Leeds United need to risk season getting worse if it's to get better - Graham Smyth's Verdict from West Ham defeat

For Leeds United's season to start getting better they have to risk it getting much worse.

Sunday, 26th September 2021, 4:45 am
RISK TAKERS - Left-back Junior Firpo led a Leeds United attack down the right wing at one stage against West Ham United. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

Bravery was at the heart of a 65-minute performance against West Ham United that deserved something, before the nous, quality and unerring confidence of David Moyes' side took over for a 2-1 Elland Road win.

What was evident from much of this game was that Marcelo Bielsa's players remain convinced in his style of football.

He spoke beforehand about the key to coaching being the ability to turn footballers into followers and already this season, particularly when Leeds have been in need of a late goal, we have seen evidence that they remain his disciples.

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Sticking to the plan when things aren't going to plan, even when doing so puts you in the way of further harm, is a sure sign that you believe it works.

That takes bravery, especially when the plan is Bielsaball. He once talked about things Leeds needed to do to be better in a game being the very same things that risked more pain. The sight of left-back Junior Firpo leading a second half counter attack down the right wing was case in point on Saturday.

It is when Leeds are being brave that football is at its most fun. Although the attacks they put together as they stream forward in waves of white can look simple, it takes huge amounts of understanding. They need to know where to best receive the ball, which pass to make to best exploit space, which run to make to open up space for others and where team-mates are going to be even before they look up.

Bielsa drills it into his men at Thorp Arch, where fun is painstakingly constructed and rehearsed, so it takes on a natural, flowing and almost spontaneous appearance on the field of play.

On the counter attack against West Ham they looked close to their fluid best, up to a point. And here lies the rub. Had Raphinha's first-half attempt to make it 2-0 not hit the post, had Stuart Dallas' drive dipped just a fraction of a second later and eluded Łukasz Fabiański's fingertips or had Mateusz Klich found Jack Harrison, or the net, instead of shooting wide via a deflection, this game would surely have ended on a much different note.

Creating chances was never much of a problem for Leeds in the Championship, finishing was the issue. Last season in the Premier League they were clinical.

This season they have struggled at times to create with fluidity and, against Newcastle and now West Ham, struggled to finish chances that would finish teams off.

And as Bielsa said in his press conference, had Leeds not thought so much about protecting what they had instead of bravely going in search of more, West Ham might not have had the possession or opportunities that led to their fightback.

A rip roaring first half did feature chances for both sides but Leeds could have been more than one goal to the good.

There was good early pressing work from Klich and Rodrigo, playing up front in the absence of Patrick Bamford, and Jamie Shackleton slotted in well as Luke Ayling's deputy.

Charlie Cresswell made an impressive start to his Premier League debut, giving the ever-difficult Michail Antonio as good as he got.

It was not a perfect opening - Antonio escaped the defence to take a ball from Saïd Benrahma and force the first of several fine stops from Illan Meslier. Leeds also encountered some problems playing out, the keeper struggling to hit his wide targets, his defence unable to find midfielders as long balls posed few problems for the visitors.

Meslier saved from Benrahma's curling effort and Dallas had one palmed over brilliantly by Fabianski as the Whites started to find joy down both flanks, Cooper sending Raphinha and then Dan James away for separate promising attacks.

That settled Leeds, they kept the ball a little better and although Dallas had his pocket picked by Declan Rice who threatened on the counter, the home side began to look ominous.

Raphinha was denied once by Fabianski but not a second time. Rodrigo recovered a loose ball, raced to the area and cut it back for Klich, who busted a gut to provide the perfect support and tee up the Brazilian for a first-time finish that was too hard and too accurate for the keeper.

It was a goal made of industry, desire and understanding as much as skill. Elland Road roared its approval and a good game got even better.

In a week when Harry Kane's tendency to drop deep and orchestrate became a talking point, two forwards were showing how to hurt teams from almost anywhere.

Rodrigo, playing some of his best football for Leeds, was dropping deep to produce clever flicks and first-time balls around the corner, then sprinting forward to get involved higher up the pitch. His deflected shot fell to Raphinha who struck the base of the post.

Antonio for West Ham was growing in influence and earned just enough space from Cresswell to play a wonderful through ball from his own half that put Pablo Fornals in on goal, Meslier making a huge stop.

The chalking off of a second half West Ham goal for Antonio's elbow on Meslier only nudged the atmosphere up a notch. Cresswell stayed composed in the maelstrom to win a pair of big aerial challenges with the forward to pump further volume into the stadium.

West Ham were posing problems from set-pieces, Leeds from counter attacks. Rodrigo sent Raphinha away, he found Klich in the area and with all the time in the world, and Harrison unmarked on his left, his low effort was deflected just wide.

The punishment was swift. Jarrod Bowen came in from the right, was afforded too much room and shot home, via the body of Firpo, to level.

With Raphinha unable to continue and Leeds struggling to play out again, Klich showed bravery with a dart through the middle that risked and ultimately lost possession, West Ham winning a free-kick that Benrahma sent over.

With that, the bravery seemed to ebb away from Leeds. They didn't keep the ball well enough to play in West Ham's half and Rodrigo's influence waned as he ran out of steam. His sprints became jogs and some of those even petered out into walks. Quite what the risk would have been in throwing Joe Gelhardt into the mix for the final stages, at a time when Rodrigo was unable to contribute a great deal to the defensive effort, is difficult to fathom.

Conversely, Antonio remained a threat, forcing vital blocks from Cresswell and Shackleton, before winning the game for West Ham.

A Leeds move broke down, Rice countered, swung the ball into the stiker and he went past Shackleton to finish past Meslier. The irony of calling for more bravery when the winner came from Leeds being caught upfield in search of a winner cannot be ignored, but in truth Leeds had allowed West Ham back into it much earlier and David Moyes' men had looked quietly confident as they methodically worked their way back into the game, piling on pressure through set-pieces before a second goal that felt almost inevitable.

Nothing the hosts could muster in the final minutes threatened to spoil the Hammers' party and the full-time whistle sent players in white to their haunches in despair. Yet having given so much in pursuit of a result against a very good side, they were applauded as they trudged wearily around the ground. Leeds fans know effort when they see it.

What is needed in an undeniably huge game against Watford next week is more than effort, it's simply more of what Leeds produced for 65 minutes against West Ham - more risk taking, more bravery and more of Plan A. There can be no alternative, belief in the plan can not waver. The style of football works, when done right. It creates chances and it makes football fun. Being brave against the Hornets might bring more pain, but there's so much to gain.