Leeds United losing heads and players but can't lose hope - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Chelsea loss

Leeds United had no discernible plan, no quality and no composure against Chelsea, which gave them no real chance, but they still have hope.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 12th May 2022, 4:40 am

This game, like Manchester City and Arsenal before it, was always likely to end in defeat and its 3-0 scoreline would have come as no surprise regardless of what had occurred during the 90 minutes.

It's the final two against Brighton and Brentford that hold Leeds' best chances of survival, so while a positive result against Chelsea would have been a huge fillip, the real task was to come out of this one unscathed in order to attack the final week of the season with everything they've got.

Instead, Daniel James took the side's second needless red card in as many games, a departure from his senses sending him flying into Mateo Kovačić and out of the remaining games.

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Neither Raphinha nor Jack Harrison were able to finish the fixture and could well join Adam Forshaw, Patrick Bamford, Stuart Dallas, Tyler Roberts and Crysencio Summerville in watching on from the stands on Sunday.

All season long a small squad has creaked under the weight of injuries and cracks that appeared midseason are now a chasm into which their survival hopes could genuinely tumble.

Prior to kick-off Leeds chief Angus Kinnear insisted the squad had the necessary belief to pull off an escape and yet by full-time it was difficult to believe they will possess the necessary man-power, never mind the confidence and ability to carve out the necessary results.

Simply put, they have not given themselves a chance in any of the last three games and while each of those have been against top four opposition, Leeds haven't produced a complete performance for weeks.

HOPE LINGERS - Leeds United are losing their heads and bodies at the wrong time but they cannot lose hope even after Chelsea defeat. Pic: Tony Johnson

At present a good start, or even a solid one, appears beyond them. Against Chelsea it was vital to hold out for as long as possible, even if they couldn't find the first goal themselves, and yet they managed to out-do the Arsenal game, by a minute, conceding with just four on the clock.

The ease with which the visitors passed the ball from back to front was troubling enough before Reece James twisted to give himself enough space to cut the ball back for an unmarked Mason Mount to find the top corner. Boss Jesse Marsch lamented the early concession but still found it in himself to speak positively about the way Leeds started. The problem for the head coach is that when so few others can see cause for his optimism, the words ring ever more hollow.

Not only were tangible positives hard to identify, it was difficult to see Leeds' plan in possession in the opening 10 minutes, the man on the ball looking up to see very little in the way of viable options ahead of him. Lewis Bate was thrown into the deep end, alongside Kalvin Phillips, and struggled to keep his head above water in the midfield though he was far from alone in struggling.

It was mostly frantic, messy stuff, the ball bobbling around as Leeds rushed to get rid of it. Only a curling through ball fired forward from deep by Raphinha that was too far ahead of Rodrigo, and a Chelsea error that gave James a sight of goal he opted not to take afforded the home supporters brief moments of early optimism.

The sight of Raphinha, employed as a right wing-back again, hoofing the ball clear from the byline was not what anyone came to Elland Road to see, although Chelsea were undoubtedly delighted to see him there. And as Leeds toiled to work the ball forward, all too often being forced to go backwards, Elland Road's patience began to be tested.

There was another brief moment or two, a Diego Llorente snap shot from the edge of the area after the hosts won a corner about the height of it, but Chelsea were very comfortable and far more dangerous when they had the ball.

An elite side playing nice football and finding space needed no assistance and yet once again Leeds obliged, James hurtling into Kovačić in such an uncontrolled, dangerous manner that it gave Anthony Taylor a decision to make. A moment's pause was all the referee needed to reach for his red card and for the second time in as many games 10 men were left staring down the barrel of a defeat.

The character of this side has shown itself time and again but just when leadership is needed more than ever, senior players are losing themselves in tense, pressured moments that lead only to more pressure and more tension for those left to pick up the pieces. Ayling has played 500 games. James cost £25m and has upwards of 30 international caps. Better can be expected and though Marsch is opting not to criticise them in public, the rest of the squad need to be told in no uncertain terms that the club can ill afford any more indiscipline.

The head loss afflicting Marsch's men was not restricted to James - Phillips was soon lunging into a bad one on Christian Pulisic and that was after the game had been stopped for several minutes to allow medics to treat an away fan.

For Chelsea composure was easy, even if Kovačić limped off, because the rest of the first half was a stroll, the offside flag twice coming between them and a second. For Leeds, quite incredibly, it managed to get even worse. Harrison failed to recover from a knock picked up in a collision with James and had to be replaced by Junior Firpo.

The shell shocked looks on the faces of the Leeds players as they emerged from the tunnel for the second half said it all and the opening minutes did little to suggest there would be a shock result.

It remained an arduous task for the Whites to get the ball, let alone progress it forward, and Chelsea eased into a two-goal lead when Jorginho sprang forward into acres of space to keep a move flowing, Pulisic providing the cool finish.

That further sapped Elland Road of its energy and it got no easier for the home fans, forced to endure further one-way traffic as Pulisic and Romelu Lukaku whistled shots just past the post.

With 20 minutes remaining Leeds did at least muster something in the way of an attack - Rodrigo fed Firpo and his cross was headed over by Raphinha - but the ball kept coming back at them and legs began to tire. The team once feted for their endless energy were wilting.

At least it couldn't get any worse, could it? Well that's a theory Leeds have been stress testing all season and the sight of Raphinha stretching his right leg and asking for treatment was the affirmative answer no one wanted.

The Brazilian came off, Joe Gelhardt came on and Chelsea poured on the salt, Lukaku adding a third despite the sliding, diving, despairing white shirts in his path.

For many that was the cue to depart Elland Road and for others it was the cue to sing even louder. They know they're needed and that there is still a chance. There is always a chance, in football, until mathematics no longer offers hope. Right now, it's still possible and Leeds are still being backed to the hilt by fans who are clinging to hope, no matter how slim or faint. They hope for a rabbit of a performance, pulled from a hat, against Brighton. They hope for goals, even if just one from open play looks so far from Leeds' grasp. They hope to see a clear plan in action. They hope for Burnley to slip up not once, not twice but thrice. They will hope, to the bitter end. The hope is that it doesn't come on Sunday.