Jesse Marsch's Monty Python routine - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Leeds United's Man City pain

Leeds United head coach Jesse Marsch was possessed by the spirit of Monty Python's Black Knight on Saturday evening, as painful blows continued to rain down.

By Graham Smyth
Sunday, 1st May 2022, 8:57 am

A season that continues to kick the Whites in the teeth at every turn did yet more damage even before kick-off against Premier League leaders Manchester City, with Burnley managing to do what they hadn't previously in the top flight and coming from behind to win away from home, leapfrogging Leeds in the process.

The sight of Liam Cooper going down the tunnel with a physio in close attendance, his afternoon over before it began, dialled up the anguish for the side now in 17th place. Cooper is the club captain, their best performer over the past two games and one of Jesse Marsch's seven-man senior leadership council. He joined two of his fellow leaders, Patrick Bamford and Adam Forshaw, in missing the clash with title-chasing City. Bamford may yet feature this season, while Forshaw is out until the summer thanks to a fractured kneecap. So too are Tyler Roberts and Crysencio Summerville - the hits just keep coming.

And at the end of a first half that saw Pep Guardiola's men meet stiff resistance in open play, only to take the lead thanks to a set-piece, Stuart Dallas was carried from the pitch.

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His challenge on Jack Grealish left the visitors with a free-kick but left the Ulsterman pounding the turf in agony. It was immediately evident that Dallas had done himself serious harm - this is not a player who goes to ground easily or habitually shows pain, despite often playing through it. A stretcher was quickly produced and in distressing scenes, a clearly upset Dallas placed upon it, Leeds suffering yet another hammer blow.

At this point, Marsch's men were well in the game and competing. At full-time they walked off with a 4-0 defeat to their name.

Marsch was quick to offer public support to Dallas and then, in his discussion of the match and Leeds' situation in general, dished out some more of that relentless positivity that has become the hallmark of his two-month tenure.

In his defence, there were positives to be found in this match - Leeds surprised Guardiola with a new formation, played some nice stuff in patches and had moments that should have led to chances and chances that should have led to goals, missing only a little composure and quality in the opposition half, as a full Elland Road bared its teeth again. The atmosphere was still rocking when Marsch went down the tunnel, having pumped his fists to salute the fans' defiance.

RELENTLESSLY POSITIVE - Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch took the positives despite a day of bitter, painful blows as Manchester City won 4-0 at Elland Road. Pic: Getty

With the adrenaline still perhaps coursing, Marsch gave the impression that this defeat was but a scratch. It was, he said, a bit like a win 'in many ways' although he admitted that phrase had a crazy ring to it. Maybe, however, there really is nothing else for it but to ignore the pain and damage of a brutal campaign and put on a brave face. Maybe that, from Marsch, coupled with the incessant chanting of home fans, which can sometimes draw the bewilderment and ire of those not fortunate enough to be there inside the ground, is exactly what this Leeds team needs.

Looking too closely at wounds already inflicted, the state of the league table or Rob Price's medical room, will focus minds only on problems and not solutions, on battle scars and not the battles still to be fought.

Instead, Marsch will bounce into this week, gathering whoever is still fit enough to fight, and draw their attention to all that was good against City.

A pragmatic approach was expected but Marsch still managed to catch Guardiola off guard with a new formation.

Leeds have gone from a manager for whom change was a weakening of belief in the plan, to a manager who changed things drastically for a specific opponent. Marcelo Bielsa took serious flak for not playing a different way against the elite - only when the results went against him of course - so for Marsch to face criticism for doing just that would suggest managers simply cannot win.

Five at the back, with Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich in front of them, put a white wall between the visiting world class talent and Illan Meslier's goal. The plan, from the outset, was to spring pressing traps and then counter attacks, and it very nearly worked a treat in the opening three minutes. Joao Cancelo's slip allowed Rodrigo to run clean through from close to halfway but he failed to put daylight between him and the defence and when faced with a shoot or pass-to-Raphinha dilemma, he could do neither. Against opposition this good, chances that golden do not routinely present themselves and it was one Leeds would rue.

Manchester City sighed in relief and then huffed and puffed in frustration as a mass of white shirts met their advances.

Having kept things impressively tight for the opening 13 minutes, and been so solid at set-pieces in recent weeks, conceding an opener from a free-kick was a kick to the unmentionables.

Dallas was adjudged to have fouled Sterling, Phil Foden swung in an inviting ball and Rodri escaped Kalvin Phillips to nod into the far corner.

Leeds laughed off the flesh wound and came out swinging, keeping the Elland Road crowd fully engaged.

A struggle to make the ball stick in the final third and a lack of options at times for the man in possession prevented them from creating much in the way of clear-cut chances until a half-cleared cross fell to Junior Firpo and he slammed a shot over.

Suddenly the game began to open up for Leeds, who used big switches to their wing-backs to move forward and create some momentum. City's danger was clear and ever-present, Meslier had to stop a low shot from Gabriel Jesus and Pascal Struijk had to slide in to block a Sterling effort, but Leeds were using physicality to disrupt their visitors, treading a fine line between aggression and transgression.

Dallas had been key to this, giving Grealish a buffeting on the flank and looking for even a hint of a poor touch to try and steam in and nick the ball. But in first-half stoppage time his willingness to put his body on the line cost him dearly and ended his game, if not his season.

Leeds continued to see enough of the ball to consider themselves in the game, but with too many passes failing to reach their intended target, failed to capitalise on their early second half possession.

A second set-piece concession was just as painful as the first, Ayling and Klich getting closer to each other than to Ruben Dias, whose header was swept in by Nathan Ake.

Marsch was left with little option but to introduce Joe Gelhardt on the hour and while Leeds managed to put together a spell in the opposition half, the most their energy and endeavour could muster was Daniel James' ball across the area.

City broke the spell to show how devastating they can be and how simple they can make it all look, gliding downfield in the blink of an eye before Foden slipped in Jesus and he finished. Their quality was the difference between the sides.

The noise grew again, Gelhardt played James in beautifully and although he went round Ederson, his goalbound shot was blocked. The keeper's fine save then denied Gelhardt a moment he and Elland Road deserved, before City dished out an undeserved final insult - Fernandinho's long-range finish.

Ultimately, one very good and expensively assembled side took their chances and did enough to get the better of a team and a squad who have been found wanting, for a variety of reasons - many of them not their fault as playerrs - this season.

The scoreline, the league table and the injury list are painful to look at and the next two fixtures - Arsenal and Chelsea - offer no guarantees of a salve, so putting on a brave face, focusing on the positives and fighting on, through the pain, is the only option for Marsch and Leeds. They owe as much to their fans and to the likes of Dallas. Limping or even falling across the finish line will do just fine, as long as they do so ahead of Everton.