Leeds United sticking to Javi Gracia plan as risk lurks - Graham Smyth's Brighton draw Verdict

Javi Gracia is keeping Leeds United in games in order to keep them in the Premier League.
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The Spaniard's approach has kept the Whites within close proximity of at least a point in each of his three top flight outings, winning one, losing one by a single goal and drawing the most recent, 2-2, with Brighton.

Balance was what he prioritised when he arrived and it's clear now that what he meant by that was putting players in a structure that might protect them from the kind of chances opponents were previously all-too-easily creating and concessions fans were all-too-sick of seeing. It's not all-out defence, nor is it totally risk-averse but the aim is to minimise risk.

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How that played out against Brighton was not entirely to Elland Road's satisfaction because it manifested in such an unfamiliar manner. Under Roberto De Zerbi the Seagulls take their sweet time at the back, centre-backs and goalkeeper Jason Steele practically walking the ball out and seeking to tempt attackers into a poorly timed or executed press before playing it precisely into any space duly gifted them.

Under Gracia's plan, the returning Patrick Bamford and second striker Brenden Aaronson stood off, poised, waiting for a forward pass they could intercept or a heavy touch that would trigger their press.

For fans so used to seeing white shirts chasing down the ball like greyhounds after a hare, it was alien and any perceived lack of urgency, at a time in the season when it is most needed, was always going to test patience. So not only did Gracia's attackers have to fight the by-now instinctual urge to press with aggression, they had to resist a crowd urging them forward, hold their nerve and stick to the plan they had been given, one that sought to minimise the risk of Brighton taking full advantage of them.

"I know what happens when you go to press the keeper, when you press this team, I've seen many games, I know what happens,” Gracia said afterwards.

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It wasn't a plan without its own risk though, because Leeds pressed high in practically every position, going man to man with their full-backs in wide areas and sending centre-backs with Brighton's forwards when they dropped deep.

HUGE GOAL - Jack Harrison was a surprise inclusion in Javi Gracia's Leeds United line-up but ended the afternoon with an assist and a goal that secured a point. Pic: Tony JohnsonHUGE GOAL - Jack Harrison was a surprise inclusion in Javi Gracia's Leeds United line-up but ended the afternoon with an assist and a goal that secured a point. Pic: Tony Johnson
HUGE GOAL - Jack Harrison was a surprise inclusion in Javi Gracia's Leeds United line-up but ended the afternoon with an assist and a goal that secured a point. Pic: Tony Johnson

It wasn't a foolproof plan either, because Brighton are incredibly good at playing out and still managed to find passes down the middle of the pitch. Leeds could not nullify their visitors and were dominated for spells. Luke Ayling struggled to get anywhere near Kaoru Mitoma, while Robin Koch and Max Wober found it difficult to prevent Evan Ferguson from playing an effective targetman role and no one really ever got to grips with Alexis Mac Allister.

As the first half developed Brighton were the more dangerous side, enjoying the most control and the lion's share of the half chances, so their opener on 32 minutes was of no real surprise.

Pascal Groß found himself facing Marc Roca on the right side of the area, deceived the midfielder with a turn and crossed to the back post where Mitoma towered over Ayling and sent the ball to an unmarked Mac Allister for the simplest of headed finishes.

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Brighton's domination continued, fan frustration grew and boos were heard as the game approached the 40 minute mark.

Then, from almost nothing, came an equaliser. Jack Harrison, a surprise, even brave inclusion in the starting XI after such a poor display at Chelsea, charged down a pass and kept it in on the touchline by sweeping it to Bamford who cut inside onto his right boot and crashed a shot in off the bar, via a slight deflection.

The two sides traded good chances in the immediate aftermath, Bamford shooting into the side netting and Mac Allister sidefooting wide from near the penalty spot, but when the half-time whistle went Leeds were still in the game.

Brighton settled back into their rhythm after the break, albeit looking a little less sure of themselves when Leeds nicked the ball in their half. Aaronson saw a low, slow shot just about palmed around the post by Steele and the home fans smelled blood. A break in play after Tyler Adams left one on Mac Allister presented a moment and Elland Road seized it, 'We are the champions, champions of Europe' ringing around the stadium as scarves whirled around above heads.

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Amid the din, Leeds grew in confidence and Harrison's cross presented Ayling with a golden chance, one he spurned with a wild, wayward effort.

A time-honoured tradition then played out, Leeds' big chance being followed shortly after by an opposition goal. Adams and Summerville failed to stop Mac Allister, Ayling failed to stop Mitoma and when the ball squirmed to the back post Harrison, under pressure from Solly March, failed to direct it anywhere other than his own net.

At this point Leeds could have gone entirely had it not been for Illan Meslier, who saved from March and then threw himself at Danny Welbeck's feet. When Welbeck skinned Max Wober to enter the area, a third looked imminent, yet the shot sailed over.

The game became more open, which suited substitute trio Willy Gnonto, Weston McKennie and Rodrigo, who helped Leeds get a foothold again, but it was the man many would gladly have replaced with Gnonto in the starting line-up who clawed back parity.

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A quickly taken corner caught Brighton napping, Harrison took Gnonto's pass and arrowed a beautiful hit into the far top corner.

On another day, had Brighton been more clinical, that might only have been a consolation but Leeds by hook or by crook, grasped a point with a measure of gratitude having twice been behind.

Gracia's plan, at the very least, gave Leeds a chance again and kept them in it against an incredibly tricky opponent. That has to be some comfort to fans, because the damage that blow out defeats can cause at this stage of the season cannot be underestimated. Competitiveness could take on huge value.

Survival is going to take wins, though, maybe even as many from the remaining 12 games as Leeds have mustered from the previous 26 and the risk for Gracia is running out of road before the points target is reached. They will have to play better and, specifically, attack better, to win.

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At some point caution might have to be thrown to the wind but for now Gracia has a plan and Leeds are sticking to it. The time to panic has probably come and gone, so now it's about living on the last remaining nerve and holding it.