Nine huge games, said Garry Monk on Saturday as even he was finally tempted to think about the bigger picture. Leeds United are that close to the play-offs and the next five fixtures might prove to be a decisive test of their durability.
It was noted last week after back-to-back draws against Fulham and Queens Park Rangers that Leeds had come up against two of the Championship’s form teams – “we’re better than that,” said QPR’s Ian Holloway as he reflected on a table showing his squad in 15th – and the schedule gets no easier.
Monk will like the look of the last three weeks in which Leeds play Wolverhampton, Burton, Norwich and Wigan but the coming month could dictate their fate before United reach those fixtures.
The five matches ahead of them are topped and tailed by the two clubs who have automatic promotion at their fingertips: Brighton at home in Saturday’s televised game and Newcastle United away on Good Friday. In between, Monk’s side travel to Reading and Brentford and host a Preston side who appear to be peaking too late. “If we win the next nine then we might have a chance,” said manager Simon Grayson but in spite of that, victory over Reading on Saturday increased the slim likelihood of Preston sneaking into the top six at the death.
North End’s heavy 4-1 home loss to Leeds on Boxing Day was the start of a spell in which Grayson’s side shipped points too regularly and lost touch with the play-offs. Grayson, however, was shortlisted for manager of the month for February and Aiden McGeady, the former Celtic winger, won the player-of-the-month award. On Saturday, they did to Reading what other clubs including Leeds have done: conceded the bulk of possession but scored unanswered goals.
Reading and Preston will come over the horizon in due course but Brighton are Monk’s priority; a team as consistent as they were last season and nine games from going one better than then. Middlesbrough edged Chris Hughton’s squad into the automatic promotion places on goal difference a year ago but Brighton’s current numbers give them a greater edge: the fewest goals conceded in the Championship and the fewest defeats. Newcastle are outscoring them but not outrunning them and while Fulham are the sole threat to the play-off positions, only Huddersfield Town can conceivably disrupt the top two.
Saturday, by a street, is the most difficult of Leeds’ remaining fixtures at Elland Road. Yet Brighton have been fallible away: beaten by Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest in the past six weeks and forced to rely on a stoppage-time equaliser to scramble a draw at Brentford. Hughton’s tight defence was heavily breached, conceding three times in each of those games.
Adam Virgo, the former Brighton defender and media pundit, believes the defeats demonstrated a means of unsettling Albion. “Brighton’s away form has been their Achilles heel,” Virgo said. “It’s not bad but it’s not special either. Very few teams get anything from them at The Amex but away from home you can set up to frustrate them.”
Leeds are not in the habit of frustrating anyone at Elland Road, a team who prefer to dominate on their own pitch and are driven to do so by their crowd. Only against Reading in December has Monk purposely set up to allow a visiting side to dominate the ball. Virgo thinks Saturday might be the time to repeat that strategy.
“The likes of Huddersfield and Brentford showed how to play against Brighton,” he said. “They were willing to sit back and frustrate but, at the same time, they committed to trying to get at Brighton on the break. I’ve seen that strategy work. Brighton are a really strong, solid team but they do have weaknesses. They’ve suffered from injuries at left-back and Matt Ritchie got a lot of joy there with Newcastle. They don’t have massive pace in the middle either so teams playing against them need midfield runners.”
The centre of midfield is one area where Monk has never quite settled on an established combination. He will pick between Liam Bridcutt, Eunan O’Kane and Ronaldo Vieira this weekend with Kalvin Phillips suspended. Hughton can be inclined to rotate in that area, too, although there is a remarkable statistic showing that Brighton have lost only three times in 13 months with Dale Stephens in their side.
The bigger problem for Hughton is his list of defensive absentees. Monk is without the suspended Luke Ayling but can cover for him easily by bringing in Charlie Taylor and tackling the obvious threat posed by Brighton out wide. Hughton, in the absence of the highly-experienced Bruno, is likely to give Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori, 19, a full league debut at right-back. “There isn’t much alternative,” Virgo said, “but it’s not ideal. Tomori seemed to me to be a signing designed to bolster the squad, rather than someone who’d come in for games like this.”
Saturday’s match promises to bring either Leeds or Brighton to important psychological barriers. United would move to within one point of 70 with a win, a tally which is virtually play-off territory. A victory for Brighton would take Hughton’s squad to 80, nine short of their total last season and the total which took Middlesbrough up automatically.
“It’s a crucial weekend,” Virgo said. “If Brighton win then I think they’re up. If Leeds beat Brighton then I think they’re definitely in the play-offs. That’s how big the game is.”