West Ham are not going away just yet. This win was not remotely as comfortable as the margin might suggest but it means they are breathing down the necks of the top four, with a game in hand and a potentially defining trip to Old Trafford on Sunday.
It is hard to imagine Manchester United will be as generous as Leeds, who played well but fell badly short in both boxes, but West Ham have developed a habit of turning the screw at the right time and it has left them aiming for the stars. “The players are really disappointed with how they played. We didn’t reach the standard we’ve set this season,” David Moyes said.
There cannot be too much argument with that, nor with Marcelo Bielsa’s assertion that Leeds should have taken a point home.
They had torn into West Ham early on, having two goals ruled out, and Patrick Bamford was the primary offender when several second-half chances went begging. Their clearest openings came after they had gone two goals down, though, and defending of the kind that allowed the hosts to streak ahead leaves those up front with scant margin for error.
Leeds folded at the first glimmer of concerted pressure. When Jesse Lingard scythed a path inside from the left it spooked Luke Ayling sufficiently to stick out a leg and send him tumbling.
There was no doubt about Mike Dean’s award of a penalty: the intrigue lay in the identity of the taker, given Lingard had been put out last month when Declan Rice seized the ball after he had won a spot kick against Sheffield United.
Moyes referred to a week of training ground penalty competitions between Rice and Lingard, diplomatically saying the latter had been “big enough and brave enough to take it” and refusing to commit to the identity of West Ham’s next taker. “The gaffer just said it’s definitely me again,” Rice said, perhaps blowing his manager’s cover.
The message did not sink in. Cresswell’s inswinger swirled beyond a crowded-out Meslier, who exuded no command, and Craig Dawson flung himself successfully at an unmissable header.
Shortly after the break Bamford was sent clear by Diego Llorente but swept the ball wide. With 13 minutes left he ballooned over from close range after being teed up by the excellent Raphinha, who had spurned a decent opportunity of his own, and Leeds’s goose was cooked even if Dawson had to clear off the line from Rodrigo late on.
Moyes was frustrated by his forwards’ inability to retain possession but was left to entertain the possibility that, if they can pull themselves back up to scratch sharpish, he has a team that could just stay the course.
“We are doing really well and having a good season,” he said, allowing himself to enjoy the three points if not their manner. “It could be a great season.”