Allardyce avoids Marsch Leeds United trap as connection is restored - Graham Smyth's Man City Verdict

Remember when Jesse Marsch said Leeds United's 4-0 defeat by Manchester City felt like a win?
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"On the scoresheet it's a loss, but it's a win in many ways," he said in April of last year, following the loss.

Marsch admitted a second later that it was a crazy thing to say but it was clear for all to see and hear that Elland Road madness had taken him. The ridiculous, relentless, raucous support Leeds fans gave their men that day, right up to the final whistle and beyond was in pure defiance of their reality and it had swept up the manager as he came off the pitch.

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Just over a year later, Marsch has been swept away and Sam Allardyce is the man in charge. In between came Michael Skubala's brief caretaker spell and the 70-day Javi Gracia tenure. The man in the technical area keeps changing but at full-time and beyond at the Etihad, where Manchester City won 2-1, there was that same ridiculous, relentless, raucous wall of noise from the away end.

Allardyce was doing his bit to whip it up, raising a fist to the air, he just wasn't getting carried away afterwards.

"I'm not upbeat," he said.

"But I am pleased with what they gave in the second half - not embarrassed themselves. We can build the confidence in the week, build confidence on the second half performance and play a lot better for 90 minutes next week and not 45."

In the lead up to this, the fourth-to-last game of the campaign, the question for Wednesday appointee Allardyce and Leeds United was this - what could they arm themselves with at the Etihad, if not any points?

DEFIANT MOMENT - Leeds United players and fans united in a moment of mutual appreciation at full-time despite the defeat by Manchester City at the Etihad. Pic: GettyDEFIANT MOMENT - Leeds United players and fans united in a moment of mutual appreciation at full-time despite the defeat by Manchester City at the Etihad. Pic: Getty
DEFIANT MOMENT - Leeds United players and fans united in a moment of mutual appreciation at full-time despite the defeat by Manchester City at the Etihad. Pic: Getty
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A positive result was so far outside the bounds of reality that bookies thought an Erling Haaland hat-trick likelier than a Leeds victory and Allardyce admitted after the game that it was always the final trio of fixtures he was eyeing as possible sources of points.

It took 85 minutes for Leeds to answer the question facing them, but Rodrigo stroking the ball into the net to halve the deficit and make Manchester City nervous went a long way towards restoring a connection between the Whites and their travelling fans.

Six days prior Rodrigo was among those who stood, hands on hips, taking the full force of an away end's rage. This time it was safe to approach. In fact the players, including injured trio Stuart Dallas, Liam Cooper and Tyler Adams, were all welcomed with an ovation.

After the game BBC pundit Chris Sutton levelled accusations of Leeds celebrating defeat, confusing what he saw and heard with jubilation. It was, once again, positivity fuelled by pure defiance. Call it grim determination, or a statement of intent even, that the team and the fans will march on together into the last three battles. A departure from reality it was not.

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"We've got to try and keep the fans on board," said Allardyce.

"When they expect so much more than what they're getting they'll continue to show their disapproval. We've not given them a result today but their response says they saw a bit of fight and spirit, which maybe gives them a bit of hope. We went over to show our appreciation. We're definitely going to need them."

There is so much that Allardyce cannot do with the scant time he has been given, so much of the mess he will be unable to fix or untangle, that any lever he can pull will be given all his attention. The fans are to be weaponised, charged up and aimed at Newcastle United next weekend. Without them, Leeds could be blown to smithereens.

Team selection is another tool Allardyce can use to get different results - or as was the case at the Etihad less worse results - from the same group of players Marsch, Skubala and Gracia had at their disposal.

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Illan Meslier, for the first time in three years, was dropped over form and confidence. A brilliant keeper, in the manager's words, just not at his brilliant best and at serious risk of going under against a team capable of making the very best look helpless and hapless. So in came Joel Robles, the big, experienced Spaniard, with a 4-5-1 batten down the hatches formation in front of him.

There were four changes, in all, to the starting line-up, three less than Pep Guardiola made as he put out what was still a world class outfit. Their superiority took little time to tell and for the vast majority of the game it was one-way traffic. Leeds just set out to block the main arterial routes and hoped for a counter.

Ten minutes went by without a goal, or even a save of note for Robles. There wasn't much to note in the other half of the pitch, besides Weston McKennie's never-before-seen long throw and an off-target Patrick Bamford header.

It took Manchester City 17 minutes to test Robles, through an Erling Haaland effort that was well saved, and then it took them two further minutes to break through. Riyad Mahrez did enough to stave off Junior Firpo's attention, rolled the ball to an unmarked Ilkay Gundogan and he stroked the ball into the net.

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Eight minutes later they scored what was essentially the same goal and the floodgates were creaking. Allardyce sat himself down squarely in front of the squad in midweek, putting himself in the spotlight to take it off his players but at the Etihad there was nowhere for them to hide. Recruitment was everything, he had said, and Leeds were being exposed by it, with Adam Forshaw gamely trying to chase around putting out fires as part of a central midfield trio. That the 31-year-old has taken on such importance, despite the money spent on that area of the pitch, says so much about the decision making that has led to Allardyce picking the team for the last four games.

At half-time the new boss called for Leeds to push higher up the pitch and make better decisions on the ball. They showed a little more, yet in truth the hosts should have pulled out of sight. Haaland hit the bar, while offside, hit the outside of the post while onside and his manager hit the roof when the big striker handed a penalty to Gundogan out of sentiment.

Never before has the German scored a hat-trick and this was not to be it, the spot-kick coming back off the post to the relief of Pascal Struijk who conceded it.

And then, somehow, Leeds were back in it. Junior Firpo's knock down was seized upon by Rodrigo and the substitute swept in number 14 of the season. Etihad nerves were manna from heaven for Leeds, who fell short of a miraculous result.

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If they are to be resurrected from what at times has felt like a predestined relegation, Allardyce needed something from this game, something he could point to and build upon for the more winnable games that lie ahead. That Rodrigo goal and a scoreline so far from the one many feared and predicted, felt like something. Not like a win, but something. Something to make the players believe, something for fans to cheer, something to which hope can be attached.

The question now is what he and Leeds do with it. Everything, not just something, relies on how they answer.