“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said Garry Monk. Except this version of it won’t see Leeds United’s boss reprising the role of Bill Murray by walking off a cliff. Another win, another clean sheet and another Chris Wood goal. The club could live this way indefinitely.
They have lived for six-and-a-half years without a streak of four wins back-to-back and as Monk played down the significance of Leeds hitting that mark on Saturday, it was impossible not to think of the seven managers since Simon Grayson who failed to do what Leeds last did in 2010. It might rank as a small achievement in the grand scheme but the numbers speak for themselves.
Monk’s optimism is firmly in check but Mick McCarthy did the talking for him after Ipswich Town lost 1-0 at Elland Road. McCarthy’s Ipswich have always had a certain manner about them – big, organised, good at playing the percentages – and he was stony-faced after Leeds bullied his team senseless. As single-goal wins go, Saturday was a thrashing. McCarthy’s analysis of the game? “Leeds deserved to win.” Silence followed.
McCarthy had more to say about Wood, a striker who played for him on loan at Portman Road in the months before Leeds signed him permanently from Leicester City. Wood’s first-half goal, his seventh of the season and his fourth in as many games, split two teams who had more distance between them than that but his running and aggression was the performance of a proper centre-forward. Leeds were a yard ahead of Ipswich throughout.
“He was outstanding,” McCarthy said of Wood. “He was a focal point and a big difference. He’s proving why people were coveting his signature a few years ago.
“If he continues doing that, Leeds have got a really exceptional Championship striker.”
Wood, whose overhead kick against Fulham last month is looking now like an rebirth of his ability, was on Ipswich’s case, hitting the inside a post from an angle in the 11th minute before making the most of a build-up of pressure on 35 minutes. After several previous attempts, Charlie Taylor dug out a perfect cross from the left wing and Wood, to coin a phrase, sent Christophe Berra to the wrong fire before ghosting into space and planting a downward header past Bartosz Bialkowski.
Only once before then had Leeds held their breath, when Cole Skuse’s deflected shot from 20 yards avoided the corner of Rob Green’s net by inches, and there was next to no threat from then on. “We looked in total control defensively,” Monk said. Ipswich had Daryl Murphy and Ryan Fraser last season and McCarthy would walk over hot coals for both of them. He lost Brett Pitman in the first half after Pontus Jansson left the striker in a heap in front of the East Stand. Leon Best was called upon to slog though an hour in total isolation.
Monk’s only criticism at full-time was that Leeds had allowed the game to remain at 1-0 but, unusually for Elland Road, the crowd felt no fear of an equaliser. At the end of United’s best run for almost seven years, a raucous stadium was in fine form too.
“In the last few minutes, although we didn’t suffer anything drastic, the crowd were willing the players to get through it, pushing them onto the end of the game,” Monk said. “I said at the start that we can only do this together.
“I talked earlier in the season about me sensing a little bit of apprehension in the players and in the crowd here (at Elland Road).
“We’ve got a lot of young players who don’t have a lot of experience so it was all about helping them to get through that gradually and start putting performances in.
“You’re trying to help the crowd understand what you’re going through, to get them seeing it and for us then to put it on the pitch. Winning games and performances give you confidence but I think the crowd see as well where this group is going. If we can give them time and let them make mistakes, which they will, they’ll come good.”
That was true of Kalvin Phillips, the youngster chosen to replace Liam Bridcutt on Saturday and a player who ensured than an absent Bridcutt wasn’t missed. Phillips has not played better in his short career. But at the other end of the spectrum, Pablo Hernandez has come through a foggy start to begin displaying a degree of pin-point passing which no other player in Monk’s squad can match. His brilliant through-ball, met by an equally good touch from Wood, should have led to a second goal after half-time but Bialkowski repelled Wood’s shot with his legs.
It went that way throughout the second half as Ipswich chased the ball and kept the scoreline down. On 63 minutes Phillips dispossessed Town inside their own half and a shot from Wood bounced kindly for Hadi Sacko. The chance came with gift aid included but Sacko lashed it wide of Bialkowski’s net. For the most part, Sacko’s infectious running was undone by his final ball but he helped to pin Ipswich back. When Phillips went close with a curling free-kick later in the game, Bialkowski tipped it wide.
Those missed opportunities set the scene for a late robbery but Monk didn’t expect it, the crowd had no sense of it and McCarthy conceded that Ipswich would not have earned it. “We were poor today, really poor,” McCarthy said. “But sometimes you’ve got to give the opposition credit, don’t you?”
In the search to find room for improvement in Leeds, Monk was scraping the barrel. “We were very good,” he said. “We understood the game well and we understood that Ipswich were going to make us defend certain situation a lot.
“My only disappointment from the game is that we weren’t clinical enough and we didn’t make it comfortable by getting those extra goals. Some of the chances were harder to miss than score. There’s always the danger that one lapse could cost you, that’s always the fear, but I can’t complain. We keep the run going but we stay grounded.
“When I look at the team from the start of the season to now, that understanding is getting better and better. Everyone understands how much better we’ll be as long as we do the hard work.”
Monk said on Thursday that a fourth win in a row would mean “nothing” to him, or nothing in the context of where this season might go from here. But nine games in he can tell himself that the season is going somewhere. “The improvement is there, clearly,” Monk said. “When we suffer something negative, we know now that we can fight back from that.”
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