Leeds United count cost of mistakes just as new story was emerging - Graham Smyth's Palace Verdict

Leeds United had one of those days against Crystal Palace at Elland Road and let a huge opportunity slip through their fingers, as YEP chief football writer Graham Smyth reports.
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Mistakes, at this level, are oh so costly.

Take Jean-Kevin Augustin. The £15.5m paid out for a player Leeds never actually signed permanently was the headline number in the club's amended 2020/21 accounts, published on Sunday morning. Next year the club's accounts will reveal the cost of paying off Jesse Marsch after that ultimately failed experiment.

As for last year's set of financial records, the £34m operating loss is no huge concern, not if someone with deep pockets is willing to put money in, not if your brand carries huge commercial potential and not if you have a number of high-value assets who could each realise tens of millions should the need arise. Even dropping out of the Premier League would not be such a fiscal disaster, not with parachute payments to soften the landing and those potential transfer sales to further lessen the impact.

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Relegation, of course, would be devastating and it is a fate Leeds are desperate to avoid but according to CEO Angus Kinnear's report in the accounts it would not be fatal.

"The club's prudent financial management and development of a squad with depth and youth mean that it has the capability to sustain a temporary loss of Premier League status without altering its long-term trajectory," he said.

Prior to Crystal Palace no one was under any illusions that Leeds were still in the dog fight but that midweek win over Nottingham Forest had presented an opportunity to start turning the conversation away from the drop and its consequences. A new story was threatening to break out. There was rarified air to be breathed in with great big gulps, should Palace be overcome. Twelfth place was on offer and while Leeds could not yet have described themselves as far from the madding crowd, a win would have seen them well placed to go on and leave the chaos behind, before too long.

At 1-0 up, peppering Sam Johnstone's goal, they were well placed to go and get a huge victory. At 1-0 up, with only Johnstone standing between them and a comfortable scoreline, it was impossible to imagine a defeat, never mind a 5-1 humiliation. And yet mistakes were costly. Fatally so, in this game.

TOUGH OUTING - Javi Gracia backed Luke Ayling in the Leeds United line-up and the right-back encountered a difficult afternoon against Crystal Palace. Pic: GettyTOUGH OUTING - Javi Gracia backed Luke Ayling in the Leeds United line-up and the right-back encountered a difficult afternoon against Crystal Palace. Pic: Getty
TOUGH OUTING - Javi Gracia backed Luke Ayling in the Leeds United line-up and the right-back encountered a difficult afternoon against Crystal Palace. Pic: Getty
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What made it so baffling was that Leeds started so well, playing like a team who belonged in midtable comfort, not one even remotely at risk of leaving the division. The ball was being fizzed into feet, forwards were fizzing in shots at Johnstone. Junior Firpo and Luis Sinisterra linked up well down the left, the full-back pulling the ball back from the byline for a Brenden Aaronson's flick that brought the first of Johnstone's series of stops.

Mixing things up and going down the right there was equally nice work from Aaronson, Jack Harrison and Ayling, whose cross was met by a diving Sinisterra, only for a deflection to see it safely into Johnstone's hands. Ilan Meslier was a bystander, Leeds dominating. They stopped Palace from playing beyond halfway and then went at them.

An opener was deserved and expected. Aaronson's corner was met by Patrick Bamford and the header looped in off the far post. As routines go it was simplicity itself, the jostling and decoy runs doing their bit but an accurate delivery and the right contact doing the lion's share.

The goal at least prompted a little spell of Palace pressure and a corner of their own that very nearly brought them level. Jeffrey Schlupp was denied by the near post as Leeds made a mess of defending it. A second corner and Marc Guehi's effort needed a Weston McKennie goalmouth clearance.

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Those felt like warnings but with Leeds still looking so dangerous going the other way, the mood inside Elland Road remained upbeat. Harrison whipped a wicked free-kick around the wall and Johnstone tipped it around the post. He saved again from Robin Koch's header from the subsequent corner.

When Koch was beaten in the air at the other end by Jordan Ayew it could have been 1-1, the header a fraction wide. Another warning. Again Leeds attacked and again Johnstone kept them out, his flying stop foiling Pascal Struijk this time.

But with less and less control of proceedings, Leeds were running a risk of conceding. Giving away free-kicks deep in their own territory while struggling to defend set-pieces was playing with fire. Right on the stroke of half-time they got burned, the first contact from a free-kick was won by the visitors. Guehi nipped in ahead of the rooted Meslier and poked in the leveller.

Gracia got them in at half-time and tried to address what was going wrong while demanding more of what had gone right. What he got instead was a lethargic, error-strewn excuse for a second half. Leeds essentially stopped playing and Palace picked up where they left off prior to the break.

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The phase of play that led to a 2-1 Palace lead summed it all up. Ayling's hit-and-hope crossfield ball put Harrison under pressure and ultimately Michael Olise in possession. When he was squared up, wide right, by Struijk, he simply shifted the ball onto his left foot and put it on the head of Ayew who, with Ayling flat footed, headed home. The right-back’s place in the side has come under scrutiny of late after a number of high profile errors and struggles to contain opposition wingers. His inclusion against Palace, in an unchanged side, was a big all for Gracia and one that did not pay off. That said, Ayling was far from alone in culpability on Sunday.

Conceding a third so soon after - the second came on 53 and the third on 55 minutes - held more than a whiff of collective collapse from Leeds. Olise was granted too much freedom and he slotted the ball into the area for Eberechi Eze to tuck home. Marc Roca trailed in his wake, Leeds trailed 3-1 and Elland Road was stunned.

Perhaps it was hiding to nothing territory at this stage, because Leeds had to go for it and Palace were always going to threaten on the break, but once again the Whites played right into their hands. A hashed attempt at playing into the area led to a four-on-two breakaway, Odsonne Edouard supplying the finish after Olise found him in the box.

Gracia made changes but there was no discernible change in the performance. The ball continued to be given away, attackers continued to have their way in the Leeds half, Rasmus Kristensen played Ayew onside for the fifth and thousands found their way out of the stadium.

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A day that began with so much promise ended in misery. Leeds, by Gracia's admission, were 'soft' in many actions and not up to the required level. When they play as they can, they can beat anyone, he says. When they don't, the outcome is painfully obvious and obviously painful.

Leeds, though, are not in the drop zone and have a two-point cushion as well as eight games left. Even if the themes of this defeat were familiar - the missed chances and the set-piece defending - the scale of it can still be chalked off as an aberration. Just about anyone can beat just about anyone soundly in this division, after all. It can serve as a painful reminder that Leeds are not out of the woods just yet, keeping everyone on their toes and at their best. It can and should provoke a response, both in performance levels and Gracia's team selection. It can be a mistake from which Leeds learn, one that informs the story of the rest of this season in a positive way, one that does not factor when the accounts are explained next year. What it cannot be is fatal.