Patrick Bamford scored again, Sean Dyche turned incandescent with barely contained rage and much of the football was as crisp as the bitter yet bright West Yorkshire weather.
A combination of debatable refereeing and VAR involvement lent a needlessly dyspeptic edge to an afternoon of sometimes clever and always committed passing, movement and pressing, which saw Leeds reach the 20 point milestone and left Burnley stuck on 13, too close to the relegation zone for comfort.
Marcelo Bielsa spent 41 minutes of Christmas Eve delivering a monologue designed to explain that he did not, after all, place style above substance. Evidently bruised by a 6-2 thrashing against Manchester United, the Leeds manager told his journalist audience that he knew good results were imperative but believed the best way to secure them was playing in his preferred swashbuckling mode.
The message between the lines seemed to be that Bielsa would not be compromising but even the Argentinian accepts stubbornness can only take you so far. Possibly in a rare nod to pragmatism, he duly took the precaution of compensating for a central defensive injury crisis by switching from 4-1-4-1 to 3-5-1-1, with Kalvin Phillips dropping back into the sweeping role at the heart of the home back three.
The game had barely kicked off before the right-sided component of that trinity, Luke Ayling, launched a long pass in Patrick Bamford’s direction, prompting Nick Pope to race off his line, feet first and bundle the striker over. Dyche thought – arguably with some justification – that his goalkeeper had won the ball but Robert Jones, the referee, and VAR disagreed, leaving Bamford to send Pope the wrong way from the penalty spot. It was the 10th goal Bielsa’s No 9 has scored in 15 Premier League appearances this season and a further riposte to those who predicted Bamford would be way out of his depth in the top tier.
The Burnley manager’s mood deteriorated further when Ashley Barnes had a goal disallowed in the most contentious of circumstances. Once again it began with a goalkeeper’s dash off his line, Illan Meslier, this time, charging forward in an attempt to collect Ashley Westwood’s lofted free-kick and clattering into the back of Ben Mee as he out-jumped the centre-half.
Although Ashley Barnes pounced on the loose ball and, courtesy of an eye catching swivel and unerring half volley, deposited it in the empty net, no goal was given. To Dyche’s considerable consternation, the referee had blown for a Leeds free-kick for a perceived foul against Meslier before that half-volley left Barnes’s foot and so VAR could not be deployed to rectify an apparent officiating error.
Again with some justification, Dyche remained adamant that Mee was the real victim and Barnes’s “equaliser” should have stood but there was no means of pressing reset and he was left to fume in the technical area, leaving everyone within hearing distance in no doubt as to the injustice.
All this controversy detracted from an absorbing, often fairly even, contest. While most of the artistic-merit marks went to a typically attractive Leeds – even if Westwood attempted to address the balance courtesy of an eye-catching second half rabona – Barnes and Chris Wood ensured Bielsa’s central-defensive trinity could never relax, offering them a thorough workout. Hats off to Phillips, who impressed, looking far from out of position as a defensive midfielder.
Granted Jack Harrison should probably have scored twice after connecting with high-calibre crosses from Raphinha and Rodrigo, while Pope subsequently saved well from the substitute Pablo Hernández but Burnley improved as the game grew older and they switched from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3.
Leeds looked increasingly tired, yet although Meslier saved very well from Barnes and Westwood while the substitute Jay Rodriquez missed a volleyed chance, the home side clung on for the sort of ultimately gritty victory not always associated with Bielsa.
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