Nowhere in Saturday’s game at Turf Moor was there an obvious margin of 32 points between Leeds United and Burnley.
There would have been nothing between them at all on the day had Chris Wood taken one of two chances which dropped to him in the second half; “bread and butter” as a deflated Steve Evans described the missed opportunities.
It is, regardless, bread and water for Leeds as Burnley tick off stops on the way to automatic promotion from the Championship. Burnley’s manager, Sean Dyche, did not need to be told that Leeds and Wood had let his squad off the hook but he preferred to look at the bigger picture in a table which the Lancashire club are dominating. “You can’t use the word luck when you’re top of the league at this stage,” Dyche said.
He could have deflected further by claiming that his players had purposely performed in a low gear but it was evident to him and to Evans that Leeds had been better over 90 minutes. It was clear too that Wood had decided the game, if not in the way he is paid to do. “If Burnley are winning games like this, they’re destined to be in the Premier League,” Evans said. “But they’re a team full of top players and they’ve got a top manager. We wish them every success.”
Burnley’s formula is simple and effective, starting with a manager who has made it out of the Championship before and is handling the heat of the run-in again. They scored when the chance came – after all of 59 seconds – and at the other end of the pitch, their centre-backs were reprieved on the few occasions when they lost their bearings. Burnley, who posted a huge annual profit on the strength of Premier League earnings last month, are getting the percentages right. Leeds in contrast are paying for everything.
“It’s about what happens in both boxes,” Evans said. “We played well enough, we dominated for long spells but the goal cost us. And it’s cost us because of our inability to take chances.” Dyche broadly agreed. “Credit to Leeds,” he said. “They played with a free edge. We were a bit tight. The crowd was a bit tight with the emotion of it all. To get a win is a big factor.”
Saturday’s match was a televised fixture but Sky Sports had barely broken from the adverts when Scott Arfield scored with Burnley’s first chance. Evans blamed Stuart Dallas for the concession, saying the winger “would accept he doesn’t get into the shape of the team” as Burnley came forward, but the Northern Ireland international might have pointed to more obvious defensive aberrations.
Sol Bamba, who played at centre-back as Giuseppe Bellusci stepped aside after his recent mistakes, rushed out to challenge Sam Vokes for Tom Heaton’s long punt but was caught short as Vokes headed the ball onto Andre Gray. Gray had his back to goal but came under no pressure and his pass out wide allowed Arfield to drill a low, left-footed shot across Marco Silvestri and inside his far post.
It underlined a comment made by Evans last week – that while Bellusci’s blunders against Rotherham and QPR had come at a high price, he is not alone is holding Leeds back. Burnley threatened to run away as George Boyd came within inches of scoring from the same position as Arfield on 23 minutes but it was the last point at which Dyche’s side looked in control. Gray and Vokes faded badly. Bamba had already drawn a nervous parry from Heaton with a volley from the edge of the box when, in the last minute of the half, a Mustapha Carayol corner caught him by surprise and drew a stabbed finish which Stephen Ward hacked away from Burnley’s line.
Too many of United’s deliveries and corners – 11 of the latter in total – were directionless but as Leeds sensed an opportunity in the second half, two crosses of perfect height and weight were served up to Wood. The first, played in by Carayol on 57 minutes, was at point-blank range but Wood headed fractionally wide of Heaton’s back post. The second, teed-up by Charlie Taylor 20 minutes from the end, also failed to draw a save from Heaton.
“We’ve created chance and certainly with Chris Wood’s chances, they’re bread and butter for him,” Evans said. “He’d normally put them in the net. When you look back, the net is three-quarters empty.
“Of course I’ve mentioned it to him but by the same token, nobody really needs to say anything to him. Chris is a good professional. No-one will lose more sleep than him.”
United’s defeat hung on Wood’s finishing and it is true that alongside a tally of nine goals this season, the striker has allowed many others to go begging. If Bellusci was worthy of a critical eye before Burnley, Wood was deserving of one afterwards. Dyche’s players were feeling the pinch as his chances came and went, growing anxious and struggling to mirror or disrupt Leeds’ rhythm.
“We were nowhere near as good as we can be with the ball but our reslience off the ball got us the result,” Dyche said. Evans, who had labelled Burnley midfielder Joey Barton as Championship player-of-the-year elect before Saturday’s match, said: “Our midfield bossed the game with some real quality of passing and movement. I’ve said words about Joey Barton but he wasn’t the best player in the Championship today.
“Burnley are a great team, though, and they showed unity to defend their goal at the end. From a coaching point of view it was admirable.”
There were familiar frustrations for Evans, not least a second-half challenge by Ben Mee on substitute Mirco Antenucci which Evans saw as a penalty and a straight red card. Referee Lee Mason gave a goal-kick. Dyche said later that he was happy to “show you the 11 penalties we’ve not been given this season”. In the embers of injury-time, Burnley somehow contrived to pass up a killer goal when Ashley Barnes – the player who GFH famously ruled out of a move to Leeds on the basis of a computer game – lashed wide of an open goal from six yards. Perhaps the Bahraini bank knew. What Evans and Dyche knew by then was that United’s opportunity of a result had already gone.
And so the table: Burnley on 80 points and leading the way. Leeds on 48 points and halfway down. They have gone their separate ways since Vokes pinched a point at Elland Road on the first day of the term but the disparity did not seem evident at Turf Moor or not until the result came in, recording Burnley’s 22nd win of the season. Leeds have gathered 11 and have lost more times in this season than Burnley have lost in their last two in the Championship.
“I said to the players ‘if you play as you played for 89 minutes then you’ve got a big opportunity to stay at Leeds and doing something special like Burnley are doing’,” Evans said. “But we need to add four or five quality players.” It was the right way to look at Saturday’s game – a harsh defeat in a match Leeds should have won, but not enough in itself to hide the longer-term gulf. “The mystery to us is that we’ve lost the game,” Evans said, justifiably aggreived by the scoreline. The rest of it is much easier to work out.