They will call Good Friday’s game against Wigan Athletic the very definition of Leeds United: defeat to a team who last won away from home in August, amassed seven points on the road before visiting Elland Road and were in deep trouble in the Championship.
Marcelo Bielsa described it as a “game you have to win” and he was right in every respect, which made a 2-1 defeat impossible for him or anyone else to swallow. These are some talking points from a sapping day at the office:
Who should take penalties?
The answer is simple when the club’s squad is fully fit: Kemar Roofe takes them and no argument. But in his absence, Bielsa has left his players to decide by committee and, to an extent, decide on the hoof.
Patrick Bamford failed to convert one against Millwall last month so left it to Pablo Hernandez when another one arrived against Wigan yesterday. Hernandez struck the post at the same end of Elland Road where his miss against Reading in 2017 began Leeds’ long, torturous wait of 59 games for a spot-kick.
The odd thing about this rotation is that Bielsa is so devoted to detail and so big on control and oversight; so reluctant to leave anything to chance if he can avoid it. He had no fewer than six members of his coaching team at Wigan’s game against Norwich last weekend, all of them sent to dissect the Latics surgically. Penalties are one area where Bielsa has never applied the same definite touch.
Jokes about Dracula
If it felt as if Leeds might have crossed the ball all day against Wigan to no avail, the reality was very much that.
Bielsa’s players produced 59 deliveries over the course of 90 minutes, with Pablo Hernandez, Jack Harrison, Gjanni Alioski and Luke Ayling all in double figures by full-time, but the accuracy of them was costly.
Two of Hernandez’s 13 crosses found a Leeds player and Harrison was only marginally better with four from 16. So many landed on the heads of Wigan’s defence, amongst whom Cheynne Dunkley was exceptionally disciplined. Deprived of his centre-back partner after Cedric Kipre’s early red card, he made 12 clearances, blocked four shots and kept the door closed.
Leeds’ limp approach play made Wigan’s life easier than it should have been but Paul Cook’s side dug in as if their season depended on the result, which it almost did.
Liam Cooper was missed
Losing Cooper to a muscle strain was untimely and problematic, in part because of his general form but also because of the difficulty for Gaetano Berardi of leaping back into Bielsa’s starting line-up.
Berardi has not had a meaningful run of games since August and prior to Leeds’ derby against Sheffield Wednesday, had not started a competitive match for six months. Leeds’ dominance of Wednesday stopped them getting at him but Wigan’s pace and positivity asked questions which Berardi struggled to answer or keep up with.
He was not alone in making a meal of Leon Clarke and Gavin Massey but Bielsa must wish that his skipper was available for Brentford away. As it stands, Cooper is not expected to play at Griffin Park.
Should Bielsa be blaming himself?
It’s a familiar routine when Leeds lose: Bielsa takes the hit and takes the blame, without laying a finger on his players.
There’s something admirable about a head coach holding his hands up and inviting criticism but the idea that every poor result falls at Bielsa’s doorstep has never really washed.
His substitutions on Friday were ineffective and with hindsight, perhaps he went too soon with them by binning Kalvin Phillips and Tyler Roberts at half-time but he would be hard-pressed to single out anyone who performed well against Wigan.
At this stage of the season results are ultimately on the players and it was painful watching the bottom drop out of what often seemed like limitless reserves of confidence. Forty three games in and with 82 points on the board, there is little more Bielsa can do.
What will Easter Monday decide?
In short, nothing in the fight to finish second in the Championship.
Neither Leeds nor Sheffield United can go up but Norwich City could seal the title if results go the way they need them too, despite their Good Friday draw with Sheffield Wednesday. For Leeds, however, more dropped points at Griffin Park might be terminal.
Aston Villa come to Elland Road next weekend and Villa’s form is ridiculous: nine straight wins with goals flying in and Jack Grealish leading the division a merry dance. Sheffield United play first again on Monday, away at Hull City before Leeds’ appearance on Sky.
All eyes on the KCOM now.