After watching Leeds United‘s second-half display in their 3-0 victory over Aston Villa on Friday night, I suddenly felt compelled to seek out the extended highlights from their 7-0 win over Southampton in 1972.
That day almost 50 years ago is widely considered Leeds’ greatest ever performance, yet I could have sworn that second 45 minutes at Villa Park I’d just witnessed was as good as anything I’ve ever seen.
Throughout Saturday, texts were sent to friends as I yearned for reassurance. That was incredible, right? Thankfully, former captain Dom Matteo saved my conscience on Sunday evening, tweeting: “I got goosebumps watching that on Friday. It was the best Leeds performance I’ve seen in nearly 20 years.”
My eyes were not deceiving me. When broadcasters show Billy Bremner’s backheel and Johnny Giles’ rabona, they must now follow with Luke Ayling nonchalantly lofting the ball over Bertrand Traore’s head before calmly passing inside to his centre-back partner Robin Koch.
Koch was playing his sixth game for Leeds, in a fourth different backline, against a team that recently put seven past the reigning champions. Result: Aston Villa 0 Leeds United 3.
Where there was once goalkeeper Gary Sprake stood outside Leeds’ penalty area, receiving a goal-kick taken by full-back Paul Reaney just to restart the game quickly so they could try to score once more, there is now Ilan Meslier, the baby-faced Buffon, cherishing every catch as a chance to finally claim his assist bonus.
Where you once saw Paul Madeley, the Rolls Royce who played anywhere and everywhere, looking completely serene at left-back, you can now picture Stuart Dallas, the winger-turned-left-back-turned-central-midfielder-turned-right-back, timing every touch, pass and tackle to perfection – a man who has normalised such consistent excellence you’d be correct to question whether there is a finer footballer at the club.
It is not a contradiction to suggest the same applies to Ayling, whose slight frame belies the weight he carries on his shoulders when leading the team week upon week, whether he wears the captain’s armband or not. Heroically clearing the ball off the line to atone for a rare error in the first half, Ayling was the right man at the right time, as he has so often been over the last four years.
Even Barry Davies’ commentary – “to say that Leeds are playing with Southampton would be an understatement; poor Southampton just don’t know what day it is” – was given a 2020 update in the form of a meme shared online of Jack Grealish asking the referee for a second ball for Villa to play with, given Leeds wouldn’t allow them a touch of the one they were enjoying.
I could go on; looking across the team on Friday night, it quickly became apparent it was impossible to focus on one individual – one of those precious occasions when every single player seems in sync with a collective energy that there can be no stopping.
— The Square Ball (@TheSquareBall) October 24, 2020
In Mateusz Klich, AC Milan’s famous diamond midfield of Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf and Kaka had somehow been crystalised into one diamond midfielder. Jamie Shackleton, a star in the making whose talent has so far grown just too quick for his body to keep up with, found himself flung into the game like an elastic band after 20 minutes, spending every single second of the next 70 minutes taking the ball out of tackles and into space.
Even Pascal Struijk, booked after 10 minutes and subbed off shortly afterwards, deserves credit for making the most of his divine right as a defensive midfielder to collect a yellow card for a welcoming kick on Grealish, albeit perhaps an hour too early. In the words of his captain Liam Cooper on Instagram: “20 mins get into them and have a bath – was all that was needed from you tonight. Animal!”
As for Patrick Bamford and *that* hat-trick, being made to eat my own words has never tasted so sweet.
And then there’s Raphinha, £17million of sauce summoned from the bench with less than 10 minutes to go and Leeds already leading 3-0. Two minutes later, the Brazilian’s shimmy of the hips and outrageous crossfield pass to Jack Harrison seemed to exist solely to underline the point to Villa’s now-demoralised players: We. Are. Taking. The. Piss.
Where do you even begin to start with Marcelo Bielsa, the man who has masterminded all this? Thank you, forever. But equally, damn you for showing us that football can be this beautiful, this stirring, this downright fucking good, when it almost never is.
Leeds are now operating in the sweet spot where science meets art. Both are the by-products of human endeavour, and in Bielsa, Leeds have a manager who has inspired these players – so many of whom have been told they’re not good enough at various stages of their career – to explore the outer-reaches of their talent and discover just how good they can be.
It was not without its tragedy; a performance that should be hung in museums and shown in schools was hidden from the masses, televised behind a £15 paywall. Thankfully, the innate greed of modern football only spurred on Leeds fans to raise over £50,000 for their local foodbank, ensuring the night always belonged to them, their club, and their city.
The greatest Leeds performance of the modern era? It would be unfair to compare to days when titles or promotions were on the line, when the air tastes thinner and legs feel heavier.
The most obscene Leeds performance of the modern era? You’ll have to ask Villa right-back Matty Cash, once he’s stopped rocking back and forth, eyes glazed, muttering to himself about still being able to hear the sound of Jack Harrison’s stepovers.
It’s time to bring out the sock tags and smiley badge: make no mistake, Super Leeds are back.
By Rob Conlon