Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, or hit by a Leeds United counter attack - Graham Smyth

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth or, in the case of Leeds United’s opponents, hit by a blistering counter attack.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 12th December 2019, 5:55 am
Updated Thursday, 12th December 2019, 8:27 am

Mike Tyson uttered the first 11 of those words in 1987 when asked if he was worried about the strategy Tyrell Biggs claimed to have drawn up for their Atlantic City fight.

Biggs’ plan only worked so well for so long and he was eventually flattened by the left hook of a more powerful man.

The insight of opposition managers has been a fascinating aspect of the Whites’ Championship season so far, a regular glimpse into the way Marcelo Bielsa’s side are viewed and the way teams set out to set up against them.

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Along with a little kidology, from those who knew they had been dominated and got away with one, yes we’re looking at you Phillip Cocu and Steve Cooper, there has been universal respect given to the way Leeds press, their penchant for man-to-man marking, their quality and their physical conditioning.

Managers have spoken of the ways in which they hoped to cope with Leeds’ defensive system, asking their players to play over or through the press.

Cooper said he picked those he felt could beat a player in a one-versus-one scenario, in order to get into the space behind Leeds.

Danny Cowley wanted his Huddersfield players to go quickly to physical targetman Steve Mounie, hoping that ‘counter movements and double movements’ – players feinting to go towards or away from the ball and then doing the opposite – to hurt the Whites.

Pablo Hernandez got on the end of one of three blistering Leeds United counter attacks (Pic: Getty)

Everyone has had a plan and some have been able to claim success, thanks to the scoreline and, if we’re honest, the wastefulness the Whites have been guilty of on occasion.

But as Reading, Huddersfield and Hull have all found out, the plan can go out the window in the space of 20 seconds – even when you’re on the attack, seemingly in control.

At the Madejski, it took 19 seconds from a Kiko Casilla save for the ball to be headed into the Reading net by Jack Harrison.

At the John Smith’s Stadium Gaetano Berardi started a 14-second, end-to-end attack that Pablo Hernandez finished off.

And, at Elland Road on Tuesday night, just 17 seconds elapsed between Casilla’s save and Gjanni Alioski’s goal.

All three goals saw Leeds move the ball from full-back positions to the wing, with a hat-trick of precise deliveries. Two of them involved switches of direction.

In each case, there were options for the crosser at the front and back posts, with runners arriving in support looking for rebounds or cut-backs.

They were all examples of how a game can be taken away from an opponent in the blink of an eye and a reminder for the Championship that even when Leeds do not have the ball, even when the ball is in or around Casilla’s penalty area, they still pose a threat.

All three goals occurred in the final 12 minutes of the fixtures, when legs should have been heavy, and an obvious conclusion to make is that the murderball sessions and the intensity of Bielsa’s training is paying off handsomely.

Bamford was there to clear off the line when Casilla saved Tom Eaves’ header and then ran the length of the field to stroke Mateusz Klich’s cross onto the post before Alioski followed up to fire home.

Thirty-four-year-old Hernandez got the goal against Huddersfield, but was up in support for each of the other two.

Just as crucial was the failure of opposition players to match the sprints of the counter attackers in each case.

At Reading, a defender appeared to have Harrison marked on the edge of the box but could not stay with the winger when he darted to the goalmouth.

Huddersfield defenders simply could not get back in time to stop Harrison from crossing or to prevent Hernandez from heading home – although the Terriers’ injury crisis and the absence of key players was a mitigating factor worthy of mention.

‘The legs feed the wolf,’ said US ice hockey coach Herb Brooks, who relentlessly drilled his team to exhaustion in preparation for their 1980 Olympic gold medal.

There is, of course, more than fitness work making Leeds so dangerous on the counter attack; their quickness of thought, the commitment to width in their play, stretching opposition teams right out across the pitch, the one-touch football that left Huddersfield chasing shadows and crosses that begged to be finished off all play a part.

When a Leeds player gets the ball, like Stuart Dallas did deep in his own half at Reading, he scarcely has to look up to know that a team-mate will be haring into space down one or both touchlines.

They are well drilled on exiting a defensive area with one pass and they know their roles when the counter is on.

If, as a trio of teams failed to do, you cannot make a tackle or a block or a tactical foul to stop the counter attack at source, your only choices are to decide not to commit so fully to your own attacks which, of course, was not an option for either Huddersfield or Hull at 1-0 down, or match Leeds stride for stride, sprint for sprint.

Few seem capable of that and Leeds know it.

The rest of the Championship know it too, but knowing what Leeds can do and stopping them from doing it are worlds apart in difficulty.

“No one plays with the intensity we train with,” said Liam Cooper recently.

Tactical prowess and technical excellence are all well and good, but knowing you punch your opponent’s plan to oblivion is a powerful thing indeed.