Graham Smyth's Verdict: Time for Leeds United to take their fate out of referees' and inferior opposition's hands and make their own luck

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.

Monday, 7th October 2019, 11:55 am
Berardi was given his marching orders on 14 minutes (Pic: Simon Hulme)

Luck, fate, the Gods, whoever or whatever has it in for Leeds, really has it in for Leeds.

This season they have been the better side in all but one of their fixtures.

The Championship table shows them sitting fifth, with 13 points dropped from 11 games.

Marcelo Bielsa would not criticise the referee, instead blaming his own tactical decision (Pic: Simon Hulme)

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On Saturday the Lions became the third side to beat Marcelo Bielsa's men in league action, a 2-1 triumph ending their rotten run of form.

Yet even with a man sent off, Leeds United were better than Millwall.

It was that sending off, the moment when referee James Linington decided that what he saw was Gaetano Berardi fouling a clean-through Tom Bradshaw and making no attempt to play the ball, that took Saturday's game away from Leeds.

Coming just 14 minutes into the game, it not only allowed Jed Wallace to find the top corner from 12 yards and make it 1-0, it was ultimately devastating to the Whites' chances of taking three points back to Yorkshire from the capital.

In the few seconds it took for Bradshaw to go down and the red card to go up, it was only natural for on-lookers of a Leeds association to look skyward and exclaim: "Berardi, again."

It was his eighth red card since joining Leeds in 2014.

But it was, with the benefit of replays, an incorrect decision.

There appeared to be little, if any contact between the defender and the attacker.

The likelihood was that Bradshaw would have got a shot away, yet the looming presence of Phillips could not be ignored.

It was ignored, Berardi was off.

If there was criticism to be levelled at the Swiss defender, it was for the error that allowed Bradshaw to get past him, heading the ball straight at the striker.

Only misfortune placed Berardi in the starting line-up in the first place, club captain Liam Cooper limping out of the midweek game at West Brom, picking up a groin injury before his side travelled to face one of the division's most direct and physically imposing outfits.

Only misfortune limited Bielsa's options for a reshuffle - injuries to first choice box-to-box midfielder Adam Forshaw and his young deputy Jamie Shackleton forcing right-back Stuart Dallas to start the game in the middle of the park.

The Whites head coach, for the second time in a week, felt that he got it wrong when he changed things around in the wake of the goal.

He put Luke Ayling in central defence and Dallas at right-back, a swap with a chain reaction - the Northern Irish international's removal from the midfield forcing Patrick Bamford to come deeper and deeper in search of the ball and leaving Leeds with little presence or a focal point for their attack.

In the second half Kalvin Phillips would move further forward to partner Matesuz Klich in the middle and Bamford could once again push on.

Bielsa blamed himself for not doing this sooner because, on the early season evidence, he is loath to point the finger elsewhere.

He won't criticise referees, he is yet to really criticise his players and he won't use luck as an excuse.

If, as he suggested, his tactical decision on 14 minutes was incorrect, then he should of course share some of the blame for what happened at The Den.

But there was a more obvious place for culpability to lie and the club's subsequent decision to appeal that red card award says it all in that regard.

There were things Leeds could have done better, from the 14th minute onwards, however.

They adapted well enough to the numerical disadvantage and had Millwall on the back foot a number of times, yet struggled to create anything of note.

Possession wasn't hard to come by, chances were.

Millwall won battles in the air and on the ground, then snapped up second balls to go and launch their own attacks.

Lions left winger Shane Ferguson had already caused problems for both Helder Costa and Dallas when he was allowed to create the second Millwall goal in first half stoppage time.

Costa was made to look lightweight and defensively suspect. He couldn't get near the Ulsterman when he charged forward and whipped in an inviting early ball, Bradshaw nicking it beyond the helpless Kiko Casilla.

Half-time came and went and Costa did not emerge for the second half, Barry Douglas replacing him and going to left-back.

The switch allowed Gjanni Alioski to move forward and play left wing and within 15 seconds it had paid off.

Leeds attacked from the kick-off, Bamford linked up with Klich and Harrison, now on the right, crossed to the back post for Alioski to arrive and knock it home.

The goal stunned the hosts and silenced the Millwall fans, if only briefly.

There was more than a hint of nerves in the noise that reverberated around The Den in the period that followed, Leeds beginning to boss the game against the 11 men.

Millwall were forced to rely on counter attacks in the early stages of that second half, Casilla racing 40 yards from his goal to clear from Ben Thompson's feet, Ayling taking a yellow card to halt another break.

In Ben White, Leeds had a centre-half both willing to and capable of taking risks in possession, stepping up into the play, running it from deep or turning away from the close attention of Millwall attackers to put the visitors back on the front foot.

In Ayling they had a centre-half capable of covering for his partner, battling for possession and pushing the Whites' defensive line higher up the pitch.

The men in white enjoyed possession and territory.

It was only when the ball arrived in the final third of the pitch that Millwall's man advantage became evident.

The lack of an extra body in the box meant that the build up play often came to nothing.

With a quarter of an hour to go it was no surprise to see Bielsa roll the dice again, throwing Tyler Roberts on for defensive midfielder Phillips.

His luck wasn't in. That change didn't bring the chance Leeds needed and instead it was managerless Millwall who came on strong towards the end.

They pressed, made it hard for Leeds to play out from the back and when Casilla was forced to go long, the bigger team unsurprisingly won the aerial duels and the ball came back.

Inevitability began to settle over the stadium.

Away fans knew they weren't going to get an equaliser, home fans knew they were finally going to see a win, their side keeping the ball in the corner, winning set-pieces and seeing it out handily in the end.

Adam Barrett, in caretaker charge of Millwall, felt his side got what they deserved.

Bielsa felt the result should have been different.

The Argentine himself said earlier this season that football's beauty can be found in the fact that two opposing conclusions can hold truth.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, though, and for Leeds fans this was another ugly afternoon in London.

It was luckless, as so often has been the case this season.

If not always a refereeing decision, an inspired goalkeeper, a fluky opposition goal or the frame of the goal has been the difference between Leeds getting what they deserve and Leeds falling short.

At some stage, their luck may change.

Or they can make their own.

An improvement in the final ball, an improvement in decision making in and around the opponent's area, better finishing, these are the ways in which Leeds can get their just deserts and take their fate out of the hands of referees and out of the hands of inferior opposition.

If not they will continue to enjoy praise for performing well, without enjoying what really matters.