As the West Ham players headed en masse for Angelo Ogbonna following the full-time whistle here, the celebrations seemed to have just as much relief attached to them as they did jubilation.
Prior to Ogbonna’s header 10 minutes from time which consigned Leeds to another home defeat, you felt as though a combination of profligacy from the visitors and the heroics of Illan Meslier would leave West Ham heading back to London with just a point, rather than the three which ultimately moved them up to fifth before the rest of the weekend’s action.
But this West Ham side, who continue to show promising signs under David Moyes, are nothing if not determined. Even after Ogbonna’s winner, it was the visitors who pressed for another goal, as opposed to Leeds scrambling for an equaliser which, on the balance of play, they arguably would not have deserved given the dominance of their opponents.
Leeds have obvious frailties at the back, underlined not only by both West Ham goals coming from set pieces, but the fact that only West Bromwich Albion have conceded more goals than Marcelo Bielsa’s side this season. However, the sheer litany of chances West Ham created emphasised that they are moving in the right direction this season.
But how far can they go? “Well, I can only talk about what we’ve done up to now,” Moyes said. “We were good after lockdown but we’ve improved again. This game, playing Leeds, is different to any other you face in the league but we were good. We had good chances to get even further in front.”
You always felt that Leeds, more than other sides, would suffer with some semblance of behind-closed-doors fatigue in this campaign. That is reflected in their home form since promotion, with only one victory and just five points from their first six home games this season. Here, they can have no complaints about the manner of their latest defeat.
The promise with which they started, which led to Mateusz Klich’s retaken penalty giving them the lead following a Lukasz Fabianski foul on Patrick Bamford, quickly faded. Enforced defensive shuffles have been an all-too-frustrating familiarity for Leeds this season, and they were forced into another here, with Luke Ayling deputising at centre-back for the injured Robin Koch.
But almost half of Leeds’ goals conceded under Bielsa have come from set pieces, and those old habits came back to haunt them once again. Jarrod Bowen’s cross was met by Tomas Soucek, and while Meslier should have done better in preventing the Czech midfielder from scoring his third in four games, he was crucial in keeping Leeds in the game thereafter.
But despite a string of missed opportunities, several of them falling to Sébastien Haller, it was another dead-ball, delivered by Aaron Cresswell and finished by Ogbonna, which was decisive. “What’s happening is not exclusive,” Bielsa insisted. “This problem we’re having, we’ve had in the past before, resolved it and now it’s happening again. There are no mysteries to the things we have to do.”
Not even a tactical reshuffle after half-time, with Bielsa changing his entire left side and introducing Jamie Shackleton and Hélder Costa, stunted West Ham’s dominance. Bamford fired narrowly wide after the restart, but it was soon the visitors who enjoyed the majority of the opportunities.
Bowen found Haller unmarked in the six-yard box, but his shot was blocked by Ayling, before Pablo Fornals dragged narrowly wide and Fabián Balbuena was denied by a stunning one-handed save from Meslier, who looked as though he would atone for his earlier mistake and earn his side a much-needed point.
But when Ogbonna outfoxed the Leeds defence, peeled back and headed into the top corner of Meslier’s net, the home defenders slumped to their knees, knowing their achilles heel had struck again. As Leeds are starting to find out the hard way, there is no room for lapses of that magnitude in the Premier League.