THERE IS, among the Championship’s top six, a trend of coaches sticking to their guns.
Seven goals conceded at Norwich City are unlikely to bounce Reading into a drastic tactical rethink, just as successive defeats away from home did not tempt Garry Monk to leave the beaten track.
There was no wavering over the weekend either, despite a 3-0 win over Preston North End giving Leeds United’s head coach the opportunity to talk about the play-offs with confidence. Leeds are a short distance away from qualifying officially but with 72 points and five games left they will surely not collapse from here. Their pace has broken most clubs and on Saturday it ruptured Preston’s season.
Preston, in eighth position, were clinging on and banking on a victory at Elland Road to take their long shot into another week. That result offered itself up early on but Tom Barkhuizen missed two simple chances and Leeds steamrollered Preston in a healthy advert for the division they are both trying to leave. Monk, who might only bring himself to discuss the play-offs when they actually start, was unimpressed by the suggestion that qualification was close.
“Apparently,” he quipped.
There were times under Simon Grayson, Preston’s manager, when Leeds were in the habit of turning the screw on teams at Elland Road and at the end of a game which refused to stop for breath, Grayson knew the play-offs had slipped away; sadly for Leeds, whose aggregate score against North End this season reads 7-1.
“When you look at what Leeds are doing, they’re winning games without playing the best football in the division,” Grayson said.
“They’re playing effective football and that’s all that’s required. They’ve got threats and fantastic home form. There’s no reason why they can’t get promoted.”
Monk would not be drawn into speculating like that, maintaining a consistent line which has been more pronounced than ever in the second half of the season, but questions about his side’s nerve had not gone unnoticed as points went begging during prior matches at Reading and Brentford. They were soundly answered on Saturday by goals from Kemar Roofe, Pablo Hernandez and Souleymane Doukara.
“The players responded so well in the week,” Monk said, reflecting on last Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to Brentford in which Leeds were given the runaround. “There was a lot of noise going on outside but they’ve been excellent. I knew we were going to get a performance. I just felt it.
“When this group are fully focused on what they’re capable of, that’s when they deliver their best performances. In the games earlier in the week there was a lot of talk going on about league positions; this would mean this, this would mean that.
“I get it and we’re fully aware of where we are in the league. You guys think I’m just playing it down and doing managers’ speak but I know the group well and I know the key to them doing well is focusing on football. That’s what allows them to win games. The rest will take care of itself.”
There was the potential for Saturday’s game to finish five apiece and Leeds were indebted to Barkhuizen for losing the lethal instinct which earned him March’s player-of-the-month award. That trophy was given to him on Friday after five goals in four appearances but by Saturday the forward seemed incapable of scoring from any range.
A free header in the second minute was aimed close enough to Rob Green for the goalkeeper to palm it over his crossbar and a glaring one-on-one chance soon after was whipped beyond the far post. Late in the game, with Preston trailing 2-0, Barkhuizen contrived to drive the ball against the underside of the bar after Green parried Aiden McGeady’s shot inside the box.
Leeds starved McGeady of useful possession throughout, policing the on-loan Everton winger superbly. Barkhuizen’s ineffectiveness was entirely his own work.
“The first goal was key,” Grayson said afterwards and Leeds scored it in the 18th minute. Kemar Roofe, whose inclusion provided more balance and intent than Monk had seen at either Reading or Brentford, drifted into Hernandez’s role behind Chris Wood and exchanged a one-two with the striker before advancing on Chris Maxwell. His shot spun over the keeper with the help of a deflection off Greg Cunningham and Maxwell’s failure to scramble backwards in time was symptomatic of an afternoon when Leeds were always a step in front.
In the last minute of the half, Monk thought his side had scored again. A pass from Alfonso Pedraza reached Wood after hitting Roofe first and Wood worked himself into space before shooting under Maxwell.
Preston appealed bitterly from an offside flag which refused to come until referee Peter Bankes ran to speak with his assistant.
After a short discussion in which confusion reigned, Bankes disallowed the effort, ruling that Roofe’s touch had left Wood offside.
“The official was unsure so they came back and conferred,” Monk said, sounding non-plussed and pleased that the decision was of no significance. “That’s what I got told.” Within seconds all debate about it ended. Hernandez popped up behind Grayson’s defence, courtesy of Roofe’s volleyed pass, and slid in to stab the ball past Maxwell before the keeper could meet it at the edge of his box.
The comfort of a second strike – one of two welcome goals from midfield – had a predictable effect and, before long, Monk was looking at an accomplished performance. “We wanted to get back to giving the players the belief to express themselves,” he said. “Sometimes at this stage of the season you can get a little bit uptight.
“In the first five or 10 minutes Preston had a couple of breakaways which could have been more dangerous but once we got to grips with that, for the next 60 minutes we played some really good football and created numerous chances.
“We should have capitalised more but we’re playing against a good side who are in form and were never going to make it easy.”
Preston’s threat lingered in the second half but only in amongst openings for Leeds. Wood shook Maxwell’s bar with the scraps from a corner and Kyle Bartley saw a header cleared off the line. At the other end, potential tap-ins slipped past Preston’s feet and Barkhuizen hit the frame of the goal with Green prostrate on 75 minutes.
It got worse for Grayson four minutes from the end when Alx Baptiste, his experienced defender, kicked out at Hernandez off the ball and received a straight red card.
Leeds began injury-time by spraying easy passes about but when Kalvin Phillips’ through ball slipped off the knee of Paul Huntington, Doukara could not refuse the invitation to sprint at Maxwell and beat him at his near post. “We didn’t defend well enough,” Grayson said. “We weren’t strong enough mentally.”
Monk once said the same of his squad, back at the very start of this journey, but psychological deficiency is not a problem he is troubled with now. “We lost two games and outside you sensed a lot of panic but we remained calm,” he said. “Whatever happens, this group have come on so far and this season’s a stepping stone to the future. But, of course, we want to give ourselves a chance.” The chance is there in front of Leeds, and very nearly assured.