Leeds, damned Leeds and statistics – Phil Hay unravels the vagaries and oddities of so-called ‘black and white’ match facts that can often mask an unpalatable game-day truth.
The statistical results from Leeds United’s defeat to Nottingham Forest far exceeded the club’s performance in any of their previous four league games. They had more possession, more crosses, more time in Forest’s box and a better pass-completion rate.
Regardless of that, the plain facts showed a 1-0 defeat and four shots on target; another home fixture where for all their territorial dominance, the club looked like drawing a blank. Leeds’ defensive line has been the focus of constant attention and criticism this season but Saturday’s match demonstrated again how limited their squad are up front.
United controlled 60 per cent of possession against Forest and produced twice as many deliveries from either wing as they had in a 1-0 win over Bristol City two weeks earlier. They found a way into Forest’s box 43 times – 30 times more than during their injury-time loss at Ipswich Town last month – but Forest’s manager, Dougie Freedman, said it as many others saw it. “We never looked under threat,” he claimed at full-time.
Steve Evans is trying to take a long-term view at Elland Road, stressing the fact that he was brought in in October to fend off relegation and then start the process of regrouping for next season. But when it was put to him last week that he might be free to experiment – with fringe players or academy prospects – United’s head coach was reluctant to assume that he was holding a free pass to the summer.
“I want to win games,” he said. “We’re building for next season, but I’ve never been a manager who goes into a game and says ‘we’ll play five kids and accept that we’ll probably get beat’. We’re Leeds United and we have to try and win every match.”
The club have 17 left after Forest’s visit to Elland Road, including their FA Cup fifth-round tie at Watford on February 20, and last season’s table – showing Leeds one point and one place worse off after 30 fixtures – predicts a familiar mid-table finish when the season concludes in May.
Evans’ attempts to sustain and improve his own managerial record, consisting of eight wins and six defeats from 21 matches, rest on his ability to tease goals and creativity out of a team that has been short on those fronts all season.
United’s tally of 12 goals at home is the worst of any side in the Championship and only equalled by Blackburn Rovers. They have not scored three times in a fixture at Elland Road for 14 months.
Former Leeds striker Peter Lorimer, the club’s record goalscorer and youngest-ever player, said: “The record is very poor, appalling really, and it’s one of the things that hasn’t been addressed since last season.
“We weren’t a high-scoring team last season but I don’t think we look any more like scoring goals this season. You can’t lay this at the door of the coach and I wouldn’t say the players are guilty of a lack of effort or anything like that. We just don’t have the class in that area of the pitch.
“The problem is that a team like Forest do their homework and know not to give us any encouragement or any space. At home especially we just don’t have the personnel to break teams open. You can only change that by bringing in more quality.”
Chris Wood, who remains on the sidelines with a hamstring strain and will miss Monday’s clash with league leaders Middlesbrough, is United’s top scorer in the Championship with eight goals.
Sam Byram, who left for West Ham last month and did not find the net once outside a 10-day window in December, is third behind Wood with three.
The struggle against Forest was epitomised by a brief moment late on when substitute Mustapha Carayol whipped a delightful ball through Dorus De Vries’ box, inviting a simple tap-in but with no-one close to it.
“If ever there was a sign that you needed Chris Wood, it was evident when Mustapha went by a player and put it in the middle,” Evans said. “We had nobody competing to be on the end of it.”
It remains to be seen whether Evans is able to press the case for the signing of a new striker during the Football League’s emergency loan window.
United’s long-standing interest in Kyle Lafferty hit an impasse in January and Norwich City have stood their ground in negotiations over loan offers for the Northern Ireland international.
Lafferty is believed to earn in excess of £30,000 a week and Norwich were looking for a deal which covered his entire salary having ruled him out of their first-team plans by signing Patrick Bamford from Crystal Palace and Steven Naismith from Everton.
Evans said after Saturday’s defeat to Forest that Leeds would only move in the emergency loan window if signings were available with a view to a permanent transfer in the summer. Short-term deals minus any future commitment he dismissed as “putting a plaster over a cut.”
The Football League’s temporary market – the final one before FIFA closes a loophole it has long opposed – opened at the start of this week and runs until late March.
Owner Massimo Cellino, who Evans insisted had backed his attempts to sign a new striker in the January transfer window, is currently away from Elland Road having travelled to Italy after the defeat to Nottingham Forest.