Leeds United were held to a 2-2 draw by Derby County at Elland Road last night. Here Phil Hay looks at five things we learned from that game:
1) Steve Evans’ players are starting to believe in themselves
From the start of Evans’ reign, Leeds have had a habit of moving through the gears as games go past the hour and stretch. They were unusually tired towards the end against Derby, just as they were at home to Preston, but the nature of those matches vindicated Steve Evans’ belief that a congested schedule worked against his players and Leeds have reached a stage where they are backing themselves to dig their way out of any hole. They were a goal down against Wolves, Forest and Derby but all three fixtures were there to be won late on, simply because United had the nerve to stick in and play. It’s easy to harp on about ‘spirit’ but you can see a healthy, professional attitude about this United squad. In no way could it be claimed that any of Evans’ players are going through the motions.
2) Evans has every chance of winning manager-of-the-month for December
The odd record of Leeds failing to win between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day since 2009 remains intact but December has been a purple patch: six fixtures, no defeats and 12 points gained. If that doesn’t earn Evans at a least a place on the shortlist for manager of the month then nothing will. Middlesbrough are motoring but Boro have been motoring all season and it should not be forgotten that away at QPR on November 28, Evans’ players were taking a hammering from the away end and the Scot himself was listening to chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing.” Football is easily overlooked at Leeds but the club’s head coach would be well worth the trophy for December. Then again, when you consider that Simon Grayson failed to win League One’s award once, what chance?
3) Despite the issues with his finishing, Chris Wood is unfairly maligned
There was a moment in the first half against Derby when Wood found himself under a high ball, hoofed 50ft into the air with Richard Keogh and Jason Shackell either side of him. He’ll make nothing of that sort of service but his goal on 71 minutes, when he ran Keogh out of position, timed his advance nicely and had the good sense to pick a downwards header, showed that Wood possesses a striker’s brain. Yes, he has missed too many clear chances. Yes, he could be more effective in the air. But he’s started every game bar one this season and he’s carrying the pressure of knowing that it’s him or no-one as a lone striker up front. He’ll get into double figures before long and a little injection of confidence won’t do him any harm.
4) United’s midfield needs Lewis Cook’s running power
Resting Cook against Derby County was the right decision. He looked tired against Nottingham Forest and he has barely had a break since August. But it is noticeable that when Cook is off the field Leeds lack attacking presence in the centre of the pitch. The 18-year-old’s end product needs work but he is one of those midfielders who likes to run with the ball, goes past other players easily and opens up space in the pocket and out wide. The likes of Bridcutt, Murphy and Adeyemi can create a solid platform but Cook - and in his own way, Alex Mowatt - provides the impetus. Evans needs him fresh and in form during the second half of the season.
5) The best teams in the Championship are consistent, not special
United have played every Championship side once and Derby twice. Without throwing stones from a glass house, there is nothing in the league which stands out as the sort of team you’ll remember vividly in 10 years’ time. Derby have good calibre and so do Middlesbrough. Twenty-two games unbeaten for Brighton cannot be sniffed at. But the most impressive visitors to Elland Road this season have arguably been Brentford, and MK Dons gave Leeds their biggest chasing away from home. The same old rules apply: hold it together and exceed the percentages in this division and you might just get out of it. That’s very much the way Evans is thinking.