Leeds United didn't prove themselves too good for relegation fight but that wasn't the job against Watford - Graham Smyth's Verdict

The job for Leeds United against Watford at Elland Road wasn't to prove they are too good to drop out of the Premier League.

Sunday, 3rd October 2021, 4:45 am
MATCH WINNER - Diego Llorente's first half goal was enough to give Leeds United their first Premier League win of the season. Pic: Getty

Tomorrow can look after itself and Marcelo Bielsa has always been one to keep Leeds living in the moment, devoting all their attention to the most immediate challenge and emptying themselves in the pursuit of rewards available right here and now. Besides, the season is but seven games old and even at this stage there are only a handful of teams who have the luxury of being able to say with complete confidence they will remain in the division. The relegation fight involves almost everyone, until a certain amount of time has passed.

The job wasn't even to produce a performance that would calm everyone's nerves ahead of the international break, a void that would have been filled with wailing and gnashing of teeth had they failed to win.

When the worst case scenario is all but unthinkable, why give it any thought?

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The job was simply to prove themselves better than Watford for 90 minutes, plus a few extra. It should have been so much more comfortable than it was as the game headed into those extra minutes but by the time referee Simon Hooper finally blew his whistle, it was job done.

It was not a perfect performance by any stretch - Leeds showed a wastefulness that was reminiscent of Championship days and they did briefly threaten to allow Watford an ill-deserved route back into the game in the second half, but when you your first six league games went by without a win, a few nerves are to be expected holding the most slender of leads in time added on.

But three points was the perfect result, even if by a 1-0 scoreline. Those three points were precious, hard earned and fully deserved.

Raphinha began the afternoon in a playful mood, dancing his way into the corridors of Elland Road as Leeds arrived at the stadium and kicking a ball against the backside of Kalvin Phillips as they warmed up. He ended the afternoon on his haunches having given every ounce of energy for a win, elated but unable to muster the energy to give his feeling physical form.

A player who can marry flair and hard work is, in Bielsa's words 'not common' and he was a menace against Watford, whether going towards their goal or tracking back towards his own.

Raphinha and Phillips, who was in cruise control yet again, made sure Leeds were better than Watford and not just a bit better, but markedly superior.

They, along with Illan Meslier, are what you might call the marquee players at Leeds and their presence in itself should give everyone a measure of confidence that this season can play out positively, but while the Brazilian and the England international were especially good against Watford, many hands contributed to the completion of the job.

There were signs of improvement in a number of individual performances but it was a solid team effort.

Diego Llorente, back from yet another injury, showed how important he might be if Leeds manage to keep him fit.

He was straight into it, passing through lines to find the feet of Stuart Dallas, who looked a lot more like himself and popped up everywhere in a first half that saw Leeds swarm the Hornets.

Leeds carried a threat down both flanks, wingers Raphinha and Daniel James seeing early shots blocked. Off the ball, James was using his pace to terrify defenders, William Ekong coughing up possession under the pressure allowing Dallas to nip in and force a good save from Ben Foster.

When they had the ball, which was often in the first half, Leeds were fluid, showing neat interplay. Junior Firpo found Mateusz Klich, he teed up Dallas but the shot was high. Between them, Klich, Dallas and Phillips got hold of the midfield and would not let go.

Their lightning quick start deserved a goal and it came on 18 minutes, Juraj Kucka making a hash of his header as Raphinha curled in a corner, Llorente seizing gleefully on the chance to mark his latest comeback with a smart finish.

Elland Road relaxed, instantly, but not completely. They wanted more.

A loud penalty shout for James had the Leeds bench off their feet to remonstrate with the fourth official, but Bielsa remained unmoved. He liked what he was seeing - White shirts dominating possession and playing the game in the Watford half, finishing attacks with shots that meant there was little hope of a breakaway for the visitors.

Rodrigo's clever dummy allowed Dallas another go, which was blocked. The Spanish forward was linking up well with the midfield and the wingers, slotting Raphinha into the area where he went round Foster only to find the side netting from a near impossible angle.

There were a couple of little warnings, sloppy moments that gave Watford half a sniff of goal, yet Meslier remained a spectator and Leeds were enjoying minutes, not moments.

Raphinha's world-class swerving ball into the path of Rodrigo was exactly what Watford lacked, but their star right winger was being kept honest and anonymous by Junior Firpo.

On the other side of the Leeds defence Jamie Shackleton was looking after the ball, winning duels and playing sensible football.

As the sides went in at the break there was a stark contrast in the body language of the two teams.

And even though the second half was quite as good for Leeds, they remained the better side and always looked as if they had a plan. By comparison, Watford's was near impossible to identify until the final minutes when they went direct in search of a late leveller.

Dallas continued to pop up in the right places, driving onto a loose ball after Rodrigo failed to squeeze a pass through to the unmarked Raphinha, the Northern Irishman's route to goal blocked once more.

James' pace was still an issue, forcing Kiko Femenia into a rugby tackle that brought a yellow, but his desire was a problem for Watford too. Out-hustling Sarr to reach the ball first and draw a foul put a second visitor in the book.

Xisco Munoz' men did eventually have a little spell of their own, more through Leeds errors than their own ideas, and Meslier had to risk a clattering to deny Emmanuel Dennis at the back post. He duly dropped the ensuing corner and the ball ended up in the net, only for Hooper to award a free-kick to Leeds for Christian Kabasele's challenge on Liam Cooper.

The final quarter of an hour was messier than it had to be.

Dallas was forced off with a knock to be replaced by Tyler Roberts and he gave Leeds a serious threat, counter attacking well and then seeing two efforts cleared off the line.

By never really killing the game, there was always a slight risk of a sting in the tail and nervous-looking misplaced passes offered hope to Watford. But with Cooper in no mood to let this one get away, blocking shots like his life depended on it, and Roberts taking pressure off with good decisions on the ball, the full-time whistle brought sweet relief.

The next task is to prove they are better than Southampton in a fortnight. Ticking off the jobs, one by one, is how Leeds will prove they still belong to ply their trade among the elite. They have now at least, at last, made a start.