IN recent years Saturday lunchtime games have tended to be relatively tranquil affairs, easing us into the weekend with a tepid 1-0 or bore-draw. Often, it feels like they need a good fifty minutes before they even get going.
Thankfully, this trend appears to be lessening, and though it hardly amounts to a goal-glut the last ten early kick-offs have averaged three goals per game with a couple of stand-out classics among them. These include ten-men Leeds United sucker-punching Manchester City at the Etihad and West Brom dropping jaws across the nation by dismantling in-form Chelsea 5-2.
As Leeds once again go into bat first – granted, Leicester host Newcastle on Friday evening but that always feels slightly detached from the weekend – they will be better served taking inspiration from their unexpected success against the champions-elect than thinking back to early January, when another Saturday lunchtime commitment saw them travel to North London. Then, Tottenham beat them 3-0 and though the visitors posed a genuine threat throughout there was only ever one winner.
It is of course Tottenham who head north in a few days’ time for the corresponding fixture and at face value there isn’t much to gauge from that contest to help us determine what might lie ahead. Spurs were a very different beast back then, mired in very different circumstances, while Leeds for their part were also clearly working their way through something, battering Newcastle and West Brom but losing 6-2 at Old Trafford. It was an odd time for both.
Even so, there are aspects from that game that remain relevant five months on. Leeds went behind that day to a penalty and spot-kicks have been the chief bane of their return to the top-flight, conceding more than anyone else. Fifteen per cent of their goals in the against column have been slotted home from twelve yards. It’s pertinent too that Harry Kane and Son Heung-min each got onto the score-sheet in the capital. The prolific duo have an outrageous 60 goals and assists between them this term and that is ominous against a side that has shipped in 1.5 goals per game all season.
On current form Marcelo Bielsa’s side also have a third man to worry about, with Gareth Bale scoring four in his last two appearances and this brings us to the ‘Ryan Mason effect’ that is possibly their biggest concern of all. “We’re more on the front foot, we’re closer to the goal and you’re able to score more,” Bale said, basking from his hat-trick on Sunday before delivering a not-so-subtle dig at the departed Jose Mourinho. “We’re playing football the Tottenham way.”
It’s true too, they are, and what’s more, when picking through their decimation of Sheffield United it’s clear to the naked eye. Three goals up and late in the game, Son had three team-mates in close proximity to him when he fired home Tottenham’s fourth and that is a level of attacking support which would have been unimaginable under Mourinho. Also late in the game, Bale was seen tracking back, assisting his full-back.
Gareth Bale has a goal or assist every 51 minutes in the league.
Even when he’s past his prime. You simply don’t lose your world class touch.
Hatrick hero. pic.twitter.com/2FLHMZkNW1
— Blauer (@BlauerTHFC) May 2, 2021
The players are revitalized with their former colleague in temporary charge; liberated even. We’ve all seen a film where a freed hostage pegs it to safety, finding energy that contrasts wholly to their brow-beaten selves just moments earlier. Let’s just park that analogy there.
It is a reawakening that is reflected in the data. In Mason’s two league games at the helm Spurs have averaged 63.7% of the possession whereas Mourinho’s final two games saw an average of 50.2%. Naturally, what follows from this are more shots, more corners, and a significantly greater number of touches, with 662 passes strung together against the Blades and Southampton compared to 476 combined against Everton and Manchester United. This is a team enjoying themselves with a front four of Kane, Son, Bale and Alli that promises much. This is a team with their tails up.
Yet, let’s not get too carried away. This is still Leeds remember, a team that imposes their will onto the opposition better than anyone and furthermore, a collective that relishes the disruption of best laid plans via a press that is exhausting just to watch.
In this regard, the probable loss of Kalvin Phillips to a knee problem could be huge while the definite deprival of Raphinha leaves them lighter in transition.
Still, there are plenty of positives for the home side. Should Patrick Bamford succumb to the commentator’s curse and fire a blank Leeds still have ample goal-threats from elsewhere, with Jack Harrison and Stuart Dallas scoring 14 between them. Just don’t expect a defender to chip in because they rarely do, with a meagre three deriving from the back-line all term.
13/25 is only a so-so return for both teams to score. Combine this with 8/13 for over 2.5 goals however and you’re in business
Encouragement can also be sourced from Leeds’ ability to take full advantage when striking first. They have taken the lead on 15 occasions this season and gone on to lose only twice, both times away at top six grounds, and if it’s a stalemate that ekes into the second half that’s to United’s benefit also. Tottenham have conceded 63% of their goals this season in the second period with over a quarter of them converted after the 80th minute. Leeds meanwhile have scored 60% of their goal-haul after the break.
If the other bets don’t go your way, 23/10 for Leeds to win the second half acts as decent insurance