The cliche is you should never meet your heroes. Pep Guardiola could not beat one of his idols. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds made it harder for one of his admirers to regain the Premier League title. They procured a point and almost took all three as Rodrigo produced a hat-trick of menacing attempts, hitting the bar twice and opening his Leeds account. Manchester City, who had led, were left gasping for breath after being pummelled by the sort of high-speed football that drew Guardiola to Bielsa.
It began at a relentless pace. City had more of the attacks but Leeds responded in kind when they could. As Bielsa said this week, they only know one way to play. Attempts at goal followed in flurries: Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne at first, Aymeric Laporte, Patrick Bamford and then Phil Foden later.
Laporte is a Bielsa disciple, given his Athletic Bilbao debut by the Argentinian and now half of the costliest centre-back partnership in English football history. The £57m Frenchman had the rare experience of playing with a more expensive sidekick as Rúben Dias was granted a debut after his £62m move from Benfica. If the Portuguese has been brought in to give City solidity after they shipped five goals to Leicester, he preserved the deadlock in unwanted fashion, meeting Riyad Mahrez’s corner and heading wide.
Guardiola has now spent £400m on defenders during his time at City, but these managers are defined by a commitment to attack in idiosyncratic fashion. Guardiola v Bielsa may be a meeting of minds, but if the twin obsessives have been accused of overthinking things, the early evidence was that the Catalan outthought the Argentinian. When De Bruyne whipped a free-kick against the near post, leaving Illan Meslier, who had been expecting a cross, scrabbling across his box, there were shades of Gary McAllister against Everton in 2001. Perhaps Guardiola had spotted something in the goalkeeper’s positioning, perhaps De Bruyne did.
The manager certainly merits the credit for reviving an old tactic. He had used a left-footed false nine in each of his three previous meetings with Bielsa, and while it is unfair to bracket Mahrez with Lionel Messi, the Algerian’s central role allowed Guardiola to restore Sterling to the left. He reaped a dividend for that decision.
After the Leeds captain, Liam Cooper, gave the ball away, Sterling latched on to Ferran Torres’ pass, cut infield and found the bottom corner. His potency had almost brought the breakthrough a minute earlier when he confounded Luke Ayling with a series of turns and found Mahrez, whose effort was brilliantly cleared off the line by Stuart Dallas.
Formerly of Yeovil, Ayling is an advertisement for Bielsa’s coaching but when City isolated Sterling against him, he struggled. Yet he was not cowed and, but for a fine Ederson save, Ayling would have levelled after an error from Benjamin Mendy. It said much about Leeds’ ambition that their two best first-half chances fell to full-backs. Ederson twice denied them, thwarting Dallas after a surge forward.
In typical fashion, Bielsa had given away his team news 48 hours in advance, revealing Ezgjan Alioski would come in for Jack Harrison, the midfielder on loan from City. The Macedonian spurned one fine chances and then was removed at the break as Bielsa brought on Ian Poveda, the winger he bought from Guardiola.
Yet his second change proved more influential. On came the club-record buy Rodrigo and, after the inauspicious start to his Leeds career at Anfield, where he conceded the penalty for Mohamed Salah’s winner, he made the right sort of impact. First his rising shot was deflected on to the bar. But Ederson, excellent in the first half, undermined that fine work by spilling Kalvin Phillips’ corner for Rodrigo to tap in his first Leeds goal. Bamford’s fine form has denied him the centre-forward’s role but Rodrigo, a substitute who was substituted last week, suggested he could flourish in midfield.
Rodrigo almost made it a swift double. His header was bound for the top corner until Ederson, seeking to make amends, tipped it on to the bar. The offside Cooper also hit the frame of the goal and, when Bamford burst clear, Mahrez had to act as the last defender to halt him. It was a sign of the disarray at the back for City.
Guardiola was reduced to making defensive changes, sending for first Nathan Aké and then Fernandinho in a quest for solidity. And yet this was never going to peter out. Fernandinho, Bernardo Silva and Sterling threatened to score a City winner. Bamford had the golden opportunity to give Leeds victory. Ederson came to City’s rescue and Bielsa’s wait for a first win over Guardiola continues.