SEVEN DAYS on from displaying magnificent defensive resolve in a gutsy televised victory at Middlesbrough came the fall against Watford, whose front three made considerable hay in the second half of Saturday’s clash with Leeds United en route to a 3-2 success.
The defeat, allied to a 2-0 loss at Brighton in midweek, when Leeds were second-best, has taken some of the shine away from a decent February which had seen United pick up wins against Reading, Millwall and Boro following on from the victories over Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town the previous month.
Not too much harm has been done in terms of United’s seasonal fates following the setbacks against Brighton and the Hornets, with the bottom three of Blackpool, Wigan and Millwall firmly ensconced in the bottom three of the Championship and looking increasingly destined for League One football next term.
But the dual defeats in the past six days have represented a disappointment nevertheless. Here’s five observations from Saturday’s loss by the odd goal in five to the promotion-chasing Hornets.
1: Leeds defence struggle against pace and movement.
Sol Bamba and Liam Cooper will be mighty glad not to have to face Troy Deeney, Matej Vydra and Almen Abdi again this term, with two-goal Vydra only playing because in-form Odion Ighalo - who had scored 14 goals in his previous ten outings - was suffering from a hamstring strain. Watford had an undistinguished opening half hour or so before moving their way through the gears - and they never really looked back after Deeney outpaced Bamba to latch onto Vydra’s lovely pass to pull one back for the visitors on 39 minutes. You sensed he and Vydra fancied it against Leeds’ backline afterwards, who stood off the strikers at certain junctures and looked increasingly uncertain against both their pace and movement. By the end, Leeds back four were at sixes and sevens against them as they got past them with regularity with some of their interplay a delight at times. Both Bamba and Cooper looked flat-footed and ‘wooden’ against them in the second period, with little protection in front of them. A big lesson for the pair.
2: Neil Redfearn has a decision to make in the heart of defence against Ipswich Town on Wednesday.
With Giuseppe Bellusci back in the fray after a two-match ban, Redfearn has to decide on his central defensive line-up against Ipswich - three into two won’t go. Bellusci’s concentration is not always the best at times, but he has the pace to get out of trouble in mitigation. In the last four games he has started - Bournemouth, Reading, Millwall and Boro, Leeds have not conceded a goal, no mean statistic. In the two he has sat out with Liam Cooper and Sol Bamba lining up together, Leeds have leaked five goals and Redfearn has a decision to make.
3: Injuries are starting to expose a lack of genuine strength and Championship nous in the United squad.
Rudy Austin and Steve Morison are early doubts for the clash with Ipswich and a few more injuries would certainly expose United’s squad. While Morison has not scored for almost two years for Leeds - albeit with a season on loan at Millwall last season - his presence and physical edge was missed against Watford, although to his credit, Billy Sharp gave his all for the cause and certainly was one of the better United players on view. Edgar Cani remains a work in progress and short of match fitness, with Souleymane Doukara looking out of the picture, while Mirco Antenucci has seen his star dim during the winter months. Brian Montenegro has also barely had any exposure to Championship football. And how do you solve a footballing problem like Adryan. He made minimal impact after coming on against Watford and did not have any telling effect. The likes of Antenucci and Adryan can offer something when on sogn, but have hit a bit of a wall this winter and haven’t displayed the game-changing qualities that Neil Redfearn has sought. In his utterances on Saturday, Redfearn was also right to say that Leeds are short of proven Championship operators, with the belief that some of his squad are starting to ‘run on empty’ starting to carry a bit of weight also. But with the supporting cast on the bench not exactly pressing their claims, Redfearn has a bit of a conundrum.
4: With young players, you are going to get peaks and troughs.
Lewis Cook has been outstanding in a number of games this season, but having just turned 18, it would be foolish to expect him to be able to run the show on a weekly basis. He is due the odd quiet game, as are Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram and Charlie Taylor - they are learning on the job. The at times relentless nature of the Championship, with United currently in the midst of a hectic schedule, means that they are times when young players will invariably be below par as was the case on Saturday against a good side in Watford, who expose your limitations.
5: An extra day’s preparation for the Ipswich game is welcome.
Ipswich head into Wednesday night’s game on the back of a punishing East Anglian derby loss at Norwich City on Sunday, with Leeds having an extra day to prepare. It will be welcome against an Ipswich side who will pose a physical examination for Leeds, who were battered at Portman Road in early December and couldn’t cope with Town’s persistence and work-rate and energy - and conceded some poor goals in the process. After turning things around so far in a decent start to 2015, Leeds will have to man up against Ipswich, who work their socks off and are the embodiment of a Mick McCarthy side. With a bit of luck, their exertions at Carrow Road will have taken a fair bit of petrol out of their tank, but with the incentive of promotion to aim for, expect Ipswich to still be giving it a real go.
Leeds need to set about them with intent as they did against Bournemouth and match them for work-rate and not let them settle. If you don’t compete against Ipswich, they will invariably beat you. Leeds need to make it thoroughly difficult for them from the off on Wednesday and move them around the pitch.