Leeds and West Ham approached Friday night’s clash at Elland Road sitting at opposite ends of the division’s set pieces tables.
Clearly, only the actual Premier League table counts.
For Leeds, all that matters in this first season back is that the Whites end up 17th or higher.
Twelve games in, Leeds are still comfortable enough in mid-table with an array of stylish and impressive performances still fresh in the memory.
Yet equally it is impossible to ignore United’s current set piece woes, their unwanted position at the top of the table for goals conceded in that respect and the connotations that could have on the table itself.
West Ham arrived at Elland Road with the third best record in the division in terms of scoring from set pieces with five goals netted via that method so far, excluding penalties.
Only Chelsea and Southampton could boast a better record with Chelsea taking their tally to seven with Kurt Zouma’s header in last weekend’s 3-1 victory at home to Leeds.
That left Bielsa’s Whites with the joint second worst record in the division in terms of conceding from set pieces – level with Brighton and Sheffield United and only one behind Leicester City.
Yet by the end of Friday’s contest, two more goals leaked via that method left United’s record as the worst and West Ham’s as the joint best.
Assessing Friday’s defeat is a tricky task as West Ham are a difficult proposition to weigh up with the Hammers only finishing fifth bottom last season but now suddenly fifth and looking to have decent prospects of sticking around in the top half at least.
Their set piece threat will help them in that respect and given United’s history of woes in that department it was always likely the Hammers would cause a threat.
Really, Leeds were lucky to only ship in two and their goals conceded from set pieces record would have taken a bit of a battering but for some more brilliant goalkeeping from Illan Meslier and wayward finishing from Sebastian Haller, albeit Meslier might have done better with the equaliser.
Stuart Dallas lost out to Tomas Soucek for West Ham’s first with Liam Cooper then beaten by Angelo Ogbonna for the second but Leeds looked all at sea as a collective defending set pieces and the issue is one for the defence and moreover really the team as a whole.
The problem has been prevalent for several seasons though at six-foot-one Llorente in particular should prove a very good asset in defending set pieces.
The Spanish international is after all an £18m recruit who has so far played just 81 minutes of football for the Whites due to injury problems and the centre-back is now facing another few weeks out with a muscular problem.
But the set piece issue is definitely something that needs sorting and on the day that United’s head coach made the final three for the FIFA Best Coach award, the problem is an issue which he will be keen to solve.
Leeds would have hoped that their attacking prowess would have outweighed any problems at the other end but for once Bielsa’s Whites never truly got going like they can in that respect and it’s rather hard to work out why.
United approached Friday’s contest with injuries but essentially in the defensive department with the absences of Llorente and Robin Koch worth bearing in mind when it came to conceding two more from set pieces.
Yet with Rodrigo back in the starting XI, Leeds lined up with what is probably their first choice front five at present in Patrick Bamford, Rodrigo, Raphinha and Jack Harrison in front of Mateusz Klich yet could only muster 13 shots at goal with seven on target – low by United’s exemplary standards – with the Hammers weighing in with 19 shots, eight of which were on target.
United still had an early lead to protect via Klich’s second attempt at a penalty and had Leeds been able to keep a fourth clean sheet then one goal would have been enough.
There were not a huge amount of positives to take from Friday night’s loss with Bielsa himself admitting the defeat was a fair one but Whites youngster Jamie Shackleton returned from nearly a six-week lay off due to a quad injury with a solid performance in the second half.
Bielsa was quick to ring the changes at half-time in withdrawing Gjanni Alioski and Jack Harrison for Shackleton and Helder Costa meaning something of a tactical reshuffle.
Costa struggled to make much of an impact but the same can be said for most of United’s players as part of a below par display yet Shackleton quickly added energy and bite to the left hand side.
The talented and versatile 21-year-old has predominantly been used off the bench for Leeds since making his breakthrough but the Academy graduate will be keen to establish himself as a regular starter.
His display against West Ham will certainly have helped his cause and it will be interesting to see if Bielsa now opts to make changes to his side for Wednesday night’s clash against Newcastle United at Elland Road.
It’s hardly panic stations with Leeds still 14th and eight points clear of the dropzone but most of the chasing pack have games in hand and a win against the Magpies would be a very welcome pre-Christmas tonic.
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