Many people said Patrick Bamford was not cut out for the Premier League. Many people reckoned Aston Villa were about to climb to the top of the table for the first time in nine years. All those people were made to look idiotic as Leeds ran Villa ragged here and clinched victory thanks to a wonderful hat-trick by their centre-forward.
That sent Marcelo Bielsa’s team to third place in the table and took Bamford’s tally for the season to six goals from six league games. His previous 27 matches at this level had yielded just one, and his strike rate in the Championship was patchy. “I am very happy for him,” said Bielsa of Bamford. “There have been no significant changes [to how he plays], it’s just that now he is being more efficient.”
Villa had won all four of their previous matches this season and had not even been behind in a game. But Leeds continually made them scramble in this match and Bamford should have shot the visitors in front even before his second-half salvo. Once they took the lead, they seldom looked like relinquishing it and could have left their hosts even more disturbed. For Villa this was a reality check inflicted by a team whose play bordered at times on the otherworldly.
The only pity was that almost no one was here to bear witness. This was one of those matches where the absence of fans felt especially poignant. The first top-flight meeting between these two noble clubs since 2004 should have been enlivened by hollering throngs but instead Villa Park was all lit up but barren, a theatre without music. But the show must go on and Leeds, in particular, produced a spectacle of beautiful style and substance. Bamford got the goals but this was a collective triumph orchestrated by Bielsa.
Yet the portents were not good for the visitors. Whereas Dean Smith could send out an unchanged cast for the third match in a row, Bielsa had to rejig his side owing to injury to his midfield maestro, Kalvin Philiips, and the continued absence of his captain, Liam Cooper. That required several adjustments in defence and Pascal Struijk was set the formidable task of filling in for Philiips in midfield. That plan soon had to be revised, as Struijk got an early booking for a foul on Jack Grealish and then risked a red card. Bielsa substituted him after just 21 minutes, introducing Jamie Shackleton instead.
Leeds would have been in front by the stage if Bamford had not sent a diving header wide in the fourth minute after a cross from by Ezgjan Alioski. Leeds continued to attack as a clever swarm, forcing several emergency interventions by home players before Villa hinted at their own creative quality. Naturally Grealish was instrumental in that, but Ross Barkley and Trezeguet exerted little influence.
Luke Ayling rescued Leeds mid-way through the first half by dispossessing Ollie Watkins after the striker had pounced on a loose pass across the box by Stuart Dallas. Ayling soon had to save his team again, whacking a shot by Grealish off the line after a miscued effort by Trezeguet ran kindly for the Villa captain. The threat from Villa grew but Leeds nearly plundered a goal before half-time thanks to a rapid counterattack. Harrison hurtled down the left and pinged a low cross into Bamford. Under pressure from Ezri Konsa, Bamford shot wide from 10 yards.
And so a quietly riveting first half ended scoreless. Within two minutes of the restart Harrison forced Emi Martínez into a save after cutting in from the left and unloading a shot from 16 yards. Then Grealish tried to break through all by himself and nearly succeeded, scampering past three opponents from halfway and dancing into the area. Illan Meslier made a vital save and then, from the ensuing corner, tipped a volley by Konsa over the bar. The importance of those saves was soon reinforced at the other end, as Bamford fired the visitors in front. He had started the move, too, before Leeds worked the ball wide to Rodrigo, whose low shot was turned away with one hand by Martínez. Bamford reacted fastest to guide the ball into the net from close range.
After that, visitors took control. There was nothing Villa could do in the 67th minute other than marvel as Bamford collected a pass in the D and swept a wonderful left-footed shot into the net.
Bamford completed his hat-trick by crowning a brilliant move involving Rodrigo, Costa and Shackleton, the striker lashing a shot into the top-left corner of the net from 16 yards. Watkins flashed a late shot wide for villa, and John McGinn thrashed one over the bar from long-range. But Leeds lost neither their lead nor their pizzazz.
“I was disappointed at how we reacted after the first goal,” said Dean Smith. ‚“They looked a very good team after that and we looked like a poor team. But you have to give credit to Leeds, they were excellent with their one-touch passing in the second half and they comfortably beat us. And that’s the first time this season I’ve been disappointed with us.”