The tension of the Championship’s promotion race is growing around Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa is facing the task of restoring calm; every single one of his decisions is being scrutinised as a desperate fanbase craves success.
Leeds have been patchy since football resumed on June 21st: they’ve lost to Cardiff City, but swept Fulham aside with ease at Elland Road and, most recently, Luton Town have held them to a 1-1 draw on a frustrating night in West Yorkshire.
Nathan Jones has linked back up with the Hatters and has them fighting for their life at the bottom of the Championship. Their trip to Elland Road was never going to be a walk over and Leeds knew they needed to fight for the points, which were on the line on 50 minutes when Harry Cornick broke into the Leeds half, stood Ben White up and curled a beautiful opener beyond Illan Meslier.
Cornick’s brilliance sparked Leeds into life, with Stuart Dallas responding 13 minutes later, bringing Ezgjan Alioski’s clever reversed ball under control before finishing beyond the excellent Simon Sluga. Parity was restored, but no winning goal came for the Whites, who were banging on the door right through until the 96th minute.
A greater focus and urgency in the second-half could, and maybe should, have brought Leeds all three points, with the general feeling that if Bielsa’s side had played with that determination right through, Luton’s resilience would’ve been broken far earlier.
One man that helped change the course of the game was Ezgjan Alioski, who was brought on at half-time for the second time in the space of four days. The Macedonian can often be frustrating to watch and his three years at Leeds have been inconsistent, but you can’t deny the impact he’s having at this moment in time, as the following graphic shows:
Bielsa turned to Alioski on the back of Leeds’ struggle to impose themselves on the game in the first-half against Luton, with the 28-year-old coming on at left-back as his head-coach shuffled his pack and looked to put the visitors under the cosh.
Despite a slightly deeper position to the one we saw days earlier against Fulham, Alioski was involved in a number of attacking waves during the second-half and almost had an instant impact on the back of Cornick’s goal. He reacted first as Sluga parried Kalvin Phillips’ free-kick out into the area, but the goalkeeper was equal to his snapshot.
That was one of three shots Alioski had at the Luton goal, but his impact in the final third was way beyond firing the ball aimlessly in the direction of Sluga.
On 63 minutes, he received the ball in an inside left position, with the obvious pass either shifting the play wider or swinging a cross towards the back post. Alioski did neither, reversing cleverly into Dallas, giving the Northern Irishman the time to convert past Sluga. The equalising goal came on the back of a link between Leeds’ two ‘full-backs’ and their advanced positions tell you just how progressive the home side’s play was during the second-half.
As the heat map below shows, Alioski’s average position was that of a winger not a full-back; he turned the ball over twice in the Luton half and made sure his ball retention was good, despite playing in crowded areas of the pitch as Leeds held the Hatters to the ropes.
Alioski’s consistent involvement in Leeds’ attack saw him clock up four shot assists (including his assist for Dallas), whilst two progressive runs were made and three crosses were delivered; Patrick Bamford swept one cross the wrong side of Sluga’s post as Leeds turned the screw, whilst Helder Costa criminally misjudged another in the sixth minute of injury-time at a moment where maximum points were a clean connection away.
The delivery for Costa deserved a goal and had Alioski provided a second assist on a tough evening, it wouldn’t have been undeserved.
What is perhaps deserved now is a start for the Macedonian at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday. Dallas has a problem that looks likely to keep him sidelined and Alioski is the obvious candidate to step in on the left.
However, it’s a decision Bielsa has to weigh up and get right with so much on the line. He will be aware of Alioski’s impact on Leeds’ last two games, but he will also note how the 28-year-old’s eagerness to get forward can leave his side exposed on the counter. Yet, Alioski has given his head-coach food for thought with a goal and an assist in two 45-minute cameos, with plenty of calls for his inclusion.
Now is the time for big decisions and now is the time for those to be worth their weight in points: all eyes on Saturday’s team news at Blackburn, then.