It’s been creeping up quietly but Leeds United’s game against Wigan Athletic on Boxing Day is shaping up to be their most consequential for a while. Win it and the club will have clear water to swim in. Lose it and their position in the Championship will look more than a little dicey.
Leeds lightened the mood in the week before Christmas with a draw away to Nottingham Forest, and a precious draw at that, but their season is crying out for a rise in the win-rate. On Saturday they showed again that they have the wit to take points off useful teams in the Championship. The question in the second half of the season will be how many and how often.
Billy Sharp’s 54th-minute penalty forced a 1-1 draw at the City Ground and the scoreline was all Leeds wanted to think about. Forest complained about the tackle leading to Sharp’s goal and two Matty Fryatt efforts disallowed for offside but United have had bad luck when they’ve had any this season. Without an away victory since the middle of September, the result counted. As far as Neil Redfearn was concerned, everything else was white noise.
United’s head coach will have the same mindset when Wigan come to Elland Road on Friday. Last season’s play-off semi-finalists are hopelessly lost in the relegation places, six points from safety and seven behind Leeds. It’s a pressure game but an opportunity too – a potential lifeline for Wigan but a chance for United to edge further from harm’s way. Six wins from 22 matches have made it that sort of delicate campaign but the walls are not caving in yet.
Stuart Pearce, Forest’s manager, was philosophical about offside decisions afterwards and honest about his side’s mediocre position in the league. “It’s a congested division,” he said, “and a lot of teams behind us will fancy their chances. We’re still waiting for Brighton and Wigan to get moving too but they will.” His last comment hung in the air. As the two sides in 22nd and 23rd place respectively, Leeds do not want to be within reach if or when that resurgence comes.
A six-pointer against Wigan then? “We’ve just got to take every game on its merit,” Redfearn said. “We can’t assume anything about anyone.
“The only way we’ll get better and more consistent is by concentrating on our own game. In this division every side is capable of beating one another. You can’t take your eye off the ball.
“But a draw at Forest is a good result for us and our home form’s been good. So we got to capitalise now.”
It is that which Leeds have been unable to do – turn the screw whenever the impetus has swung their way. As resounding as their win over Derby County was last month, it was also one of two in their past 14 games. “Like I’ve said before, the 10 games when I wasn’t in charge here got us six points,” Redfearn said. “That’s a problem. It means every time you take a step back, the league table looks much worse. But to be fair, an away performance has been coming and this point was richly deserved.”
Leeds had two of the better chances before half-time but Forest got the goal, on the cusp of half-time. Prior to it, a deflected shot from Alex Mowatt slipped beyond a post after Tommaso Bianchi sent Sam Byram down the right wing, and an off-balance volley from Jason Pearce flew over an exposed net from close range soon after. Forest’s keeper, Karl Darlow, was stranded on his back having blocked Mirco Antenucci’s strike with his legs.
There was nothing in the half and not a huge amount in the whole game, much as Forest felt aggrieved at full-time. They had cause for complaint after 23 minutes when Fryatt stabbed Michail Antonio’s cross into the net, only to turn and see an offside flag waving at him. The linesman failed to spot Byram playing him on.
In amongst those moments of fleeting drama, more entertainment came from a lone and half-hearted pitch invader, a Forest supporter who fancied spending the last weekend before Christmas in the cells. Half-time had almost arrived when Forest raised the noise with the opening goal.
It relied on little creativity – Michael Mancienne rising to head a corner towards goal and Fryatt arriving unmarked to knock the ball over the line – but there was familiarity about the manner of the concession.
Leeds have an inherent weakness under high balls, a weakness that has cost them too often this season. Giuseppe Bellusci was injured again on Saturday and Liam Cooper led the fight alongside a partner in Pearce who would benefit from an injection of confidence. You wonder if a new centre-back will be on United’s list of requirements for January.
“They hadn’t deserved to score when they did and we’d defended well up until then,” Redfearn said. “We tracked players and we got bodies in the way so the goal was disappointing but it was important at half-time to give out the right message.
“You can flatten all the good work you’ve done by dwelling on one bad thing but the bottom line was that we’d played well. And at 1-0, you’ve always got a chance.
“That dawned on us in the second half and I think it crept into Forest’s game too. They’ve had a dodgy run at home and we played on that a little bit. We had a strong 20 minutes.”
Half-time still brought a shift in United’s formation. Sharp for Souleymane Doukara was the only change of personnel before kick-off – the physical Rudy Austin might have played too had he been fit – and a 4-3-3 system was Redfearn’s initial answer to his side’s vulnerability away from home.
At the start of the second half, with Fryatt’s goal on the board, he turned back to a midfield diamond and teased an equaliser from the match on 54 minutes. Byram, who fought a terrific battle with Antonio throughout the evening, took a pass from Antenucci inside Forest’s box and drew Daniel Fox into a trip with a quick change of feet. Referee Roger East awarded a penalty and Sharp, playing against one of his former clubs, smashed the ball high into the net.
Fryatt found the net again when he eased through the middle of United’s defence in the 62nd minute. A flag rose against him again. “It’s not a case of ‘he might have scored a hat-trick’,” Pearce said. “Matty did score a hat-trick.” Fryatt got the man-of-the-match award but the player who presented it to him, United’s Lewis Cook, deserved it more.
Marco Silvestri kept the match level towards the end by pulling off excellent saves from Robert Tesche and Henri Lansbury and Sharp almost beat Darlow with a well-hit volley.
Souleymane Doukara came off the bench and drew Darlow into a low parry as Forest found themselves short of numbers.
The game seemed to have a winning goal in it but time ran out as Britt Assombalonga, a Forest substitute, nodded a header inches wide.
Redfearn painted a positive picture afterwards, a picture of a squad who are gradually feeling their way into some rhythm. “I see belief developing in what they’re doing,” he said. “These guys have beaten Bournemouth and Derby and those clubs have been top of the league. So we are very capable. We just need some consistency and some space to relax.” A win over Wigan would see to that.
Nottingham Forest: Darlow, Lichaj, Wilson, Fox; Hunt (Burke 70), Lansbury, Mancienne (Paterson 89), Tesche, Antonio; Blackstock (Assombalonga 41), Fryatt. Subs (not used): Lascelles, De Vries, Ince, Osborn.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Pearce, Cooper, Warnock; Bianchi, Cook, Mowatt; Antenucci (Doukara 84), Adryan (Morison 66), Sharp (Tonge 77). Subs (not used): S Taylor, Berardi, Del Fabro, Montenegro.