Marcelo Bielsa has Leeds United one step closer to the Premier League, with a 3-0 victory over Fulham at Elland Road a statement result at a point of the season when this club has so often lost their bottle.
Leeds were poor in the opening 45 minutes, but Patrick Bamford’s goal gave them a 10th minute lead.
However, the introduction of Pablo Hernandez from the bench, alongside Ezgjan Alioski, swung the momentum in Leeds’ favour during the second-half.
Alioski doubled the lead on 56 minutes following a slick break and Hernandez stole the show with an outstanding assist 15 minutes later, giving Jack Harrison the freedom of Elland Road’s East Stand side and allowing him to bury his chance under Marek Rodak.
The win leaves Leeds top of the table, 10 points clear of Fulham and eight ahead of Brentford. Another seven displays like this will see Leeds into the Premier League comfortably and promotion feels as close as it ever has now.
Here, we break down what we learnt about the Whites on an impressive afternoon at Elland Road…
Bielsa’s experience underlines Parker’s naivety
Bamford’s slick finish put Leeds into a first-half lead, but Fulham were the better side and Leeds’ No.9 didn’t impress his boss. Neither did Helder Costa – who teed up his goal – and the pair were axed at half-time.
Bielsa was watching Fulham have too much of the game and his reaction to that was to introduce Hernandez, with the Spaniard stepping off the bench to grip the game by the scruff of the neck.
The 35-year-old got Leeds going and he exposed the space Fulham left between the lines. His highlights reel is mouth-watering and he, rightly, deserves spades of credit, but so does his boss.
Not many criticise Bielsa, but he can be stubborn with his substitutions. On this occasion, though, he was ruthless with them and swung the game back in Leeds’ favour.
Minus Bamford’s goal, Parker will have been pleased with Fulham’s opening 45 minutes, but he was naive to think Bielsa wouldn’t get a reaction from his players after the break.
There was no Plan B for Parker and no answer to Bielsa’s moves.
Hernandez is crucial
It’s obvious, and has been since Hernandez strolled into Elland Road back in 2016, but he’s the key to this side’s success; when his performances tired last season, Leeds’ wins dried up and they lost their bottle.
This season has a different look to it and a near four-month postponement might’ve done Hernandez good. He’s 35 now and needs managing carefully, but a 45-minute burst like this proved why Leeds need him at the peak of his powers.
They struggled to retain possession in the first-half, but Hernandez’s introduction changed everything and Leeds looked like a champion side from the second he stepped onto the field.
His vision for Harrison’s goal was outstanding and will be watched thousands of times, but more simple moments make the difference: always available, in any situation and never shrinking from the magnitude of the game.
Leeds missed that in Cardiff six days earlier and they’ll need their Spanish wizard in the week when Luton visit. Bielsa has to manage his minutes and niggles carefully, but he’s so vital and if Leeds are to get to the promised land, they’re going to need Hernandez on the top of his game, just like yesterday afternoon.
Ben White takes another step toward the top
White is having a breakthrough season in his career and he’s going to be showing the Premier League his class next year, with or without Leeds.
The Brighton loanee has thrived under Bielsa and worked his way through 39 straight games in Leeds’ pursuit of promotion.
Not many have got the better of him, but Aleksandar Mitrovic is a unique threat and in the reverse fixture at Craven Cottage the Serbian probably came out of that duel on top. And, he tried to impose himself on White early on with a crashing assault on the defender’s jaw.
That type of challenge can often send an individual back into their shell, but White dusted himself down and showcased his class. It isn’t his style to go blow-for-blow with Mitrovic, but he nipped in ahead of him and won the ball more times than you can remember, cutting off the supply to the Championship’s best striker. It really was a Premier League battle between two players that deserve to be playing in the Premier League.
Mitrovic has, of course, had a taste of that level and never quite lived up to the hype. For White, though, you feel his top-flight experience might be a little different. This performance proved that.