Example of Premier League rivals, Howard Wilkinson's saying and old trick key for Leeds United in must-win Norwich City game
With their two points and two goals scored, Norwich City look as tricky as a two-inch putt on a totally flat green, but this is the Premier League where there are no gimmies and Leeds United have the yips.
No matter how sunny your disposition, Sunday at Carrow Road is a must-win game because of all it represents. Norwich are a side struggling more than any other, a team worse off than Leeds and need to be kept firmly in the doldrums. Leeds are a side in need of wins to start moving away from Norwich and the bottom of the table and a team in need of a morale boost and some momentum.
They had a little forward propulsion, briefly, thanks to the dramatic fashion in which they rescued a point against Wolves and a performance that warranted three, before they stalled again with a Carabao Cup exit at Arsenal.
At a time like this, you can pick your poison from a list of worries - the spate of injuries that made a small squad look wafer thin, the loss of form and spark in some senior players, the lack of goals and attacking threat from so many of Marcelo Bielsa’s forward options.
Leeds’ attacking play is, evidently, currently not what it once was; they have struggled to put together the kind of moves that made them such a nightmare to defend against as the Championship’s best side and the Premier League’s best newcomer last season.
The willingness and desire have been there, players are making runs into good positions yet the ball is not going where it needs to go on a regular enough basis or with the required accuracy or timing. And yet, they still managed to hurt Wolves, creating opportunities that could have made it two wins from nine instead of the one they presently hold.
For 45 minutes, they still managed to hurt Arsenal, too, and were it not for a poor final pass, shot or decision, would have gone down the tunnel ahead at the break.
Those chances, or the dangerous positions they got into without carving out a clear opportunity, were all achieved without the man carrying more than his fair share of attacking responsibility this season.
The moments where the game could have been taken away from Wolves also took place without Raphinha, presenting at least some cause for optimism that Leeds are capable of posing a threat without their tormentor in chief.
Leeds hope to have him available for Sunday’s game. They might even have Patrick Bamford back although, if the durable, teak-tough Kalvin Phillips had to bide his time to make a return, then there’s no guarantee the number nine will walk back into the side. For a player whose absence from the starting XI would have been a cause for celebration in certain sections of the club’s fanbase two years ago, Bamford’s time out through an ankle problem has shone even more of a light on how crucial he is to the creation, build-up and completion of Leeds attacks.
Put simply, they are a better team with Raphinha and Bamford on the pitch - many Premier League sides would be.
Norwich will be hoping to welcome neither the Brazilian winger nor their former loanee to Carrow Road on Sunday. Raphinha is the kind of player who can hurt Norwich. He brings the pace, width, trickery and delivery that could help Leeds not only discover the way back to their old ways but find joy in the way others have done against Norwich this season.
Chelsea did it especially well, getting down the sides, making runs into the channels inside and outside the Norwich defenders, finding space time and time again to create danger and score goals.
Liverpool scored a goal against them from a ball pulled back from the byline. So too did Watford. Leicester City too. Leeds don’t want Raphinha or any of their wingers doing the majority of their work closer to halfway than the goalline, playing the low percentage stuff the Brazilian has been forced to attempt a little too often this season, they want them deep in the final third, taking the ball to the byline to cause mayhem. To get them there, they need to progress the ball far more fluidly from back to front and that will take more than Diego Llorente’s raking long-range passes.
They also need to make life in the Norwich half of the pitch as uncomfortable as possible out of possession. Everton did it and found Norwich out of shape, with huge gaps to exploit en route to a goal.
Liverpool ran at them with pace and caused problems. Watford encountered little pressure on the ball on their way to scoring against Daniel Farke’s men. Dominating possession, playing the game in the opposition half and making territory count will be key.
Norwich, to put it mildly, are in a bad way and Leeds must show them no kindness. What they produce on Sunday cannot be below par. They must win. A single goal off someone’s backside and three points would just about do but what would be better for the season going forward is if they manage to attack as they once did, as they already know how to.
The reasons attacks have been breaking down too easily might be numerous and complex but Bielsa has spent long enough drilling his system, style and philosophy into them that makes the solutions mere tweaks rather than wholesale changes. Some of it may simply boil down to confidence and backing themselves to risk passes that no longer feel as familiar and safe as when they were flying high.
One-touch passing triangles close to the touchline and runs in behind defences are not beyond this team. As Howard Wilkinson would say, they have to trust their swing.