As the final whistle blew Steve Bruce stared at the players slumped disconsolately on the pitch before turning to offer Marcelo Bielsa a polite fist bump. The Leeds manager sensed it was no time for social distancing and immediately placed both hands on his Newcastle counterpart’s shoulders.
A couple of minutes of intense looking monologue from the Argentinian ensued, resulting in a rare smile from Bruce. “He was very complimentary about my team and said we deserved more,” Newcastle’s manager reported. “He said we played very well second half.”
After nine Premier League games without a win – and 11 in all competitions – Bruce seemed genuinely encouraged by a much-improved second-half display following an appalling first 45 minutes. “The performance was much, much better,” said a manager who detected cause for optimism after Allan Saint-Maximin stepped off the bench. “I’ve seen enough to know we’ll be fine.”
Without quite mirroring Newcastle’s alarming plunge towards dangerous relegation waters Leeds have endured a mini-depression of their own in recent weeks but memories of a run of three successive defeats diminished as Raphinha and Jack Harrison scored a goal apiece and Bielsa’s defence for once held firm at set pieces.
Like Bruce, the Leeds manager said he had “not seen” the moment when Rodrigo appeared to spit at Fabian Schär as the Newcastle defender lay prone on the pitch prompting an altercation resulting in bookings for both players.
Bolstered by news of further impending significant investment from the San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise which will, among other things, enable them to renovate Elland Road, Bielsa’s side began strongly. When Jacob Murphy lost the ball far too easily just inside his own half, Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo combined to conjure a shooting chance on the counterattack which Raphinha revelled in converting.
As the Brazilian winger met Rodrigo’s cut back on the edge of the area and, having taken a steadying touch, shot low and left-footed beyond Karl Darlow, Bruce thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his club anorak and stared at the ground. His sole consolation must have been that there were no fans inside St James’ Park to barrack him. Given the ease with which Bielsa’s players controlled possession and overran his side in a midfield dominated by Kalvin Phillips, the invective echoing from a full Gallowgate End would have hurt.
At one point Bruce scratched his head as if irritated by an insect. Out on the pitch, Leeds were swarming all over their hosts with Harrison missing a sitter. Time after time, they dissected Bruce’s five-man rearguard on the break and, had Bamford not occasionally taken one touch too many, they could have all but won the game by half-time. Yet once Stuart Dallas had a goal disallowed for handball early in the second period, Newcastle were transformed. When Jamal Lascelles won an important challenge, Jonjo Shelvey and Callum Wilson worked the ball into the path of the advancing Miguel Almirón who delighted in squeezing a shot beneath Ilan Meslier.
All too typically Newcastle promptly lost concentration. Having left Harrison unmarked they watched in horror as he caught Raphinha’s pass with the outside of his left foot and the resultant shot crashed in off the inside of a post.
The moment had come for Bruce to reintroduce Saint-Maximin following a two-month coronavirus-induced absence. The Frenchman made an instant impact, unnerving Leeds and galvanising teammates in equal measure as the game turned moved from end to end. Cued up by Saint-Maximin, Jamal Lewis hit the bar and Meslier saved well from Schär and Shelvey but Leeds held firm. “It became very difficult,” Bielsa said. “But it was a very important win for us.”