Pep Guardiola has such a deep and profound respect for Marcelo Bielsa’s methods that he will always have known that a result like this was possible. And yet even he would not have predicted that a pair of Stuart Dallas goals would guide 10-man Leeds United to victory, inflicting Manchester City’s second defeat in 36 games, courtesy of a 91st-minute winner which caught the Premier League’s champions-elect cold.
Dallas’ two strikes were Leeds’ only two shots on goal - a departure from their usual swash-buckling style - but that was conditioned by Liam Cooper’s straight red card shortly after the first of their goals, which forced them onto the back foot. Though a City equaliser came through Ferran Torres, the runaway league leaders otherwise failed to break a disciplined Leeds down.
City still require just 11 points from their final six games. They will be champions. These final weeks of the league campaign should really be nothing more than a formality. This was also a heavily-rotated City team, practically a second string line-up after seven changes from the Champions League quarter-final against Dortmund ahead of Wednesday’s return leg. That, clearly, is the priority.
And yet, this was hardly ideal preparation. Guardiola will be particularly concerned by the manner of Dallas’ decisive goal, scored amid defensive disorganisation while many of his players were caught upfield. It is the sort of the goal that has undone City’s European ambitions in the past and one that they have largely stamped out this season, but it has re-emerged as a point of weakness at exactly the wrong time.
Leeds’ steadfast commitment to man-to-man marking created space for City to exploit, but that constant presence of an opponent on their shoulder meant turnovers of possession and Leeds counter-attacks were always a threat. Man-marking is one element of Bielsa’s approach that has not influenced Guardiola’s style, but Gabriel Jesus was clearly instructed to stand on Kalvin Phillips in a bid to control those quick breaks.
And yet as open as this was, it did not produce many clear-cut chances. Instead, like two magnets of the same pole repelling each other, the two high-intensity styles created a disjointed contest that refused to come together. Raheem Sterling looked determined to make the most of only his second start in seven games, and perhaps do enough to claim a place in Wednesday’s line-up for Dortmund, but dragged City’s best chance wide from the edge of the box after a sublime dribble by Fernandinho down the right.
Always miscuing their final pass, Leeds threatened in moments without registering a shot. Then, they scored with their first. Joao Cancelo has been one of City’s stand-out players this season but was caught under a long ball out the back and lost his one-on-one battle with Helder Costa. Bamford’s simple lay-off then teed up Dallas on the edge of the box, whose low drive struck the inside of Ederson’s right-hand post, rolled across goal and eventually edged over the line.
Bielsa and the Leeds bench celebrated but defending a lead at the Etihad is difficult at the best of times and especially when you go down to a man. Only two minutes after Dallas’ breakthrough, Liam Cooper caught Jesus with the follow-through of a robust tackle. The Leeds captain won the ball but was not in control of his challenge, flying into Jesus with excessive force. Referee Andre Marriner initially only showed a yellow card but upgraded to red after consulting the pitchside monitor.
Now with a man spare, City were expected to administer the kind of thrashing that Leeds have suffered away from home against ‘top six’ opposition, conceding 20 goals in those other five trips. That never transpired, though.
Sterling failed to react quickly enough to Illan Meslier’s parry of an Oleksandr Zinchenko attempt at the start of the second half. Bernardo Silva turned a close-range effort wide after a spot of pinball inside the penalty area. John Stones began carrying the ball forward like a prime Beckenbauer to give Leeds a different proposition to consider. And yet Bielsa’s side held firm, forcing Guardiola to turn to his bench and introduce Gundogan and Foden.
City were beginning to look desperate. And yet when the equaliser came, it was devastatingly simple and all the hard work of this depleted Leeds side was easily undone. Fernandinho, now playing as a centre-half, took a leaf out of Stones’ book and strode forward to pick out Bernardo, who had escaped Pascal Struijk’s attention and found a yard of space inside the box. His square pass was controlled and finished with one touch by Torres, the curled shot arced away from Meslier’s desperate dive.
And so began the search for a winner, though City were not the only ones in the hunt. Leeds had not tested Ederson since the goal but the goalkeeper was forced to make a crucial tackle on Raphinha five minutes from time after the Brazilian winger brushed off Fernandinho and burst in behind. His attempt to round Ederson was a mistake, allowing his compatriot to tap the ball off his toes.
You would think that would be sufficient warning. And yet, a moment of defensive confusion allowed Dallas to sprint between John Stones and Fernandinho as neither thought to track his run. While holding off the challenge of Stones, Dallas burst through one-on-one with Ederson and slid his finish between the goalkeeper’s legs. Every Leeds player ran the length of the pitch to join the pile-on. The three points bear little significance but this was a win that will live long in the memory. For City, this defeat of little consequence can be explained by the number of changes. Dortmund is the priority. Yet this will nevertheless provoke questions.