The tap-in scored by Craig Mackail-Smith in Brighton last Friday was the 85th league goal conceded by Leeds United since their reinstatement as a Championship club.
That figure is part of a blunt set of statistics showing 11 clean sheets from 54 Championship matches and total concessions in league and cup games approaching 100. Leeds will reach a century in three goals’ time – at their present rate, against Doncaster Rovers on October 14.
So Simon Grayson has a problem, and not an unfamiliar one. An example of how much it worries him was his admission that Leeds, in this state and with this deficiency, are liable to fall short of the play-offs, let alone reach out for automatic promotion. The concession of two goals a game is no way to clear the eight-point deficit which already stands between second-placed Middlesbrough and Leeds in 13th.
The issue is so endemic that even Grayson discusses it with a tone of despair. He showed stoic patience last season while goals dripped at a regular rate but Leeds’ 3-3 draw at Brighton seemed to break his tolerance, provoking criticism which by his standards was deeply outspoken. It was not before time or unfairly excessive, just an accurate analysis of a team who score at will but cannot defend with anything resembling calm assurance.
Leeds have become a neutral’s dream and the ease with which they are sucked into contests as fraught as Friday night’s is baffling. Games involving Leeds are rarely non-events or bland spectacles; unsurprisingly, the few which are often end in routine results and the production of elusive clean sheets.
It can be no coincidence that many of the 11 produced last season came in fixtures which underwhelmed: goalless draws at Doncaster Rovers and Reading, a 1-0 win at Watford, a narrow defeat of Sheffield United and an uneventful stalemate with Ipswich Town. Wins over Coventry City, Bristol City and Burnley were measured performances rather than special. When Grayson said that he “wouldn’t mind being boring and winning 1-0” past results show that it can and has been done.
Some former professionals who watch his team see Leeds’ fragility as primarily a matter of individual errors, rather than the consequence of tactical failings. Others, like ex-Leeds captain Brendan Ormsby, believe Grayson’s defence lack a voice assertive enough to prevent damaging breaks in concentration. But it was interesting to read Eddie Gray’s assessment in the YEP, highlighting United’s failure to see the gathering storm at Brighton and alter their style of play accordingly, to fight Albion off early in the second half. There is, in Grayson’s squad, an underlying softness and a general inability to strangle the opposition.
In the context of this season, Leeds will see their prospects narrow if their biggest weakness dominates the month of October. There are, we are told, no formalities in the Championship but certain games look more winnable than others – successive matches against Portsmouth, Doncaster, Coventry and Peterborough for instance. The collapse at Brighton notwithstanding, Leeds have made better progress in September than they did before the season’s first international break and their next four games are an open door to proper impetus. The least of Grayson’s priorities must be to stay in touch.
Again, it is apparent that a reliable defence would give a free-scoring club like his the opportunity they seek. It is safe to assume that Grayson, with a strange result against Brighton to ponder, has devoted some time to analysing the transfer market. New signings are not always the answer to a club’s shortcomings but this particular problem is ingrained at Elland Road. It is hard to avoid the feeling that if a solution already existed within United’s squad, it would have shown itself by now.
A move for fresh blood is nevertheless a difficult sell for a manager in Grayson’s position. All five of the experienced centre-backs at Leeds were signed by him and Tom Lees graduated from the academy on his watch. It could be said that Grayson has made his bed and his comments after the draw at Brighton were not an attempt to argue with that. If an upper limit exists for professionals in one position then departures would be necessary before a new centre-back came calling.
As he makes clear today, Grayson’s intention is to persevere with his resources as they are. It is an honourable attitude and more admirable certainly to coach your way out of trouble than spend your way out of it. But it is essential also to know the point at which loyalty becomes martyrdom.
Asked about United’s defensive record earlier this month, Grayson denied that it was related to his coaching methods or down to his tactics. In his estimation, players were guilty of failing him too often, leading to a constant changing of the guard. Many of us remember Gary McAllister saying and doing much the same in 2008. The truth is most likely to be somewhere in between – basic mistakes combined with a lack of collective resilience – but Grayson cannot afford to rule emergency loans off-limits if his defence continues to look like a chain deprived of a missing link.