Assumptions can be dangerous. Just ask Patrick Bamford. So few pundits thought the Leeds striker was capable of scoring goals at Premier League level that there was widespread astonishment when Marcelo Bielsa began the season by continuing to field a forward whose goal return has not always matched the quality of his movement.
Oh ye of little faith. Three games into a campaign in which Bamford has already scored three times, the received wisdoms are undergoing such rapid revision that his 88th-minute headed winner prompted – still slightly fanciful – suggestions he could earn an England call-up.
No matter that the watching Gareth Southgate was probably more interested in the quietly impressive Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips, Bamford’s latest contribution left Bielsa’s side with two League victories since returning to the top tier and Sheffield United still waiting for their first point – and first goal – of the new campaign. “It was a really tight Yorkshire derby,” said Wilder. “But we didn’t take our chances.”
Bielsa was considerably happier. “Not conceding is a step forward,” said the Leeds manager, who had his goalkeeper Illan Meslier to thank for some outstanding saves. “And Bamford is making our offensive game more complete.”
The Blades’ blunt beginning has only been exacerbated by the news that Jack O’Connell, such a success as an opponent-confounding overlapping centre-half last season, needs knee surgery and is expected to be absent until autumn 2021. Indeed with John Egan – Wilder’s central, anchoring defender – suspended, there was a new look to the home backline, with Ethan Ampadu and Jack Robinson stepping in.
They experienced something of a baptism of fire as Leeds kicked off at a ferociously high tempo, with Bielsa’s players interchanging positions with bewildering rapidity. If Southgate enjoyed assessing the extent to which Phillips shaped the contest from his holding midfield role, Wilder’s body language in the technical area looked distinctly tense, agitated even.
This sense of urgency perhaps began transmitting itself to a team who appear to have struggled more than most without the stimulus previously provided by the high–decibel home crowd. Although Leeds continued to monopolise possession while shifting, apparently seamlessly, between a back three and a back four, Sheffield United gradually began showing glimmers of last season’s adrenaline-fuelled swagger, leaving Phillips and co occasionally unable to second-guess some sporadically sharp one- and two-touch passing sequences.
One particularly slick move prefaced a superb reflex save from Meslier. The 20-year-old French goalkeeper had conceded seven goals in his previous two League games but he reacted brilliantly to tip John Lundstram’s eight-yard shot round a post after Ben Osborn’s cross had been flicked on by David McGoldrick as Lundstram made a late, defender defying, dash into the box. It bore all the hallmarks of a potential save of the season; the look of disbelief on Wilder’s face spoke volumes.
The worry for Bielsa was that despite much impressive approach work, his side’s generally underwhelming final balls ensured that while Aaron Ramsdale made some significant saves, the best from Stuart Dallas, he was not exactly overworked.
Yet if Meslier, who subsequently saved smartly from George Baldock, had more than vindicated Bielsa’s faith, Robin Koch largely convinced at centre-half, making some important interceptions as he demonstrated why Leeds paid Freiburg £13m for his stabilising services.
As the second half unravelled the visitors’ initial intensity morphed increasingly into a slightly more cagey, still possession-heavy, gameplan with Phillips surely catching Southgate’s eye as he and the £27m game-changing substitute Rodrigo conjured the majority of their better moves.
Although Dallas cleared Chris Basham’s shot off the line with the goalkeeper rounded, Meslier continued to impress, diving bravely at Baldock’s feet and taking a hefty kick in the chest as the pair collided. Indeed the right wing-back appeared fortunate to escape a second yellow card following an unnecessary challenge on the keeper occasioned by a heavy touch.
The tone was subsequently raised as Rodrigo’s subtle swivel and pass and Jack Harrison’s curling cross prefaced Bamford finally heading the winner beyond a wrong-footed Ramsdale’s reach.
Afterwards the scorer had sufficient honesty to admit the ball went in off his nose and he rued missing a first-half header, and he said his goalkeeper was the true hero. Certainly no Leeds fans will forget the young Frenchman’s high-calibre and courageous contribution in a hurry. “Meslier has huge character and personality,” Bielsa added. “And quality in both saves and with the ball at his feet.”