Energy and tempo. Both were there as Darko Milanic introduced himself to Elland Road but chances and finishes were missing on a goalless evening in Leeds.
Leeds United’s new head coach saw organisation and intensity flow through his team, just as he demanded, and in that respect will feel happier than he did after Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Brentford. United were shaky at Griffin Park and rattled in the end but Milanic’s first league point was safely accrued last night.
Leeds and Reading tied each other in knots, equally lively between their respective boxes but no great threat beyond the 18-yard line. United have had that problem in spells of this season and after looking closely at his defence in the days after his arrival, Milanic might now shift his attention to the opposite end of the pitch.
His squad have averaged a goal a game in the Championship and yesterday’s match could have run all night without separating the sides. Reading played their part in that stalemate - as aggressive and forward-looking as United but no more able to prise Leeds open. The result fitted the contest, though not because of any caution or negativity.
Glenn Murray came closest to a winner with a second-half header which Marco Silvestri kicked off his line and much of the game belonged to Reading after the break but Leeds did not allow the contest to get out of hand, as they had against the Berkshire club last season.
Milanic moves on now to a Yorkshire derby against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday and, he hopes, his maiden win as United’s boss. The rearrangement of yesterday’s game from a Tuesday to a Wednesday caused a surprising amount of trouble at Elland Road last week, resulting in the sacking of consultant Graham Bean by owner Massimo Cellino, but Leeds looked better for the extra 24 hours of preparation. The turnaround for Sheffield Wednesday’s visit is more rapid and less helpful.
Football has been competing for attention ever since Milanic’s appointment last week. On the day when he was formally unveiled by Leeds, Cellino was the subject of fresh reports calling into question his status as fit-and-proper under the rules of the Football League. Saturday’s defeat to Brentford was dominated by reports and images of the Italian clambering into the away end midway through the first half.
Today, a Sardinian court and Dr Sandra Lepore - the judge who convicted Cellino of tax evasion in March - are due to hear the case of ‘Lucky 23’, another yacht which United’s owner is accused of failing to import duty on. But life goes on in West Yorkshire, with Milanic now at the centre of it.
His decisions last night were partly self-explanatory and partly intriguing. Casper Sloth came into a midfield which offered little invention at Brentford on Saturday but though Rudy Austin’s omission made sense, the absence of Stephen Warnock at left-back was more of a surprise.
Warnock has been United’s most dependable outfield player this season and is, after no new arrivals in his position, the experienced and established left-back at Elland Road. Milanic turned instead to Liam Cooper, using a centre-back to plug that side of his defence.
It was always likely that United’s back five would be busy against a Reading team who loaded their line-up with attacking players. Elland Road was a happy hunting ground for them last season, a venue where Reading led 4-0 after 54 minutes and won 4-2 after a partial fightback from Leeds. They were given a more difficult ride yesterday.
Milanic promised more intensity and verve after after the defeat at Brentford and it was on show from the earliest minutes as Sloth made his presence felt. Milanic kept a low profile, walking quietly to the dug-out, but players who went missing at Griffin Park had far more about them. Reading’s opportunities to examine the goalkeeping of Silvestri were few than Brentford’s.
The Italian dealt with a 20-yard shot from Nick Blackman in the eighth minute, flicking it over his crossbar, and gathered a trundling hit from Simon Cox a few second later, while Sam Byram’s clearance dealt with a dangerous cross from Murray after the striker picked his way past Cooper on the right wing.
Reading’s pace and movement was the basis of their strategy but Leeds were like-minded. Alex Mowatt pinged a shot over the visitors’ goal early on and Byram drag the ball wide after arriving to finish off a counter-attack. There was no appetite on either side for a goalless evening, even though it finished that way.
Cooper’s presence out of position did not go unnoticed and Blackman in particular tried to hassle him as Reading strayed repeatedly towards that side of the field. But Leeds were often one telling delivery away from cutting Reading open. Chris Gunter’s interception on 26 minutes saw off a clever pass from a busy Mowatt as Mirco Antenucci prepared to put his boot through it. Yet for all United’s effort, Adam Federici was untroubled until late in the second half. Souleymane Doukara had one of those nights.
Silvestri’s handling kept the game in order again when a Gunter cross whipped in front of Murray and left the keeper to mop up behind him, and Mowatt whipped another effort into the crowd after an ill-judged clearance by Michael Hector. Giuseppe Bellusci, whose spectacular free-kick lit up Bournemouth a fortnight ago, was unable to have the same effect following Oliver Norwood’s trip on Mowatt a minute before half-time.
The second half maintained the same cat-and-mouse vein. Mowatt caused more trouble at the start of the second half, turning away from a defender on the edge of Reading’s area and driving a deflected attempt wide, while Hector’s inaccurate, side-foot wasted the visitors’ first spell of problematic pressure, brief though it was.
Milanic’s first move was to replace Lewis Cook with Luke Murphy on the hour, at which stage Reading were beginning to dictate play. Mowatt’s substitution - making way for Austin - was harder to understand. Murray threatened soon after with a header from Norwood’s corner which brought forced Silvestri to stick out a foot at the base of a post, and Alex Pearce was inches away from heading another delivery into the net.
The tone was set by that stage and Leeds held on through the final 20 minutes, protecting Milanic against a second straight defeat. Federici made his first save four minutes from time when he dropped down to parry a low strike from substitute Billy Sharp. Last night was a small step for Milanic as he feels his way into a very big job.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Bellusci, Pearce, Cooper, Cook (Murphy 59), Bianchi, Mowatt (Austin 67), Sloth, Antentucci (Sharp 83), Doukara. Subs not used: S Taylor, Warnock, Wootton, Morison.
Reading: Federici, Gunter, Obita, Pearce, Hector, Akpan (Guthrie 71), Norwood, Taylor (Mackie 77), Cox (Robson-Kanu 75), Blackman, Murray. Subs not used: Andersen, Long, Cooper, Pogrebnyak.
Referee: T Harrington.