Inside Leeds United’s costly 38-minute inertia and Javi Gracia’s £50 million Elland Road snub
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Leeds United’s 1-1 draw with Leicester City on Tuesday night felt like a missed opportunity, especially after the Whites had seen an early Foxes opener ruled out by VAR, before then taking the lead themselves through Luis Sinisterra.
The match was an even contest, both teams competing throughout, although during the second half, Leeds were decidedly less aggressive in the final third than their opponents. Between the 50th and 88th minute, Leeds recorded just one shot on Leicester’s goal, worth a meagre 0.04 xG (Expected Goals). On the other hand, the visitors had nine attempts on Illan Meslier’s goal, accumulating 1.30 xG.
During the same period of the game, Leeds’ pass completion rate fell to 57 per cent, further emphasising their season-long struggles with ball retention; Robin Koch, Liam Cooper and Junior Firpo’s pass success all falling below the 50 per cent mark. Leeds couldn’t get out, a player of Forshaw’s composure seemed a sensible choice.
Head coach Javi Gracia says he recognised the tiredness of his players but elected to make just two substitutions in the entire game – one of which was enforced in the 31st minute as goalscorer Sinisterra could not continue.
Gracia’s only tactical switch was to bring Brenden Aaronson on for Rodrigo Moreno, a move which provoked dissent from some sections of the Elland Road crowd. Upon summoning the American back from the touchline where he had been conducting his warm-up, audible groans could be heard from the crowd as it became apparent he was about to be brought on in the 68th minute.
Gracia chose to leave Willy Gnonto, club-record signing Georginio Rutter, Adam Forshaw, Rasmus Kristensen, Pascal Struijk and Sam Greenwood on the bench as his Leeds side struggled to deal with Leicester’s increasingly potent attacks. Foxes boss Dean Smith introduced Patson Daka and Jamie Vardy with 20 minutes remaining and it was to be the latter who struck nine minutes later to draw the East Midlands club level.
"In that moment of the game when we were suffering we decided to do to put Brenden in the middle because Rodri, you know, he can play some time of the game but not all and he was working very hard,” Gracia said in his post-match press conference, explaining the decision to introduce Aaronson.
“And in that moment, we are suffering, defending in our half and then we decided to be a little bit more compact with Brenden in that position. After doing that change, of course we had only one window and then next change we have to do it with security and the players [on the pitch] were well-situated.
"Jack [Harrison], obviously Patrick [Bamford] was a little bit tired but is a reference [focal point] in that moment of the game, defending set pieces as well. Jack on the right side was playing well and then I didn't find a way to be more offensive in that moment of the game. And in the middle, I think both [Roca and McKennie] were doing good work,” Gracia added.
Supporters took to social media to vent their frustrations after the match, opining that the coach’s inaction had cost the team two valuable points. Some suggested the Spaniard should have introduced Adam Forshaw at the base of midfield to better protect the back four against the likes of Vardy and Daka whose pace and fresh legs sought to stretch and tire Leeds’ defenders.
Others were incredulous at the decision to leave Gnonto, who alongside Rutter spent the final ten minutes stood spectating beside the corner flag, on the bench when the team were seemingly crying out for a creative spark.
Gracia’s response was that it was a decision he had to take in the context of the match and that Gnonto’s case is no different to the other players on the bench. But, it raises the question: does Gracia not consider his substitutes, worth in excess of £50 million on the night, capable of changing Leeds’ fortunes and what sort of message does that send to those left out of the starting XI in weeks to come?