This season has taken Leeds United to several vantage points but Saturday’s win over Brighton is one the club will not look back from. The play-offs feel unmissable now and their head coach has rarely looked more in control than he did with Brighton’s scalp in his hand.
His players took it on a weekend which ranked as a poor one for the Championship’s top seven in the main: a litany of dropped points and complications for all but Reading and Leeds. Garry Monk made light of the tension by dropping a hitherto undroppable defender and picking off a Brighton team who had visions of spending the international break at the top of the Championship. “A good night’s work”, Monk called a surgical 2-0 victory at Elland Road – and then some.
Leeds needed one like it and not merely because of the impact on the table. The club have protected their play-off position since first acquiring it in November, showing no sign of questionable nerve, but their performance on Saturday shook the image of a squad who were merely doing enough. Seven days previously, Monk stomached a goalless draw with Queens Park Rangers without the consolation of a single shot on target but Brighton were overwhelmed by the intensity United pride themselves on and the intensity they will need when the play-offs come around.
Chris Wood claimed both of their goals, dragging down another team who could not find a way to suffocate him. As it stands, QPR might be the only Championship club to emerge from this season without conceding to Wood and the striker, with 27 on his record, is three from joining an exclusive group of Leeds players who struck 30 times in one season.
The list of those who have – Jermaine Beckford, Lee Chapman, Peter Lorimer, John Charles and Tom Jennings – is stellar. The list of those who fell short contains some equally iconic names.
Monk never hurries to single out players on a day so good and when it came to discussing Wood’s impact against Brighton, there was talk of hard work and “following principles we have to stick to”.
Principles were mentioned more than once when it came to inquiring when Monk’s starting line-up included Liam Cooper over Pontus Jansson at centre-back, omitting a charismatic defender who is seen in some quarters as Leeds’ player of the year.
At no stage since Jansson’s arrival from Torino in August has Cooper had a look-in for any reason other than illness, injury or the occasional ban. Jansson, who sat on the bench on Saturday, was available and fit, a fact emphasised by Leeds putting him through a concerted warm-down after full-time.
Monk was cryptic in his explanation but said enough to imply that Jansson’s conduct or attitude had put his position at risk or challenged Monk’s authority. There will be much attention on the Monk’s team when Leeds resume their season away at Reading on April Fool’s Day.
“I’ll always do what’s best for the group,” Monk said. “When I’m selecting teams I try and do what I think’s best for the team and what I feel is best for the game coming up.” So why had Jansson suddenly failed to tick the right boxes? “Number one, I’ll always do what’s best for the group,” Monk replied. “That’s based on who we might be playing, the set-up, but also on the principles we have and follow on a daily basis. I’ll make those selections and I’ve shown already that I’m prepared to do that. This was one of those occasions.”
It was a sizeable risk and one which Monk might have answered for had Rob Green not pulled off an instinctive save to prevent Cooper from diverting a Berman Kayal cross into his own net in the first half but Cooper’s general display was not a problem. In the end, defensive issues were to Brighton’s cost as on-loan Chelsea right-back Fikayo Tomori – competent for an hour as Bruno’s stand-in but at fault to some degree for both of United’s goals – lost his way on an occasion when a raw 19-year-old was likely to. His failure to stop Charlie Taylor’s cross saw Wood dispatch a pinpoint header in front of the South Stand on 64 minutes and his foul on Souleymane Doukara five minutes from time allowed Wood to smash a penalty past David Stockdale.
There were scares at the other end but Green dealt with the worst of them and even Chris Hughton, Brighton’s likeable manager, was arguing for no more than a point afterwards. Taylor gave Anthony Knockaert one kick of note – a shot which Green held and which an angry Glenn Murray wanted played to his feet in the six-yard box – and much of Albion’s pressure came after Wood’s goal prodded them into life. Automatic promotion is still on for Hughton but they are not a class apart in this league.
In the midst of it all, Monk was impressed by Cooper’s display; a rare start for a centre-back whose league appearances were not in double figures before Saturday. “It’s been difficult for Coops but when he’s played he’s been excellent,” Monk said. “He’s a top defender, I said that a long time ago, and he’s been improving.I really enjoy working with him because he listens and works hard. To come in and deliver that performance shows how ready he is.” It was not clear if any of those comments were for Jansson’s benefit.
The result of Leeds’ win, however, was that Jansson’s absence became a smaller sub-plot; not quite the inquisition it would have caused in previous years and not insurmountable. A tight start gradually gave way to more ambition and Green’s diving stop from Cooper, intervening after the defender prodded Kayal’s cut-back towards him, was the only save of the first half, underlining again the form of a goalkeeper who looks well worth his extended contract. Uncharacteristically, Wood allowed a chance to slip by him after a perfect corner from Pablo Hernandez flicked off his heels. He missed another in the second half when a mistake in the middle of Brighton’s defence ended with a rushed and weak finish into David Stockdale’s hands.
With an hour gone, however, the game opened up and Leeds drew first blood. Ronaldo Vieira kept an attack alive by needling Kayal out of a loose ball in midfield and Taylor – brought in for the suspended Luke Ayling – ran beyond Tomori and hit the byline before lofting a cross on Wood’s head. The striker aimed the ball beautifully into the only part of the net Stockdale could not defend.
“Individual battles are always crucial,” Monk said, highlighting Vieira’s role in the goal. “At certain moments like that one, he had to win the ball and we had to stay on top.” What followed was a sizeable wobble from Leeds as a largely anonymous Murray battered a volley against Green from inside the box and then whipped a shot wide of the far post after it spun behind Kyle Bartley. Half chances got away from Albion, slipping through legs and narrowly in front of stray feet. “It was a question of moments,” Hughton said. “On chances I don’t think it was a game we deserved to lose.”
Doukara ensured that they did in the 85th minute by jinking between a number of Brighton players and tempting Tomori to dive in on him inside the box. Ever a surprise, Doukara had looked in tune with the pace and balance of the contest from the first moment he came off the bench. Wood took the penalty and sent it down the middle of the goal while Stockdale dived to his right.
Brighton gave up the ghost and Elland Road bounced in a way that the stadium has not done since that alluring but deceptive win over QPR in 2010. Leeds were a few days from Christmas on the night of that result. By 8pm on Saturday they were eight games from home, not that Monk was ready to feel so close.
“I’m not naive and I know what could be a possibility,” Monk said. “But one of the biggest reasons we’ve been successful this season is because we’ve only ever focused on the next game. We’ve not looked elsewhere and lost focus. It’s the best way, it gives this group the best chance and we’re not going to change now.”