Leeds United boss Javi Gracia educated on outstanding issue - Graham Smyth's Verdict at Fulham

The more Javi Gracia learns about Leeds United the greater his chances of fixing their problems and at Fulham it was another education.
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The Spaniard is big on togetherness, it was the bedrock of his Watford side and their run to the FA Cup final, and against Southampton what he saw informed him that Leeds could defend together. He took the job under the assumption that he could make this team compact enough to stem the tide of goals conceded so a clean sheet in his first outing was reassuring.

The celebrations sparked by Junior Firpo's winner were pleasing for Gracia. The wild scenes involving unused subs, subbed players, staff members and those on the pitch were instructive, too.

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"From from my first day, I could see the attitude of the players, the desire of the players to improve the situation," he said.

"And if you see, for example, the moment when we scored the goal, the reaction of all the players, please, see the game and you can feel what the players are and what the players want, the commitment they have with the situation and this is for me the most important tool to work to improve and at the end to achieve the target.”

On Tuesday night in the FA Cup his men showed they could attack together in numbers, too. There was no paucity of chances created, as there had been in the win over the Saints, but the game told the new head coach a tale that Leeds fans now know word for word.

Leeds had more than enough moments in and around the area that could and should have resulted in goals, or at the very least the very best of Marek Rodák. The Whites did not lack bravery, or cohesion, for some of the football as they flowed forward, was good to watch. What they lacked, once again, was quality and composure at the end of those moves. The killer instinct was missing.

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Fulham had no such trouble, progressing to the quarter-finals of the competition thanks to two beautiful long range finishes. Each of them benefitted in part from flashes of Leeds hesitancy but there was no questioning the quality of the strikes.

LONGSTANDING ISSUE - Leeds United once again created chances they could not take in a 2-0 FA Cup defeat at Fulham, Javi Gracia's second fixture in charge. Pic: GettyLONGSTANDING ISSUE - Leeds United once again created chances they could not take in a 2-0 FA Cup defeat at Fulham, Javi Gracia's second fixture in charge. Pic: Getty
LONGSTANDING ISSUE - Leeds United once again created chances they could not take in a 2-0 FA Cup defeat at Fulham, Javi Gracia's second fixture in charge. Pic: Getty

The underlying numbers, those pointed to so often by Jesse Marsch as evidence that the Whites were heading in the right direction, informed the American's successor that Leeds can create chances that hold a clear expectation of a goal, without scoring one. Fulham produced an expected goals tally of 0.19, to Leeds' 1.53.

It took the visitors just a quarter of an hour to put the ball in the net, for the first time. A nice move down the left earned a corner, Weston McKennie flicked it on and when Marek Rodak saved, Georginio Rutter stuck away the rebound. Referee Chris Kavanagh, though, spotted what he somehow deemed a shove on Harry Wilson by McKennie. It was, in Gracia's words, 'very soft' and that was a gracious response but he will learn, if he has not already, that Leeds in London are a magnet for injustice.

They shrugged off the anger, though and continued to play the better football. With it, Leeds tried to push McKennie forward to support Rutter and without it the American dropped back in to form a midfield three. It all looked solid enough, Fulham being forced into wide areas as is Gracia's way, until a Tyler Adams pass for Marc Roca was just far enough ahead of its intended target to give Joao Palhinha an inch, and he took a mile. Robbing Roca, he looked up and curled a wonderful effort around and over a stranded Illan Meslier for an ill-deserved lead.

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Again, Leeds dusted themselves down and went again, putting the ball in the net once more. This time the flag went up, Willy Gnonto well offside as he tucked in a rebound from another Rodak save.

A familiar pattern was unfolding.

Right at the end of the half Leeds beat Rodak for a third time and with the officials unable to find good reason to rule out the effort, the woodwork did so. A sweeping move down the left saw the defence, midfield and attack link up nicely before Gnonto's cross was headed back across goal by Rutter, beyond Rodak and against the post. Keeping the attack alive led to a second headed chance, Summerville putting this one wide.

A new half of football brought the same old story. Leeds started brightly, Rutter played in Gnonto on the left and the winger's hard, low shot back across goal was well saved. A move down the right ended with the same result, Rutter with the shot this time.

Just as in the first half, a brief moment of slackness was all it took for Fulham to profit. Manor Solomon had caused issues earlier in the game, ghosting past players who stuck tight to him, and when they stood off him just enough to let him link up with Aleksandar Mitrovic, the winger curled home a finish every bit as beautiful as Palhinha's.

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Fulham found space more easily in the wake of the second, the game opening up, and had a Mitrovic goal ruled out for offside, but with Jack Harrison and Brenden Aaronson making an instant impact, Leeds kept creating. They just couldn’t start scoring. Harrison had a shot that cleared the bar, then two crosses that Rodak palmed into dangerous areas, the first eventually dropping for Aaronson who hooked just wide, the second dropping to McKennie who had an effort cleared off the line. When the ball then cannoned off the midfielder and bounced past the post, it was time to accept it was one of those nights.

Leeds didn't give in until the final whistle, Ayling's dangerous ball cleared from the goalmouth by Tim Ream and Adams' 20-yarder missing the target, but it was evident long before that they could play all night without scoring.

Defensive solidity was one of Gracia's first targets and composure in the final third will be just as important. Togetherness and compactness are all well and good, they are vital in fact because Leeds were getting killed with big switches and that no longer appears to be the case. They were porous and vulnerable on transitions and now look sturdier. But goals beget wins and wins will beget safety. Getting the best out of Patrick Bamford and Georginio Rutter will be key, for while chances are dropping to others, the centre forward position is not producing enough fruit.

This is ultimately a team issue, though. This is a team that can play well without scoring and impress without winning. If he didn’t know that before, he does now but Gracia's plan is simple - work at it in training and hope that this team are fast learners.

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