As the final whistle sounded, Steve Bruce watched the inconsolably slumped players on the pitch before turning to offer Marcelo Bielsa a polite punch. The Leeds manager sensed the time was not for social distancing and immediately placed both hands on the shoulders of his Newcastle counterpart.
A few minutes of intense monologue from the Argentinian ensued, resulting in a rare smile from Bruce. “He was very complimentary about my team and said we deserve more,” said the Newcastle manager. “He said we played really well in the second half.”
After nine Premier League games without a win – and 11 in all competitions – Bruce seemed genuinely encouraged by a much improved display in the second half after the appalling first 45 minutes. “The performance was good, much better,” said a manager who detected reasons for optimism after Allan Saint-Maximin left the bench. “I’ve seen enough to know that everything will be fine.”
Without quite reflecting Newcastle’s alarming plunge into dangerous relegation waters, Leeds have suffered a mini-depression in recent weeks, but memories of a three-game losing streak faded as Raphinha and Jack Harrison scored a goal each and that the defense of Bielsa for once held firm with stopped pieces.
Like Bruce, the Leeds manager said he ‘didn’t see’ the moment when Rodrigo appeared to spit on Fabian Schär as the Newcastle defender lay on the pitch causing an altercation resulting in bookings for both players .
Bolstered by news of impending significant new investments from the San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise that will allow them, among other things, to renovate Elland Road, the Bielsa side has started with force. When Jacob Murphy lost the ball far too easily just in his own half, Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo combined to create a shooting chance on the counterattack that Raphinha reveled in converting.
As the Brazilian winger met Rodrigo’s cut on the edge of the area and, after taking a steady touch, shot low and left footed past Karl Darlow, Bruce shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his club anorak and looked at the ground. His only consolation had to be that there were no fans inside St James’ Park to cram him in. Considering how easily Bielsa’s players controlled possession and invaded his side in a midfield dominated by Kalvin Phillips, the invective echoing a full Gallowgate End would have hurt.
At one point Bruce scratched his head like he was irritated by a bug. On the pitch, Leeds were teeming with all their hosts with Harrison missing a keeper. Time and time again they’ve dissected Bruce’s rearguard to five at the break and, if Bamford hadn’t occasionally taken a touch too many, they almost could have won the game at halftime. Still, once Stuart Dallas had a disallowed handball goal early in the second half, Newcastle were transformed. When Jamal Lascelles won a big challenge, Jonjo Shelvey and Callum Wilson worked the ball on the path of the advance of Miguel Almirón who was delighted to take a shot under Ilan Meslier.
Too generally, Newcastle quickly lost focus. After leaving Harrison unmarked, they watched in horror as Raphinha passed with the outside of his left foot and the resulting shot crashed inside a post.
The time had come for Bruce to reintroduce Saint-Maximin after a two-month absence induced by the coronavirus. The Frenchman made an instant impact, angering Leeds and galvanizing his teammates in equal measure as the game moved from start to finish. Stimulated by Saint-Maximin, Jamal Lewis hit the bar and Meslier saved well from Schär and Shelvey but Leeds held on. “It has become very difficult,” said Bielsa. “But it was a very important victory for us.”