Not since 1936 have a Leeds United team lost their first three league games and this crop of players are safe from that particular albatross. An overhead kick from Chris Wood saw to that, produced from nowhere at the very end of a tense night at Elland Road.
A point against Fulham – Leeds’ first of the season – was not to be sniffed at, or not after Fulham twice hit a post and led with a few seconds to go, and it can only be hoped that an overdue stroke of quality from Wood will light the fuse.
United are creeping towards the end of their first month with little momentum to cling to, even after their late, late equaliser last night. They had opportunities to beat Fulham and rocket themselves up the Championship table but it was hard to deny that Fulham were worth no less than a point. It was ironic too that Wood – so ineffective again – should come up with the most timely of finishes.
The striker has struggled from the outset this season, isolated and unimpressive up front, but he took an improbable chance in the third minute of injury-time as Monk was staring down the barrel of a third Championship defeat. Wood, who moments earlier had put a close-range header over the crossbar, showed his own feelings by cupping an ear to the Kop, reacting to earlier criticism while Fulham counted the cost of a 93rd-minute concession. Elland Road responded with all the relief that Garry Monk must have been feeling.
Fulham, no longer blessed with the goalscoring prowess of Ross McCormack, rattled the woodwork through Sone Aluko in the first half and Matt Smith in the second, denied at moments when United’s defence was starting to creak. Monk had earlier watched Marcus Antonsson waste of a one-on-one – a single black mark on an evening when the Swede shone again – and defeat appeared to be imminent after Tom Cairney picked out the corner of Rob Green’s net with 12 minutes to go. In the nick of time, Wood restored parity and Leeds got the Championship table ticking over ahead of visits to Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest.
Monk calls his job a “process” and the result against Fulham was a small step for him but it was important to see a table without Leeds at the foot of it. Fulham’s passing and movement was more akin to the football that Monk wants to see but Slavisa Jokanovic, the Fulham coach, has had nine months to establish his style. For Monk, the opportunity to settle has not presented itself yet.
United’s head coach took a gamble with his formation, a forthright answer to two previous defeats, and the inevitable consequence of that was space for Fulham to work with. Jokanovic’s side had more of the match, but they offered up one last opportunity as Elland Road had started to empty.
Monk is crying out for players to make much more of those moments.
He did not have the option of using Liam Bridcutt yesterday – a deal registered too late for Fulham’s visit – but the midfielder was in the crowd and the completion of that difficult transfer offered a shot in the arm after two losses in the league.
Other new signings are expected to follow and Leeds look set to add to the arrival of Bridcutt by landing Pontus Jansson, a 6’5” centre-back who is on Torino’s books but available on a season long loan. Jansson was a member of Sweden’s Euro 2016 squad and, like Antonsson, he worked with United assistant Pep Clotet during an earlier stage of his career. He sat in the West Stand as the clash with Fulham played out, seemingly confirming that a deal was imminent.
Monk needs another centre-back and his concern about that area of his team was highlighted by his decision to drop captain Sol Bamba. Liam Cooper got the nod in a like-for-like swap and in front of him United’s team was bravely weighted towards their attack. Monk found room for Kemar Roofe and Stuart Dallas in amongst Pablo Hernandez and Antonsson. Leeds’ head coach was as good as his word and backed Wood by leaving him up front. The system was a risk and at times in the first half, Fulham threatened to take advantage of it.
For a while there was nothing more between the sides than a heavily congested midfield but the game opened up gradually and Fulham were able to pose more of a threat. Smith, a striker sold by Massimo Cellino early in his reign as Leeds owner, drilled an early header straight at Green from close range and Floyd Ayite should have opened the scoring in the 20th minute.
The winger was presented with an opportunity from close range after Sone Aluko led a counter attack from a Leeds corner but Ayite’s glancing finish from a 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon’s cross skipped past Green and inches wide of his far post.
Leeds’ closest thing to an effort on target in the opening half-hour was a difficult volley from Stuart Dallas which might have been intended as a cross but floated into the arms of David Button. Fulham’s pace and quick exchange of possession going forward kept United on edge but Monk’s side were gifted an invitation to take the lead on 28 minutes by an error outside Fulham’s box. Antonsson fought his way clear and drew Button to the edge of his area, just as he drew Alex Smithies late on at Queens Park Rangers on the first day of the season. The finish was almost identical, struck from 18 yards and pulled just wide of Button’s left-hand upright.
There was similar tension at the other end as Green dived in on Aluko inside the box but received the benefit of the doubt from referee Chris Kavanagh after Aluko went down feebly. It took a post, however, to keep United level when Fulham cut Leeds open with a series of passes just after the half-hour. Aluko’s effort on the turn beat Green’s dive but struck the frame of the goal, allowing Kyle Bartley to hook the ball clear.
There were, still, occasional moments when United looked like catching Fulham out. Dallas’ near-post cross just before half-time caught Button in two minds and Antonsson’s flicked header narrowly failed to find the net. The chance re-engaged a crowd who were starting to grumble.
By the fifth minute of the second half, Monk’s players were truly hanging on. Green pulled off a brilliant save to deny Ayite and redeem a bad loss of possession and from the resulting corner, Smith watched a powerful header smash against the face of a post.
Before long the contest was breathless and Button was denying Roofe with a low block on his line. Monk tweaked his formation by replacing Dallas with Ronaldo Vieira and the change allowed Leeds to make more of the match.
Antonsson almost punished Button when the goalkeeper misjudged the flight of a corner but at the other end, Ayite made a mess of an opening which was begging to be tucked away. United had chanced their arm too many times and when an Aluko free-kick came back off the wall on 78 minutes, Cairney produced a quality finish from the right wing to find the far reaches of Green’s net.
It looked desperate for Monk and Leeds chased an equaliser without success until Wood reacted to the deflection of Charlie Taylor’s cross by springing up and smashing an overhead kick beyond Button. How he and Monk were crying out for that.