Leeds United have been brilliant so far this season, but four points from three home games doesn’t reflect that.
Instead, it reflects a nervousness around Elland Road, persisting through the opening weeks of this all-or-nothing campaign.
Saturday’s defeat to Swansea reduced United’s home record to one win in seven, if you stretch it back through the end of last season; then again, if you really go back, Leeds haven’t been promoted for 10 years, so we do have to draw a line somewhere.
But we can’t, yet, draw it through this summer, and forget April and May ever happened. Leeds have had the invitations, but their home performances so far haven’t been enough to obliterate those anxious memories.
Swept up among the torn tickets and pie wrappers at the end of every game are remnants of chewed fingernails, perhaps the skin from a few knuckles punched against concrete walls and plastic seats, as the tension gives way to disappointed anger.
Marcelo Bielsa’s seat had a new luxury extra on Saturday. His infamous bucket has been fitted with a cushion, upon which he sat and watched and concluded that, given United’s calm possession, secure defending, and the number of chances they created, he couldn’t think of anything they could have done differently.
Perhaps he could have run on the pitch and stuck the ball in the net himself, although after a yellow card in midweek and another stern lecture from the referee on Saturday, Bielsa needs to behave.
One explanation for the difference between home and away results is tactical: it’s received wisdom that teams attack more in their own stadiums to keep their paying customers happy, leaving spaces Leeds United – playing away – can exploit. When they come to Elland Road, teams sit deep and defend for all they’re worth.
Stoke City didn’t make their fans happy last weekend, but the spaces they left for Pablo Hernandez to instruct the ball into were nowhere to be seen among Swansea City’s defence.
Despite that, United’s chance creation holds up home and away: 14 against disastrous Stoke, 13 against safe Swansea.
But there was a difference in how many defenders were in the penalty areas to make those chances more difficult.
Swansea blockaded their keeper, while Stoke’s defenders seemed happy enough that Leeds were taking pot-shots at theirs. You can’t feel a tactic, though, and that’s where United’s home form is manifest: it’s an ache in the spleen, a soreness in the tummy, a clamminess around the heart.
Football stats apps don’t have a metric for nervous tension, but it was more dominant than Kalvin Phillips on Saturday; a sense in the stands that the game was in low gear, that Swansea were a test, that the chances Leeds kept missing had to go in. The most depressing thing about Swansea scuffing in their winning goal in stoppage time, after Leeds failed to properly clear a corner, was that nobody was surprised.
That’s not how goals against Leeds should feel at Elland Road. They should be regarded as an audacious indignity, the most painful of the stabs to the heart Billy Bremner complained of feeling every time Leeds conceded. But Elland Road, where Leeds had a record of 10 wins and just three defeats from last November to April, is not currently a fortress.
Swansea manager Steve Cooper celebrated their win wildly in front of the travelling fans, showing what it always means for visitors to win at Elland Road — and rightly so.
It should be an achievement worth toasting. But he also showed what Leeds are missing.
I wasn’t angry about his prancing antics, but I was jealous. It’s not that I’m expecting Marcelo Bielsa to dance a bucket-top jig after a home win, but I’d like him to have that opportunity, so that while Phillips and the rest go crazy on the pitch, he can politely shake hands with his rival and walk placidly down the tunnel.
Maybe he dances in his private office, flinging his expected goals charts in the air.
Away form is important, and you can build a title-winning campaign on United’s away results so far. But atmosphere is also important to a successful promotion season, and the kind of momentum that only comes from winning in front of your own supporters week after week, rolling a bandwagon down the Lowfields that has a different force to any head of steam built up away.
United’s next home game is against Derby County. I hope, with all my spleen and fingernails, that it gives us something to celebrate.
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.