Cardiff City’s tactics were a potential blueprint for any team visiting Leeds United but Saturday gave no indication that tonight’s opponents will copy them. Bristol City are more endangered than Cardiff and more desperate for points but they tore into Derby County at Pride Park over the weekend, establishing a 3-0 lead by half-time.
That advantage was surrendered in the second half and Derby escaped with a 3-3 draw as Bristol City buckled eventually but an open, ambitious game is what Leeds and Garry Monk will hope for this evening. Monk’s players banged their heads off a brick wall created by Cardiff’s compact formation, surrendering to two soft goals, but Bristol City might offer them additional space to breathe at Elland Road.
It was accepted by Monk and his players that they did not cope well with Cardiff’s deliberate attempt to negate them. Rob Green, the club’s experienced goalkeeper, tweeted after full-time that “teams coming to Elland Road to defend is a new challenge we face and must learn to combat” and Leeds suspected this situation would arise after six straight wins at home. Speaking last month, captain Liam Bridcutt said: “The higher we sit up the table, the harder the games are going to get. Everyone wants to beat the teams at the top.”
Bridcutt is suspended tonight, ruled out by a one-match ban after his red card towards the end of Leeds’ 2-0 defeat to Cardiff. Monk expects to be able to recall centre-back Pontus Jansson, who missed Saturday’s loss after phoning in ill on the morning of the match. He has ways of tweaking his line-up against Bristol City – both Hadi Sacko and Kemar Roofe gave Cardiff more to think about after taking to the field as substitutes – but Monk was careful not to overstate the significance of back-to-back defeats for the first time since September. At no stage this season have Leeds lost three games in a row.
Chris Wood, United’s top scorer, insisted he was confident of a quick return to the form which carried Leeds into the top six.
“We know we’ve got it in us,” he said. “You’re going to have slower, tougher games and you can’t play good football for 46 games a year. Sometimes you have to dig it out. It hasn’t gone our way a couple of times this week but we’ll regroup and go again.
“Cardiff created two goals out of nothing, against the run of play. There were a couple of mistakes from us and they cost us in the end. Cardiff came here with a game plan to frustrate us. They sat behind the ball and were very difficult to break down. It’s one of those things.”
Statistically the fixture was the reverse of Leeds’ 2-0 win over Reading at Elland Road in December. Monk’s side retained more than 70 per cent of possession but did not draw a difficult save from Cardiff goalkeeper Allan McGregor until Roofe tested the Scot with a low shot in the third minute of injury-time. Twenty-four hours on from receiving the Championship’s player-of-the-month award for January, Wood was kept quiet by Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison.
It is no secret that Leeds are heavily reliant on the striker’s goals. Wood boasts 18 of 42 scored in the Championship and 11 of 21 scored at Elland Road. Behind him, Pablo Hernandez has chipped in with three and Sacko and Roofe two but neither Bridcutt nor Eunan O’Kane have found the net. Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips have one to their names, as does Stuart Dallas. At no stage has Monk seen a flurry of finishes from midfield.
“We’re all capable of scoring goals,” Wood said. “The whole team knows how to and once people get into those situations they’ll take their chances. I think it’s just about working in training on opening teams up a bit more to get those clear-cut chances.
“We’ve got 15 massive games to go and every game is probably a cup final now. We need to make sure we’re strong and do what we have to do.”
Leeds still have the security of a four-point lead over seventh-placed Norwich City and the knowledge that they are holding a play-off position, rather than chasing one. All eyes were on the top two of Newcastle United and Brighton after last month’s win over Derby – to date the best performance under Monk or any Leeds boss for several years – but United are in the business of defending their top-six place after dropping points to Huddersfield Town and Cardiff.
Bristol City are in a very different position and in a similar mindset to Cardiff: attempting to stave off relegation but making heavy weather of it. A run of three wins from 19 fixtures ditched Lee Johnson’s side from the play-off zone but they gave Derby big problems until two goals in the last 14 minutes rescued a point for County.
“The players stuck to the game plan for the first 60 or 70 minutes and made me look a genius,” Johnson said. “The last 20 minutes probably made me look like a bit of a doughnut. That’s the frustration of being in this business sometimes.”
Monk shared it on Saturday after Warnock, a coach 31 years his senior, got the better of him at Elland Road, despite Monk admitting that he knew how Cardiff would set up. “It’s a new experience,” Monk said. “We prepared for it but now that the players have actually faced it it’s something we’ll hopefully be ready for when that comes again in future games.”