As the clock ticked into the final minute of second half stoppage time, the eye was involuntarily drawn to a slip of neon orange lurking in Brentford’s penalty area. With Leeds trailing 2-1 at home to the freshly promoted Londoners, Illan Meslier was ushered forward for a final throw of the dice.
Yet, it was the similarly skeletal figure draped in white that proved decisive. Jostling on the other side of the box, Patrick Bamford was the first to react to Luke Ayling’s flick on at the near post, contorting his newly healed body to divert a last gasp equaliser over the line, emphatically announcing his return from an 11-week injury layoff.
Marcelo Bielsa, never one to skimp on a detailed answer, had become so fatigued fielding questions about his absent number nine, he offered a blunt assessment of Bamford’s qualities on the eve of Brentford‘s visit: “Just to say he was a player who scored one goal every two games last season is enough to show his importance.”
Goals have been desperately hard to eke out for Leeds this season. Sunday’s 2-2 draw was just the third time in 15 league games Leeds had netted more than once. In the previous campaign, a Bamford-led front line rattled off at least three goals in half of their first six Premier League matches.
Bielsa’s side rank a lowly 15th for goals scored this term, averaging just one per game the season after boasting the seventh-best attack in England’s top flight. While this drop off is emphasised by a slight swing in finishing fortune, the decline in their front line stems from an inability to create clear openings.
Leeds are actually taking more shots this season compared to last but from far less favourable positions. The Bielsa-led outfit have taken the most shots from outside the box in the division this term and, more worryingly, those speculative efforts from range account for 46% of their total shots – only relegation-scrapping Norwich have been more reliant on pot shots. Last season only 32% of Leeds’ attempts came from outside the area.
One obvious explanation for this started on Elland Road’s substitute bench on Sunday. In the first 22 minutes of Premier League football Bamford was afforded since mid-September, the ‘rusty as hell’ 28-year-old was in the right place at the right time to bundle in a scrappy equaliser a handful of yards from goal.
Bamford relayed the message that was ringing in his ears as he was subbed on after the match: “Try and give a presence in the area and spin behind, don’t drop too short too much.”
The much-missed centre forward may not always score with the clear sights of goal he is offered but – as his short cameo demonstrated – is clearly the most adept player in the squad at sniffing out these chances.
On the day Leeds were able to welcome back not only Bamford but Ayling as well, the Yorkshire outfit saw another hugely influential duo forced off through injury. Captain Liam Cooper was the first casualty inside the opening quarter of an hour, forcing Bielsa to maniacally shuffle his pack.
By introducing the winger Jack Harrison in place of his centre back skipper, Leeds shifted to something closer resembling Brentford’s 3-5-2, with Daniel James and Raphinha forming a pair of split strikers that didn’t offer anywhere near the same presence Bamford, however briefly, introduced.
However, the most worrisome development from the entire afternoon was perhaps Kalvin Phillips’ second half removal. Having already required treatment while Leeds led 1-0, their midfield anchor was whisked off in the aftermath of Shandon Baptiste’s leveller ten minutes after the interval.
Sergi Canos capitalised upon the squall of pressure which ensued in Phillips’ absence as Brentford doubled their lead after an hour.
Leeds are only four points shy of their tally at this stage of the previous campaign but have been spared the brunt of the Premier League’s menace up to this point – though no longer.
Bielsa’s side – perhaps deprived of their totemic midfield screen and club captain – travel to the home of the division’s – if not Europe’s – top three sides in the next fortnight (with the visit of Europe-chasing Arsenal also sandwiched in that run).
Bamford and Leeds have a week to bask in the warm glow of a point snatched by their returning talisman against a promoted side, before embarking upon a truly hellish sequence to close out the first half of a stuttering campaign.