Ghost of Christmas past and Leeds United sloppiness threatens to spoil another festive period - Graham Smyth's Verdict

The ghost of Christmas past threatened to spoil another festive period for Leeds United, who looked a pale imitation of themselves for too long in their 1-1 against Preston North End.

Friday, 27th December 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Friday, 27th December 2019, 7:35 am

The Whites have, in the main, struggled at this time of year over the last 10 years.

They began their Boxing Day clash with an up-for-it Preston like a team who were still more than a little merry from the day before, never mind hungover.

Passes went astray all over the pitch, heavy touches invited pressure and at 1-0 down on 22 minutes, the tree, the baubles and the tinsel were headed for the skip long before the 12 days were up.

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There was to be no Christmas miracle, not on the scale of 2018's Boxing Day pandemonium-inducing comeback-for-the-ages, but Stuart Dallas' 89th minute equaliser ensured the 2019 festive season was not cancelled altogether at LS11.

It was a weird game.

Leeds found themselves on the back foot for much of the first half and left it late to guarantee a point, yet could still have won this one handily.

The woodwork, goalkeeper Declan Rudd and poor finishing, not for the first time this season, denied them a first win in three.

Kiko Casilla was beaten in the 22nd minute by Alan Browne (Pic: Bruce Rollinson)

A point at least maintained the eight-point gap that existed at the start of the day, between them and third place.

Marcelo Bielsa spoke after the game of a difficult 20-minute spell, one controlled by Preston, before his side regained their traditional dominance for the following 75.

It didn't look, or feel, like Leeds were particularly in control of the game until after the break however.

After an early chance for Patrick Bamford, whose shot was deflected wide, Preston took over - without the ball.

Ponderous Leeds possession deep in their own half ended in mistakes, enforced by the ferocious pressing of Preston, the boot on the other foot for a change at Elland Road.

Too many players just weren't at it early on. Luke Ayling and Jack Harrison had passes picked off, Kalvin Phillips lost the ball and Kiko Casilla rushed out of his box to try an unsuccessful slide tackle, Brad Potts mercifully missing the empty net.

Tom Barkhuizen robbed Liam Cooper and Phillips had to tidy up.

Ayling erred again, Barkhuizen shot at goal and Casilla had to tidy up with a smart save.

When the link between Harrison and Alioski broke down, Barkhuizen tried again, this shot flashing wide.

Cooper was beaten out wide and Ben White, one of few who had a steady start and maintained it, intervened in the six-yard box as David Nugent threatened with a diving header.

It was an alarming opening and just about as bad as anything Elland Road has seen this season.

Worse was to come, ironically after Leeds' best moment.

They finally broke out of their own half through Stuart Dallas who hared down the middle and fed Mateusz Klich, the Polish international dallying on the ball and allowing Preston to challenge, clear and counter.

The same kind of devastating counter attack that has so often been a weapon for the Whites cut them open, an overlap allowing Alan Browne to run in unopposed and beat Casilla for a deserved opener.

The goal did little to wake Leeds from their slumber and Preston continued to look dangerous.

Brad Potts shot wide from distance, perhaps as taken aback by the space and time afforded to him as anyone else in the stadium.

Yet there were, eventually, green shoots of recovery.

The Harrison-Alioski link yielded a shot for the latter, the effort creeping wide of the far post.

Dallas came close to playing Helder Costa in behind, Costa came close to finding Bamford with a cross to the back post and Harrison fed Ayling who came close with a 22-yard piledriver that cleared the bar.

Leeds, suddenly, were flooding men forward, creating a little momentum and a little danger.

Alioski headed over when well placed, Cooper's lashed shot was blocked and the half-time whistle might have been music to the ears of the visitors.

Bielsa made no changes at the break and, although the the initial seconds of the second half brought more sloppy play and another shooting chance for the wayward Potts, his faith in his players would eventually be rewarded.

Before that, however, Leeds fans were put through the ringer once more.

Preston set out with a clear plan to frustrate the hosts.

They sat in, they took time to restart the game, they thwarted attempted quick free-kicks and referee Darren Bond did precious little to stop them.

So it got niggly.

Seven yellow cards were shown in a second half that saw petulant square ups, shoves and drama of the wrong sort, from both sides.

When there was actually some football, Leeds had the better of it.

Ayling's low cross was cut out before Dallas had a pair of efforts, one from close range that was well saved, one from long range that was well wide.

Bielsa called Eddie Nketiah back to the bench to make a change and spent a good few minutes explaining exactly what it was he required from the loanee.

When the board went up, it had Bamford's number on it and there was, perhaps for the first time, real dissent in the stands.

Bamford's name rang out long after he took a seat in the dugout, but as Bielsa would later explain, he needed the numbers in midfield to maintain forward motion and although he agonised over whether or not to go two up top, he was pleased with his final decision.

Nketiah almost made an instant impact when he helped Costa find space on the right, the winger's dinked ball to the middle blazed over the top by Alioski.

A Klich cross then gave Nketiah a chance to justify his head coach's decision, his header looking goalbound until Rudd sprang to his right and tipped it round the post.

When Rudd couldn't save Preston, the post did, Alioski running onto a loose ball and pinging it past the keeper and onto the woodwork.

It had the look of one of those days.

Preston were being streetwise, Leeds were being baited into a loss of composure, Dallas and Klich finding themselves in the book along with Tom Clarke after a needless confrontation.

The frustration and the urgency was tangible all around the ground as time ticked away, until at long last, Dallas set his sights and, via a deflection, found the back of the net.

A roar went up, a board showing six minutes went up and Leeds went for the win.

Their late endeavour brought just one real chance of note but it was a good one, Harrison failing to make contact with an overhead kick but creating enough chaos that Costa got the ball in a great position in the area, before drilling it wide.

Leeds successfully avoided a second straight defeat, an achievement recognised by the appreciation shown by the vast majority of the 35,638 in attendance.

A winless run of three games will always spark concern and a fear that the ghosts of the past will once again haunt this club.

This festive period still has a couple of games left in it and Leeds will go to the midlands twice in the next week knowing it's not too late to change how you and your Christmas will be judged.