Leeds United played football the beautiful way at Anfield
What an introduction to Premier League football after a gap of 16 years! Leeds United proved at Anfield how English football's top-flight division missed the Peacocks over all these years.
It was so unfortunate that Saturday night's opening clash was played in front of an empty stadium. Marcelo Bielsa and his boys deserved to showcase their skills in front of a packed house at the famous arena but millions of people watching the game on television loved to see the West Yorkshire club make an exhilarating mark on the Premier League opening day.
Liverpool had the last laugh in a match, which truly vindicated the fact that the Premier League is the best league in the world in terms of entertainment, passion, and celebration of the beautiful game. The first half just flew by as Jurgen Klopp was struggling to subdue Leeds with his gegenpressing despite being 3-2 up by the end of a truly pulsating first half.
The match was billed as the battle of two great football minds as Klopp and Bielsa came head to head on the opening night of the brand new Premier League season. The two men and their teams did not disappoint as the troubles of the world seemed to stay away for 90 minutes. The champions of the English Championship brought back the memories of old Leeds United days when clashes against Liverpool and Manchester United were always top of the football calendar for any Leeds fan.
Leeds learned a few things against Liverpool on the opening night. First with the quality on show and a charismatic manager leading the way the side from Elland Road will be causing a lot of problems to a lot of top sides. Secondly, the harsh realities of the Premier League might also come back to haunt Leeds if they only concentrate on playing good football. The team has to learn to play ugly at times if it has to survive in the Premier League.
At the end of the game, Jurgen Klopp was seen uttering the word "Wow" to his Leeds counterpart Bielsa acknowledging the fact that not many teams come over to Anfield and play the way Kalvin Phillips and company showcased their talents against the country's top team.
Pace and pressing were the two tools that troubled the Reds from the first minute. The away side's bravery surprised a lot of experts as they pressed at every given opportunity. As per Opta stats, Leeds put in 33 tackles- the most any Premier League side has tackled Liverpool at Anfield since Newcastle in 2015-16 and certainly this is the first time the Reds have been tackled so much since Jurgen Klopp's appointment. Marcelo Bielsa, it seems, has found and shown a way to tackle 'gegenpressing'.
Another striking point to note is possession-wise Leeds had 49% of the ball while Liverpool had 51%. Not many teams enjoy such a high level of possession at Anfield compared to what the away side achieved. Clearly the home side's feared pressing did not work that well on the opening night.
"You can say that Liverpool were not at their best but they were not allowed to be at their best. Leeds hunted them down today for a large part of that game. I don't think they enjoyed the experience. Liverpool normally does that to teams that they play. They normally put teams under pressure and outwork them. Tonight, Liverpool were outworked," Graeme Souness told Sky Sports.
While each and every Leeds player immaculately stuck to the instructions of their enigmatic manager it was ironic that mistakes came from two of Bielsa's big-money summer signings. German center-back Robin Koch gave away the first penalty and was also at fault as Virgil van Dijk was allowed to have a free header from a set-piece as the Champions led 2-1. Liverpool's winner came via a second penalty late on in the game as substitute forward Rodrigo Moreno- the club-record signing- inexplicably fouled an onrushing Fabinho when he was in no way to score from that distance.
These are the areas that the experienced Argentinian manager has to address if Leeds are to continue their quest in the Premier League. Tactically though the Whites matched Liverpool toe to toe and shoulder to shoulder. Center-backs, wing-backs went man for man pressing the home side into deeper areas.
Jack Harrison's pace on the left-wing side, Helder Costa's skills, and Patrick Bamford's towering presence wreaked havoc on the Liverpool backline. Leeds' second equalizer came as Stuart Dallas put a high ball in the direction of the opposite goal and with the ever-reliable van Dijk set to clear it he did not realize Bamford was closely following him and flicked the ball straight into the striker's path who nonchalantly put the ball past an incoming Alisson.
The hard pressing drew a mistake from the very best of the defenders. Even when Liverpool went 3-2 up at half time via Mohamed Salah's ferocious drive, Leeds came out in the second with the same drive and passion. Liverpool were treated with the same medicine that they generally mete out to other Premier League sides. Leeds' pacy midfielders and forwards hunted down the Merseyside club's defenders and central midfielders picking out mistakes even though Klopp's men were creating the better chances.
In the closing stages of the first half, Leeds had seven players in the Liverpool penalty box during open play which proved their intensity to stifle the Champions. When Mateusz Klich fired past Alisson the third equalizer six minutes after the hour mark, he was one of five Leeds players in the Liverpool box. Leeds did not create so many chances as Liverpool did on the night but with a passion and ambition to make a mark with their style of play they gave themselves every bit of chance to create goal-scoring opportunities.
Marcelo Bielsa's well-drilled side did not give up but to last the whole Premier League season with the same verve and tempo the squad strength has to increase.
Hat-trick hero Mohamed Salah was of high praise for Leeds' tenacity. After the game, he said, "It was so tough. It was a good start for us. Tough team. The game for intensity was really high. I scored a penalty in a Champions League final so that was a little bit easier. It was just important for me to stay focused."
One thing for sure, Jurgen Klopp will have far easier evenings than having to face the swift movement of Marcelo Bielsa's side and the German was humble enough to acknowledge the problems faced by his Champions on Saturday night.
Marcelo Bielsa might rue that having put up such a stellar show on his Premier League bow he has no points to show for it but it remains a fact that Leeds will have far easier opponents than Liverpool in the coming weeks and months and if they maintain the same stamina and intensity there is every reason to expect the Whites to be a big-time Premier League side in years to come.
Picture credits: Skysports and the Guardian