The cliche is that you should never meet your heroes. Pep Guardiola could not beat one of his idols. Marcelo Bielsa made it harder for one of his proteges to regain the Premier League title. Yet even Guardiola ended smiling, hugging Bielsa in appreciation of a marvellous match.
Leeds pummelled Manchester City in the second half, playing with the verve that Guardiola admires so much. “An incredible team, a fantastic team,” he said, and he was talking about Leeds.
They claimed a point and it could have been three: the substitute Rodrigo had a hat-trick of sorts, striking the woodwork twice and scoring his first Leeds goal in a comeback that was testament to their energy.
“We played our part for the game to be beautiful,” said Bielsa. But Guardiola admires him for his authenticity and honesty and Bielsa admitted: “It wouldn’t have been fair if we had won this game.” Guardiola concurred. “Fair result,” he said. Bielsa asked him for his post-match verdict and the Catalan replied: “I said I’m not able to analyse the game after one second, I’m not able to process it.”
There was indeed too much to process. It amounted to fantastic, but exhausting, viewing. There were 35 shots in all, and while City had 23 of them, it was a game of two halves, each shaped by managerial input. Bielsa ultimately turned the match. He brought on Ian Poveda, one of the select band to have played for both parts of a managerial mutual admiration society, in a trademark half-time switch. The catalytic change, though, was when he summoned Rodrigo.
Leeds’ club record buy had made an inauspicious start, conceding a penalty for Mohamed Salah's Anfield winner on his debut and being a substitute who was in turn substituted last week at Bramall Lane. This time he had the right kind of impact off the bench. His rising shot was deflected on to the bar and, when Kalvin Phillips took the subsequent corner, Ederson spilled it and Rodrigo tapped in his first Premier League goal for nine years and 272 days. “A long time ago,” said the former Bolton loanee. “Time flies.”
It also reflected poorly on City’s full-backs, Kyle Walker and a slipshod Benjamin Mendy. On the day Guardiola unveiled the most expensive centre-back partnership in the history of English football, with the £57m Aymeric Laporte the cheaper sidekick to the £60m newcomer Rúben Dias, City still struggled for solidity. Guardiola’s eventual defensive change, to bring on Fernandinho, gave City a platform to go for a decider. “A very intelligent substitution,” Bielsa said.
Dias had almost marked his debut with a goal, heading Riyad Mahrez’s corner wide. It came as attempts at goal followed in flurries: Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne at first, Laporte, then Bamford, then Phil Foden later. But City were initially the stronger, as Bielsa readily conceded: “In the beginning the domination of City in all aspects was very clear.”
“When you have the chances we had in 24 minutes the game must be over,” said Guardiola. His team almost struck in the third minute. When De Bruyne whipped a free-kick against the near post, leaving Illan Meslier, who had been expecting a cross, scrabbling across his box, there were shades of Gary McAllister for Liverpool against Everton in 2001. Perhaps Guardiola had spotted something in the goalkeeper’s positioning, perhaps De Bruyne did.
But the City manager certainly merits credit for reviving an old tactic. He had used a left-footed false 9 in each of his three previous meetings with Bielsa, and if it is unfair to bracket Mahrez with Lionel Messi, the Algerian’s central role allowed Guardiola to restore Sterling to the left.
He reaped a dividend for that decision. After the Leeds captain, Liam Cooper, gave the ball away, Sterling latched on to a Ferran Torres pass, cut infield and found the bottom corner of the Leeds net. His potency had almost brought the breakthrough a minute earlier: he confounded Ayling with a series of turns and found Mahrez, whose effort was brilliantly cleared off the line by Dallas. Then Guardiola was the more influential manager. Later Bielsa was.
The £27m buy from Valencia almost doubled his Leeds tally, Ederson mustering a form of redemption by tipping Rodrigo’s header on to the bar. “He is beginning to show the great quality he has,” said Bielsa.
If Rodrigo’s signing had spurred Patrick Bamford into goalscoring form, this was a sign that they can coexist. The Spain international – Leeds have as many players as Barcelona in the Spain squad – operated as a dynamic, raiding midfielder. Bamford himself was denied a late winner by Ederson and to focus on the goalkeeper’s mistake would be to ignore a string of fine saves. That two of the efforts he thwarted, from Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling, came from Bielsa’s raiding full-backs showed how ambitious his blueprint was.