Garry Monk wants a sense of perspective and his players are under orders to say nothing of the league table but Leeds United, after years in the madhouse, are in serious danger of getting their act together.
The irony as Monk fends off questions about their rising league position is that the table underplays the trajectory Leeds are on.
To the naked eye his team are ninth and coping nicely but this purple patch and the development in it is too ingrained to be disregarded as short-term form. Leeds are doing what useful teams do in the Championship: scoring goals, conceding few and edging games like Saturday’s sapping win over Burton Albion. Elland Road has housed too many busted flushes for caution to evaporate but the crowd know what they are seeing and so does Monk.
Amongst sides with more flair and, just as pertinently, more wealth, Leeds look like a model team. Monk simply won’t be told that results in a two-months window – six wins and a draw from nine league fixtures – are indicative of how the whole season will pan out. In short, there is no point in asking him to speak about the play-offs, even if other clubs in the same vicinity are doing just that.
“We’re only just coming out of October,” Monk said after a 2-0 win over Burton, a result which left Leeds a point short of sixth place. “Everyone says it but there are no prizes at this point and you’ve seen what it’s like in this league. You have a great week and everyone talks like this. You have a bad week and we could be talking about something totally different. So you have to be mindful of that. You have to be realistic.
“This is the way I work. The guys come in now and focus on what we’re doing this week. There’s no talking about league tables or points, or this and that. It’s all about how we win the next game. I did that at Swansea and I’m doing it here. We’re three months in with a new group, which is no time at all when you think about it, but we’ve grown very quickly and that’s important - because in football you don’t get a lot of time.”
That was true of Monk in mid-September when his job as head coach seemed precarious. It is true now of Alex Neil, the Norwich City manager whose side were outclassed by Leeds in an epic League Cup tie last Tuesday and then thrashed 5-0 at Brighton on Saturday. Leeds found Burton to be as capable as most of their opponents this season and Monk was not about to write home about the football he saw but his players summoned the tenacity to record their third win in an eight-day spell in which Norwich lost three times. Leeds head to Carrow Road this weekend and have not picked a bad time to descend.
Burton succumbed to two goals late in the game at Elland Road, one laid on by Souleymane Doukara and the other scored by him with almost the last kick. The release of exuberance which followed the second goal – luring Doukara into a yellow card for kicking away a corner flag in celebration – disguised the slog which had gone before but after extra-time and penalties in midweek, Monk was not expecting a classic.
“It wasn’t our best performance,” he said, “but considering the week we’ve had, you’ve seen everything from this group, all the sides of football you want. Part of me wants to be critical of parts of the performance but they’ve given me everything. Our mentality was really strong when we weren’t at our best. You always try to make sure you don’t lose a game and when you’ve got that mentality, you’re always going to create a chance or two. In the moments with the chances, we were clinical. Those are the fine margins.”
Doukara, the enigmatic Frenchman who for two years has been an occasional extra in a wild stage-show at Leeds, is the best example of a period where so much is going right. Before Tuesday’s cup tie against Norwich, it was months since Doukara last played well or really played at all. Having stormed around the pitch in that dramatic win, he stepped forward as Monk’s first substitute on Saturday with 16 minutes left and Leeds and Burton squabbling in a messy midfield. Most of those watching expected Marcus Antonsson to appear but it was Doukara who came on and Doukara who made the difference, winning a penalty before killing all that was left of Burton’s hope by finishing off a counter-attack in the sixth-minute of injury time.
“You want substitutions to affect the game and bring a bit of spark,” Monk said. It was his right to enjoy that the decision after the criticism of his changes in a 1-1 draw with Wigan Athletic two weeks ago. “We lacked spark with the ball for long periods but Souley did just that – he brought us energy and he played a part in both goals. It was a big contribution in terms of us winning.”
The game needed something. Leeds had gone closest to scoring with a second-half shot from Kemar Roofe which rolled inches wide of the post and Burton – by no stretch out of their depth in this division – struck the crossbar in the first half through Kyle Bartley’s misdirected header but at no point did a flood of goals feel imminent. Burton’s manager Nigel Clough, who maintained a 100 per cent record against Leeds in the years when he coached Derby, bemoaned what he called “naive” play from his side as a result got away from them. Clough might not be popular in these parts but there was no disputing the penalty decision and no sour grapes at full-time.
The penalty in any case owed as much to a brilliant pass from Pablo Hernandez as it did to Burton’s naivety; a volleyed through-ball on 83 minutes which saw an opening which few other players on the pitch would have seen as instinctively. Doukara was onto it quickly and as he shaped to shoot, Ben Turner felled him with a trailing leg. Doukara took the credit but Chris Wood took the ball, battering the penalty down the middle of the goal.
Burton were briefly deflated but they laid siege to Leeds’ net and were picked off again at the end of injury-time as Leeds fought to prevent an equaliser. Three blocked shots inside United’s box ended with a counter-attack in which Wood had the presence of mind to send Doukara clean through again. The striker went down inside the box but saw the ball spin through goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin’s hands, leaving him with time to regain his feet and convert a tap-in.
“You could see that physically and mentally we were on the edge,” Monk said. “There were some drained bodies at the end. But you can’t be at your best every week and you can’t out-perform or dominate teams every single week. You have to show all sides of yourselves.”
There are few sides of this Leeds team which do not appeal; questions over the depth of Monk’s squad, certainly, but much ado about the players he has already. In a league where two of the top six conceded five goals on Saturday, it was natural for the departing crowd at Elland Road to peruse the table and ask the question: why not us? Monk said only that he would rather those conversations did not involve him or his players.
“I spoke to them on the first day about how I work, about what I expect from them and how I see football,” he said. “The conclusion is always that we need to be focused on winning games. You can’t be thinking about what’s going on in two or three weeks’ time because you’ll miss what’s happening now. Each day the players come in, they worry about that training session. Then a game comes along. That’s the process - and they seem to like it.”