Tony Mowbray set Blackburn up in their regular 4-3-3 and had made 3 changes from their defeat at the Oakwell Stadium. Charlie Mulgrew, Stewart Downing and Dominic Samuel were all dropped in favour of Darragh Lenihan, Lewis Travis and Sam Gallagher.
The league leaders made two changes from their draw with Luton. Stuart Dallas and Helder Costa had minor injuries so were replaced by Barry Douglas and Gjanni Alioski respectively. This meant that they still lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation that can quickly morph into a 3-3-1-3 when in possession.
Johnson hit an early shot from about 35 yards out for Blackburn but Meslier had a comfortable save. However, it took seven minutes for the Whites to open the scoring with Bamford finishing after Mateusz Klich won the ball just outside Blackburn’s box who slid it forward for Bamford. This was the fifth time in the last seven wins that Leeds had scored with their first shot on target, the other wins were against Bristol City, Hull City, Huddersfield and Fulham.
Scoring first is important for Bielsa’s Leeds as this season they’ve won 22, drawn three and lost none when they’ve scored first. That form is vastly different when they concede first as they’ve won one, drawn five and lost nine when conceding first in the 2019/20 season. The confidence boost gained and extra control and authority that comes with scoring first can’t be underestimated for the Peacocks and under the Argentinian they have only lost one of the 47 games in which they have scored first.
The first 15 minutes were frantic and very energetic from both sides as the hosts tried to press Leeds high up the pitch and force them into mistakes. This led the visitors to play direct with Patrick Bamford as the main outlet for the long forward passes. This highlighted the difference in play styles between Blackburn and Luton as the latter chose to play in a more compact low block. Leeds tend to struggle more to open up the low blocks and find it easier to exploit the space against their opponents when they try to press them.
Bamford’s goal epitomises how Marcelo Bielsa wants his teams to play. Blackburn had a throw near the hallway line and after a backwards pass infield, Leeds pressed high with Lewis Travis going towards his own goal. Mateusz Klich saw his opportunity and seized it and won the ball in a dangerous position.
Blackburn weren’t going to roll over for Leeds. Tony Mowbray’s men created some good chances as Sam Gallagher hit a one-on-one wide and former Fulham loanee Lewis Holtby hit the post. In the first 32 minutes, Blackburn created two more chances than the visitors (five to three). This led to the Blackburn manager saying “I think we made a game of it first-half particularly. We missed a one-on-one, hit the post and had a goal disallowed.” there were positives for Mowbray as this was one of the few games that Leeds looked like they had weakness to be attacked.
After Harrison played a ball across the goal that went out for a Leeds corner, Douglas swung the corner in. Douglas’ deliveries from set pieces was a huge miss for Leeds in previous games but now they looked a threat as his cross towards the front post led to Ayling hitting the post. In the 40th minute Kalvin Phillips hit a free kick into the top corner from range. The Leeds academy graduate placed the free kick from about 25 yards, it was such a clean hit that any goalkeeper would struggle to keep it out. This meant at the break it was Blackburn Rovers 0-2 Leeds United.
The second half was less end to end as the leaders tried to control the game more. This was because they didn’t have to attack Blackburn and could take the sting out of the game. Blackburn defended well which saw Leeds lose the ball in the final third more often than usual, but they worked hard to win it back with their high press.
Blackburn did respond early after the restart. Adam Armstrong took a freekick from just outside the penalty arc/’the D’. There wasn’t much Illan Meslier could do about it especially when many expected Stewart Downing to take it.
It didn’t take long for the away side to respond. Just five minutes later they had restored their two-goal margin through Mateusz Klich. Jack Harrison ran into the Blackburn area and his shot was block but it fell to Klich on the edge of the box who swept it home. Despite the good shot from the Polish midfielder, questions were asked of Walton. The Blackburn goalkeeper jumped over the ball but in his defence, there were two Leeds players in front of him.
Christian Walton did make up for this with a save from a Barry Douglas free kick. The Scot hit it well as the goalkeeper’s side and he reacted quickly to parry it away from danger.
Throughout the game, Mowbray’s side look threatening as they have done so well all season. This meant Leeds had to double up down the channels. Douglas and Alioski down the left and Ayling and Harrison down the right, both pairs had to be in sync to nullify the threats from out wide. This saw the home side fail to win a corner and attempt only two crosses all game.
There was controversy in the second half. Leeds found great success passing through the lines all game and one of Kalvin’s passes took three Blackburn players out of the game. Klich than quickly slot the ball into Bamford again who was one-on-one before being taken out by the onrushing goalkeeper. Many fans and pundits saw it as a clear red card and a free kick for Leeds, but a lot of referee decisions have gone against the Whites so for many, this wasn’t seen as a surprise.
Young defender Ben White had a standout performance. He Championship’s interceptions charts with 99 and made eight in this match, his joint highest in a single match for Leeds as he also made eight against Swansea. His anticipation and reading of the game were vital in winning possession. This coupled with his ability on the ball is a reason why Leeds can spring counter attacks so quickly. All of this combined is why he is one of the most wanted defenders in Europe, Brighton have a gem on their hands.
Mateusz Klich had an excellent attacking display. Not only did he get a goal and an assist but also completed 17 of his 22 passes in the final third, the most on the pitch. His movement and ability to cover his teammates on the pitch has been praised but his movement in the half spaces which can drag defenders with him or create a passing opportunity has gone under the radar.
Despite having 60% of possession, the winners made 63 ball recoveries, 19 more than their opponents, a third of Leeds’ ball recoveries came in the oppositions’ half. This and them making five more interceptions than the Pirates really highlight the work done off the ball by Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa has instilled a new work ethic into his squad which has seen them become the hardest working side in the Championsip.
Although there was an excellent game and a dominant Leeds performance on show, the main talking point was an unlikely friendship. Bielsa and Mowbray were friendly with each other on the touchline with many commenting on their unlikely friendship. It started before kick off when Tony went in for an elbow bump but Marcelo greeting his opponent with a fist bump. They both left the interaction with smiles and embraced each other with a hug after the final whistle. In their post-match press conferences, they were complimentary of each other.
This was big for Leeds’ promotion push and damaging for their opponents as they slipped further away from the playoff places as the defeat loss the hosts eight points of sixth place.