Leeds United’s goalscoring under Garry Monk has long been economical and effective. The club’s goal difference is better than it has been for seven years but that record is a positive indictment of a defence who can rub shoulders with any other in the Championship.
Up front, United operate on finer margins. Chris Wood’s 22 league goals – the stand-out tally in Monk’s squad – have come from fewer than 40 shots on target. Leeds fashion more attempts per fixture than only six clubs in the division. The blank drawn in Saturday’s goalless clash with Queens Park Rangers was indicative of a team with limited prowess up front but typical of a side who carve out results regardless.
In three of their last four games – against QPR, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday – three attempts on target yielded five points and no defeats. Barring a last-chance-saloon equaliser by Fulham’s Tom Cairney a week ago, the return would have been seven. A 3-1 win over Birmingham City fell in amongst those matches, a night when Leeds cut loose in the last 25 minutes, but QPR succeeded in quelling that sense of adventure over the weekend.
Rob Green, a veteran goalkeeper who has been through more league run-ins than he can remember, felt the draw with QPR made the case for “playing with a bit more freedom” as Leeds try to close out a top-six finish. Saturday caused frustration but, in its entirety, was not a bad day for Monk: Fulham, in seventh, beat Newcastle to close in on the top six but Reading and Sheffield Wednesday lost and Leeds gained a point on both clubs. United have 66 with nine games to play. At the same stage in 2011 Simon Grayson’s Leeds squad held 61 – albeit when 66 points was good enough for second place.
Green described United’s display against QPR as a “difficult performance” and suggested Leeds had reached the stage where a willingness to take more risks might not hurt them.
“It’s about understanding that and trying something different in a game,” he said. “We played a lot of passes and a lot of square balls, wanting to break them down, but sometimes you can try something different just for the hell of it, just to mix it up. That comes with experience and it comes with not worrying about the consequences so much.
“So what if you don’t score with every attack? There’s nothing wrong with releasing the shackles; making runs into the box when maybe you shouldn’t, that sort of thing. These lads are learning all the time and it’s imperative to say what a great job they’re doing for such a young group. It’s not a case of wanting a laissez-faire attitude but a case of playing with a bit more freedom.”
There is an undeniable sense of anticipation at Elland Road these days, the sort of healthy, expectant atmosphere that the stadium lost for several years. Leeds have recorded six home attendances over 30,000 this season, including a sell-out against Newcastle United in November. QPR was another. Over the course of the 2015-16 term, they did not see one.
Monk has credited the mood at Elland Road with underpinning the form of his side, whose results at home are bettered only by Brighton, Reading and Huddersfield Town, and both he and Green made the point that QPR had visited Elland Road with creditable form behind them. Rangers’ manager, Ian Holloway, felt the same. “The crowd might have looked at the table and thought they would beat us,” Holloway said, “but they don’t really look at the form table. We’re doing better than that.”
Green said: “Playing with freedom in front of large crowds is something that comes with time. You look at the best players in the world and they don’t think about what they do. It’s that lack of thought as opposed to thinking too much about everything.
“But in the end you look at the results around us. A couple of teams lost and QPR have had a turnaround in form, coming to us on the back of two wins. They made it hard but it’s a point a closer to the end goal.”
Leeds’ next two fixtures, at home to Brighton this Saturday and away at Reading on the other side of the international break, will alter the top six again. Monk was unimpressed with Leeds’ performance against QPR but, after a period in which Leeds won away at Birmingham and drew with Fulham at Craven Cottage, United’s coach was pleased to “come out of a difficult week unbeaten and with points added”.
Monk will be without the suspended Luke Ayling against Brighton and Reading, the result of the right-back’s 10th booking of the season.
But Brighton have much greater defensive concerns. Shane Duffy, their regular centre-back, has an ankle injury and experienced full-back, Bruno, limped out of their win over Derby County on Friday with a groin strain. Connor Goldson and Gaetan Bong are on the sidelines and Seb Pocognoli is a doubt. On-loan Chelsea teenager Fikayo Tomori has been lined up for a full league debut as Bruno’s replacement at Elland Road.
“Unfortunately for us, the problems we have are all in defensive areas,” said Brighton manager Chris Hughton. “We’re dropping into the Under-23s. Seb (Pocognoli) is close and I think we’re more confident of Blackburn after the international break, but certainly we’re not ruling him out of Leeds.”