Results on Tuesday night made the case for sacking managers but the truth is out there for anyone who cares to find it. The relative stability of Leeds United outweighed the naked and nervous ambition of Wigan Athletic last night as a managerless club were made to feel like one.
Wigan came to Elland Road without Owen Coyle and could hardly have fared worse with him in the dug-out. There is a brittle edge about the FA Cup holders which Leeds made the most of with busy, high-paced football and Ross McCormack’s 14th and 15th goals of the season.
United have a style and a tempo established under Brian McDermott and the lacklustre nature of Saturday’s defeat at Blackburn Rovers resolved itself at Elland Road, before and after McCormack opened the scoring in the 15th minute.
Leeds have learned to back themselves with the wind behind them and little fuss was made in the run to full-time, even as Wigan waded into their half. McCormack’s free-kick, which Jason Pearce claimed to have helped on its way, cut the visitors for a second time with 76 minutes played.
McCormack carried an injury before kick-off and his finishes were another illustration of the talismanic mantle he has taken on this season. Pearce aside, no other player has scored for Leeds since their derby at Huddersfield Town in October and whatever McDermott looks for in the transfer window, a striker with similar potency would do no harm to his squad, especially if Dexter Blackstock’s swollen knee becomes a significant problem.
Wigan have ample resources in that area – Grant Holt was named on the bench last night and could not influence the result in the time he spent on the pitch – but they would settle for a sliver of the assurance that McDermott’s players are starting to show at home. Five wins in succession at Elland Road is United’s best run of results in Leeds for a year, a statistic reflected by the Championship table.
With Coyle banished to the no-man’s land of football management after a tenure lasting six months, Wigan’s squad were in the hands of their caretakers Graham Barrow and Sandy Stewart. United had worries of their own beforehand but the worst-case scenario for McDermott did not come to pass.
McCormack put his hand up to play despite a bruised hip and Tom Lees was passed fit after hurting a knee against Blackburn. The news kept McDermott’s attacking line and defence largely intact, and McCormack did his thing before a quarter-of-an-hour had passed.
Blackstock’s fitness is more of a concern and it is difficult for Leeds to know how heavily they can rely on the Nottingham Forest forward in the lead-up to Christmas.
A rusty Luke Varney took his place at Ewood Park over the weekend but was unsurprisingly replaced by Matt Smith last night, deferring to a sharper alternative.
McDermott had other ways of revising his team but resisted the chance to recall either Sam Byram or Stephen Warnock, regardless of United’s lack of penetrating width in Blackburn.
Two shots on target was the tale of that performance, and the bottom line a 1-0 defeat. United’s exchange with Wigan was a more open contest once McCormack drew blood.
A ticket promotion offering season-ticket holders a free seat hiked the attendance above 25,000 but the atmosphere at Elland Road bubbled quietly as the teams felt each other out for 10 minutes.
Luke Murphy’s 25-yard shot on eight minutes – safely held by Scott Carson in Wigan’s goal – was a blip amongst a tirade of high balls and hopeful passes into space.
The game cried out for fireworks from an early stage.
United at least took credit for forcing the pace before McCormack scored and set the tone. A Jason Pearce header deflected wide after Chris McCann responded to Alex Mowatt’s quick change of feet by clipping his heels and giving the midfielder a free-kick to swing into the box, and Smith kicked a close-range effort against the heels of Leon Barnett.
Wigan looked as directionless as a club in their position should, a team loaded with talent but minus an effective plan of attack.
Leeds got to them soon enough with McCormack punishing weak defending in the 15th minute.
Mowatt – watched by England Under-21 coach Gareth Southgate, who took up a seat in the West Stand – dipped a corner to the far post and as Carson refused to commit himself, Lees’ knockdown gave McCormack a tap-in from three yards out. Assistant Chris Akers ruled that the ball had crossed the line as a Wigan foot hacked it clear.
The will to respond among the visiting players was not immediately obvious and Leeds took to peppering a goalkeeper in Carson who wobbled every time the ball hovered above him.
Paddy Kenny at the other end of the field did not have a delivery to deal with until the 26th minute.
He was still alert enough to throw himself in front of Will Keane’s volley when James McArthur’s deflected shot spun to the forward soon after.
His save on the half-hour was more desperate and impressive, a point-blank block from Keane after Lees diverted Ben Watson’s cross into his own six-yard box.
They were crucial moments in Wigan’s most intense spell of the half, the last line of defence against an equaliser. Leeds hinted at a second goal occasionally, with Rudy Austin curling a cross marginally in front of an unmarked McCormack. But a 1-0 advantage was a fair scoreline at the break, despite Emmerson Boyce nodding a free header over the bar in the last minute of the half. Wigan’s caretakers did not take long before reaching into the bag of tricks left behind by Coyle and Holt made his entrance in the 55th minute, mildly booed by a crowd who remember clearly United’s more recent run-ins with Norwich City.
Much of the possession belonged to Wigan but they remained at arm’s length from Kenny and Marius Zaliukas had the chance to strike again when his shot from a corner failed to squeeze through a pack of players. Carson then dived to meet a volley from McCormack as Leeds reasserted themselves after the hour and the curtains should have been drawn 16 minutes from time when Smith dispossessed a sleeping Ramis, ran at Carson and drove the ball against his legs. Either side of him McCormack and Murphy were waiting for the invitation to attack an open goal and a relieved Wigan side counted their luck.
The reprieve was ultimately worth as much to them as sacking Coyle had been once McCormack’s free-kick bounced through Carson’s box and nestled in the top corner of the net. The Scot and Pearce were left to fight over it.