield seemed to vanish for both teams as out-and-out attack became the name of the game. Vanish except for Kalvin that is, he dropped closer to the back-line and knew exactly when to step out to halt attacks. Was very good in the first half and, though his influence waned in the second, battled to stay relevant in the story of the game. Did very well.
Exceptional. Constantly looking to create. Took his goal excellently and the assist for Harrison’s goal was equally impressive. Linked up amazingly with Rodrigo. The most notable difference though was the improvement to his defensive capabilities. Constantly tracked back, seemed to tire much less than we have seen previously and knew where his man was most of the time.
He was brilliant against Newcastle last time around and was again today. Found the space that he thrives in. The passes that he played in behind the defence didn’t lose quality as the game progressed. Was better defensively also. Only criticism is that he should have scored late on in the first half.
Stuart Dallas: 7
Moved into the midfield for a change and was impressive enough. Broke up play nicely in the midfield and, though not as creatively adept as Klich, was better at following his men back towards his own goal. Moved into left-back around the 60-minute mark and did well there as well. Mr Consistency strikes again.
Jack Harrison: 7
The Leeds left-hand side was much less involved than it typically is, Isaac Hayden and Jacob Murphy did a job stifling the threat down this side. Jack was limited to fewer touches than usual but was effective when he got the opportunity. His crosses found there mark more often than not and he took his goal masterfully.
Patrick Bamford: 6
Could have been a five, but we won the game and the striker did manage to get himself in the right positions but wasn’t always found. Should have done better with a header from a free-kick in the first half and was at fault for the Newcastle goal, but also created Leeds’ first nicely and pressed well.
Pascal Struijk: 7
Thrown into the deep-end early after Llorente’s exit performed admirably. Has a very bright future ahead of him. Defending, passing, tracking and heading were all on point.
Mateusz Klich: 6
Was fine. Nice attempt at the end of the game and brought some attacking impetus to Leeds’ game. Doubled up on Saint-Maximin with Ayling after his danger had been identified and did that very nicely.
Tyler Roberts: 7
As close to an eight as you can get without scoring a goal. Our attack really seemed to become more fluid and dangerous when he came on. Nearly got a goal and an assist but for some good defending from Karl Darlow and Jamal Lascelles respectively. Offers something different to Bamford as his performances have increased exponentially since Christmas.
By Theo Hewson Betts