Imprecision the decisive factor in Leeds United's Championship throwback against Aston Villa - Graham Smyth's Verdict
IT started like the kind of game Leeds United love and ended like the kind they loathe, but that isn’t why they lost.
Aston Villa took an early lead, went defensive in the second half and set out to nullify the Whites’ threats and reduce the space they had to work with, but that isn’t why they lost.
The pitch that they spent £300,000 to resurface was yet again as treacherous as Planet Ice and played a part in the goal that separated the teams, but that isn’t why Leeds lost.
And referee Peter Bankes might have struggled to nail the time wasting earlier than he did and could have sent Matt Targett off for a second yellow card, but that also isn’t why they lost.
They lost because, as is often the case when a team sits deep and sets Leeds the challenge of breaking them down, they dominated possession and didn’t do enough with it.
Imprecision, was how Marcelo Bielsa put it.
It wasn’t that he didn’t credit Villa for their defensive stoutness, he just believed that Leeds’ own actions were more to blame for the defeat.
The final ball was lacking in quality and so all the time they spent on the ball in Villa’s half of the pitch in a one-sided second half came to nought.
Fittingly enough against a team with whom they developed a mutual dislike in the second tier, it was a bit of a throwback to frustrating games in the Championship, although in most of those Leeds missing golden chances was the chief cause of collective ire.
This game didn’t even have many of those.
A first half that for the very first time in the Premier League didn’t feature Jack Harrison in the starting line-up for reasons other than contractual ones, at least provided a little entertainment.
The pitch played more than its part, almost creating a goal for Leeds and then assisting Villa’s fifth-minute winner.
Patrick Bamford appeared to be picking up where he left off against Villa, running at the defence inside a minute, cutting onto his trusty left foot and shooting, only for his feet to give way beneath him, sending the shot towards Raphinha at the back post who strained in vain to make contact.
An almost identical situation at the other end of the pitch decided the game.
Ollie Watkins shaped to shoot and keeled over, the shot becoming a perfect through ball from which an onside and pleasantly surprised Anwar El Ghazi found himself alone and able to beat Illan Meslier.
Buoyed by his early success against his former head coach’s side, the winger went on a shooting spree, drawing Meslier into a pair of saves and sending another effort wide of goal - Villa did not initially set out to spoil this game.
Yet as Leeds grew into the fixture, it must have started to feel familiar.
Diego Llorente, a couple of theatrical moments aside, was showing physicality alongside Liam Cooper and giving Ollie Watkins next to nothing.
He was getting on the ball to good effect too and starting attacks that allowed Raphinha to begin working his magic.
His first dribble turned John McGinn inside out and Villa were fortunate to concede no more than a corner.
Tyler Roberts, who had already drawn a smart save from Emiliano Martínez, blasted over the top when found by Llorente’s no-look pass.
It was all half chances after that but with the game open enough to suggest more danger in the second half, Smith and Villa pulled up the drawbridge.
Keeping in mind the 3-0 second half beating they sustained at Villa Park at the hands of a rampant Leeds earlier this season, when Bielsa’s men were at their very best, there was no shame in falling back into a low block and becoming hard to beat.
That wasn’t the main issue for Leeds. The real problem was that they were nothing like the best version of themselves.
Helder Costa, given a rare start in place of Harrison, was unable to get into the game to make a noticeable impact.
Roberts struggled to make the ball stick and Klich couldn’t find passes that would hurt Villa.
Even Raphinha lost his sparkle, Leeds unable to get past men or run in behind, being squeezed by a very organised, disciplined defensive structure.
Everything had to come from deep and against solid, safety-first pair Marvelous Nakamba and Tyrone Mings, crosses were being dealt with.
Through balls didn’t fare much better.
White shirts were crowded out if they gained possession within shooting distance of goal.
Frustration crept in and made the game even scrappier and more niggly, Roberts’ spat with Targett earning them both a yellow card before Klich fouled the breaking El Ghazi to join them in the book.
The Pole was, like Targett, fortunate not to see red from later fouls, which did little to ingratiate Bankes with either side.
Pablo Hernandez, on for Roberts, had a shot deflected wide from distance and Klich sent one well over the top as Leeds huffed and puffed and Villa took every opportunity to run the clock down, as was their right.
Had Raphinha headed home Leeds’ one real chance of the second half, from substitute Jack Harrison’s excellent cross to the back post, it would have been a pretty ending to a pig of a game for Leeds.
Instead, the Brazilian was as imprecise with his header as the Whites were with the vast majority of their final third work.
And that is why they lost.
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Thank you Laura Collins