Leeds United punch drunk as terrifying prospect hits - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Liverpool rout

Leeds United are suddenly and painfully trending in the wrong direction after two ruthless beatings by Crystal Palace and Liverpool, as YEP chief reporter Graham Smyth casts the verdict on the latter.
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The depth of Premier League relegation battle is a great comfort until such a time as it thins out. When the breakaway comes – the group who separate themselves from the pack – Leeds United want to be in it, and not the four or five who live with peril right to the bitter end.

The 2021/22 run-in really got its teeth into Leeds, prolonging the pain until the very final whistle of the season. Once bitten, twice shy - this season was supposed to be different and it hasn't been.

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There still exists an opportunity to finish in far greater comfort, there's still time to ease away from the bottom three. Crystal Palace have shown just how quickly the narrative can change and their three wins in succession have put them just three points behind Chelsea, of whom no one is making mention in the relegation conversation. Palace have made their move and even if they don't lead the breakaway, they'll sit comfortably within it and clear of danger when the finish line draws close. Wolves, too, have won a couple in a row and created a cushion. So have Bournemouth.

Under Javi Gracia Leeds have proved they have wins in them, not consecutive wins but precious ones still. And yet the 5-1 defeat by Palace and the 6-1 capitulation at home to Liverpool still beg the question - where are the most important wins of the season going to come?

One was never really very likely to come against Liverpool, not even with the Reds' desperate away record against bottom 10 teams. Against title-chasing Arsenal Jurgen Klopp's men proved, once again, that when they turn up and turn it on, they can be a nightmare. Expectation for Leeds was low, but a performance was still required because that second half horror show eight days prior against Palace required some sort of response.

Before the game, Leeds majority owner Andrea Radrizzani was not wearing the stress of another relegation battle on his face, laughing and joking on the touchline during the warm-up. Shortly before the final whistle, with Liverpool running riot and huge gaps opening up in stands that were rapidly emptying, cameras zoomed in on the Italian and the smile was long gone. Leeds might still be better off, points wise, than four other top flight sides but their situation is plainly no joke. There might well be three teams worse off come the end of the season but that’s no plan, it’s just a hope.

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What will infuriate fans about the display is that, not for the first time, they played pretty well up to a point in the first half. You can’t just play well for periods of games, though, and hope to stay up.

HARD WATCH - Leeds United shipped six goals against Liverpool, just eight days after conceding five at home to Crystal Palace. Pic: GettyHARD WATCH - Leeds United shipped six goals against Liverpool, just eight days after conceding five at home to Crystal Palace. Pic: Getty
HARD WATCH - Leeds United shipped six goals against Liverpool, just eight days after conceding five at home to Crystal Palace. Pic: Getty

Leeds were deprived of possession for almost all of the first several minutes, but still broke out to win a free-kick through Rodrigo and create the game's first chance. A good one it was too, Jack Harrison finding Rodrigo with a delivery that begged a better finish than the one it got, Alisson saving the header comfortably.

Elland Road was buoyed by that, and the Rodrigo shot that followed immediately. It was wide, but Leeds were causing problems with their limited time on the ball. For all their possession Liverpool struggled to find a way through the banks of white shirts in front of them and allowed sloppiness to creep in, which in turn encouraged Leeds to pounce. In fact precious little that the visitors produced in the opening half an hour did anything other than encourage the hosts, in fact. It was Leeds, who played forward quickly at every opportunity, who offered the most threat, albeit through half chances.

It took an errant touch from Junior Firpo and what looked for all the world like a handball from Trent Alexander-Arnold, to give Liverpool the lead, if not against the run of play then against the run of chances.

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Firpo's attempt to knock the ball past the defender was admittedly a risky one but Alexander-Arnold's arm moved out and his elbow dispossessed the Leeds man. Play went on, Alexander-Arnold ran on and slid the ball across goal for Cody Gakpo to tap in. VAR checked the handball, somehow decided it was not deliberate, and the goal stood.

Four minutes later Leeds had no one to blame but themselves as they gift wrapped a second. Weston McKennie coughed up the ball in the middle, Diogo Jota raced away with it and though his pass to Mo Salah did not immediately scream goal, the Egyptian sent an arrow inside Illan Meslier's near post. The injustice of the first goal evidently ate away at Leeds but you can't just go to pieces when things start to go awry, and hope to stay up.

A Luis Sinisterra goal two minutes after the break gave a passable impression of a comeback for all of five minutes, Leeds' less than passable impression of defending paving the way for Curtis Jones to play in Jota for a 3-1 lead. Brenden Aaronson clipped the woodwork, but that was the last flicker of life from Leeds as Liverpool lanced them.

The ease with which the Reds sliced through the middle was truly alarming. Each time Leeds lost possession and Liverpool broke, there was a shapeless panic to the defending and acres more space than Klopp's very good attackers needed.

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Rasmus Kristensen was tackled on the edge of the Liverpool box and in the blink of an eye the ball was in the back of Meslier's net for 4-1. The fifth was a low drive from distance by Jota after Leeds had been toyed with around their area. Darwin Nunez, on as a sub, left Kristensen and Robin Koch in his wake to run in and add the sixth. And there could have been more. You cannot defend like that and hope to stay up.

Losing to Liverpool is not what relegates you. Losing by huge scorelines in consecutive games could be, though, because head loss at this stage of the season is a terrifying prospect. It asks scary questions, like where do you go from here, or how do you come back from this? Those are big questions for a squad that simply hasn’t had answers for too much of this painful season.

Javi Gracia spoke before the game about how Leeds, against Palace, resembled a boxer who took a punch and then struggled to defend himself. Liverpool hit them so many times in the second half it would have felt like they were surrounded and had it taken place in the ring, referee Craig Pawson would have stopped it long before full-time. The fixture list shows they’ve got to the count of seven to get up and hit back but right now they look punch drunk. Gracia has to somehow rouse them from the canvas. They have to get up if they are to have any hope of staying up.