It was too early in the season by several months to speak of must-win games before Leeds United’s victory over Hull City but to judge by the comments of Liam Cooper afterwards, the club’s players are already keeping track of the points they have dropped.
A 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday last Friday - something of a travesty at the end of a derby Leeds dictated for 65 minutes - made a win in Hull necessary, though not in the conventional sense of do-or-die games. United have led the Championship for most of the season so far and were not win the mood to tolerate a short rut or results.
They had one win in five before Tuesday’s trip to Hull and, as a consequence, were nudged off the top of the division by West Bromwich Albion last weekend. The fight for automatic promotion never offers great margin for error and Fulham fell short of second place in May with a tally of 88 points. It does not take much to detach a squad from a race like that.
Cooper, United’s captain, felt a certain amount of pressure to see off Hull, the club where he turned professional as a 17 year old. His head coach, Marcelo Bielsa, had admitted after Leeds’ draw at Hillsborough that a falling win-rate was a slight concern but his players delivered a 1-0 victory on Tuesday through a second-half goal from Tyler Roberts.
“Definitely,” Cooper said, when asked if Leeds’ failure to exploit their dominance against Sheffield Wednesday had raised the stakes in midweek. “The manager said that in the press. It wasn’t must-win but it was in our minds and this win makes Friday night’s point a very good point.
“It should be six points but we’ll take the four and move on. We should have won at Sheffield Wednesday but if you can’t win games you certainly don’t lose them. We’ve made that point on Friday a very good point now and we’re back home on Saturday, looking to get another win.”
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Hull paint the picture of a fractured, demoralised club and they were passive opponents who remained in a low-octane derby by virtue of Leeds missing four chances before half-time.
Brentford, who come to Elland Road this weekend, have far more of a bite to their football: a top-six side with style of football which might be as close as anyone’s to Bielsa’s in the Championship. They are the only team producing more shots per game than Leeds. They are the side with the second highest possession rate, behind Bielsa’s. For a while they have been widely regarded as a team who cause no end of trouble on their day.
Leeds have not won away at Griffin Park - one of the tighter, more quaint grounds in England’s upper divisions - since 1950 but the head-to-head record at Elland Road is more respectable. Bielsa, in any case, will happily fight fire with fire and could find that Brentford are ready to do the same.
“We’ve got to be confident,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to take chances, take risks and the best team will win on the day.
“We need start the game exactly how we started it at Hull - 100 per cent on top of people. Then the result will take care of itself.”
Bielsa’s feeling over the past fortnight has been that better finishing from Leeds is all his players need. They have been full of chances from the outset but lax in front of goal more recently, wasting some clever approach play.
Gjanni Alioski pulled a shot wide with only David Marshall to beat at Hull. Barry Douglas and Luke Ayling missed from a few yards out and Mateusz Klich passed up the opportunity to turn the derby Leeds’ way after just six minutes by sending the ball beyond an exposed goal. It was Roberts who finally showed a keen eye, bulldozing a way past Marshall with a low hit from 25 yards.
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“We’re always creating chances,” Cooper said. “We’d be worrying if we weren’t and on another day they go in. I know we say we’ve got to start being a bit more clinical but the lads have been different class this year.
“You’re always under a bit of pressure when the chances don’t go in but Tyler came up with a great finish at a great time in the game. We made it a bit hard for ourselves in the last 15 minutes but that’s the Championship. Maybe we’d have drawn this game last year so we’re buzzing with a clean sheet.”
It is accepted now that Leeds’ strong start under Thomas Christiansen last season - unbeaten and top of the table after seven games - was too short to be a firm indicator his team’s potential. Bielsa’s players are averaging two points a match over 11 fixtures and have been a top-two side throughout. There is more in the performances and the body language of United’s currents crop to suggest that they might stick.
At the end of Tuesday’s win, Bielsa was quick to say that Leeds’ would only prove their ability to dominate the division by staying where they were. “We’ll have to demonstrate that we can stay top and demonstrate that we deserve it,” he insisted.
Cooper reiterated his head coach’s view. “You just can’t get carried away,” he said. “Game by game, that’s the way the motto’s got to be and the next one is massive.
“We’re 11 games in and it’s a long hard season so we won’t get above our station. The test for us is to keep these standards and to keep these standards high.”