Paul Heckingbottom, as new managers do, is devoting time to sifting through footage of Leeds United’s entire season and the goals given away at Derby County on Wednesday were like so many of the concessions he watched on tape.
Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s opener at Pride Park marked the first time in two months that Leeds had opened the scoring in a Championship game and at the end of another depressing evening, Heckingbottom bemoaned what he saw as a disproportionate gap between the effort needed to claim goals and the ease with which Leeds let them slip. Concessions in first and second-half injury-time allowed Derby to claim a 2-2 draw.
There were errors involved in both of them: a miscued header from Liam Cooper which Andreas Weimann tucked away before half-time and a last-gasp Kasey Palmer tap-in stemming from a corner that Cooper could have avoided giving away. A failure in communication between the centre-back and goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald saw him turn behind a cross which appeared to be bouncing wide anyway.
Opinion over where to direct blame in both instances was divided. Cooper’s scuffed header in the first half was pounced on by Weimann but Laurens De Bock, on a torrid night for the Belgian personally, challenged for the same high ball and left Weimann unmarked behind him. Wiedwald, whose influence has been under permanent scrutiny for several months, did not appear to shout for Cooper to leave the delivery which indirectly led to Palmer’s 92nd-minute equaliser.
“It’s hard to take,” Cooper said. “The boys were gutted, absolutely devastated, to concede the goals at the times we did. It hurts, it really does.
“We’re going to score goals but we’ve got to stay more disciplined with our defending. I’ll hold my hand up for the second goal, definitely. I didn’t get a call but I should do better. I don’t like to blame (other) people but you’ve only got a split second in games to react and it’s down to instinct. We were unlucky. Sometimes you get away with them but every time we make a mistake at the minute it seems to be getting punished. Earlier on in the season we were maybe getting away with a few.”
With 90 minutes gone at Pride Park, Leeds were on the verge of trimming the gap to the play-offs to six points, their first positive move towards the Championship’s top six in weeks. Instead, a 2-2 draw left them without a win in 10 games. This time last season the club were 12 points better off. More telling is that on Boxing Day, the afternoon of their last victory, they held 42. After Wednesday’s result the club moved onto 46.
Fixtures are running out and seem to get no easier. Brentford, who visit Elland Road this afternoon, are above Leeds in the table and routed Birmingham City 5-0 in midweek. Barring a second-half flurry from United, they were worth their 3-1 win over Heckingbottom’s players – then managed by Thomas Christiansen – at Griffin Park in November.
“It matters what day you catch Brentford on,” Cooper said. “If you catch them on one of (their better days) it’s going to be a tough day at the office. But they’re coming to Elland Road and we’ve got to enforce ourselves on the game. Hopefully it’ll be a fast start, a hard start and we’ll try to blow them away.”
The inclusion of Samuel Saiz from the outset today would help with that. Heckingbottom named him on the bench on Wednesday, Saiz’s first game back after a six-match ban for spitting, but introduced him in the second half and watched the Spaniard’s knack of dictating play take hold. He laid on Gjanni Alioski’s 80th-minute strike with a superb counter-attack and might have taken advantage of opportunities to set up a decisive third goal.
Concerns about Saiz’s match fitness led Heckingbottom to name him as a substitute but Leeds are desperate for a victory and injury could prevent Pablo Hernandez from playing this afternoon.
“We know what the little man can do,” Cooper said. “He’s unbelievable with the ball and he gives that drive forward. Defences are terrified of him and you can see that when he drives at people. He’s a big lift for us.”
Saiz’s influence, however, might be less significant than Heckingbottom’s ability to marshal a disjointed back five in which only Pontus Jansson looks like a definite pick. Leeds have been deprived of continuity in that area throughout the season and Cooper and Gaetano Berardi both returned to the starting line-up at Derby after spells on the sidelines through suspension. Matthew Pennington and Vurnon Anita made way for them.
Cooper, though, said Heckingbottom’s appointment as head coach was gradually restoring conviction. “He gives us the freedom to go and be confident,” Cooper said. “It’s a mentality. The training’s really stepped up, the intensity in training.If it’s not up there he’ll let us know. He’s very good.”