In Sunderland’s performance at Elland Road, Paul Heckingbottom saw bare desperation and the caution-free football which comes when games start to run out.
They are running out on Preston North End and, at Deepdale tonight, Leeds United will face the urgency of that last-gasp scramble again.
Leeds’ competitive tension faded several weeks ago and Heckingbottom’s players are in the clutch of a squad for whom the Championship season cannot end soon enough, but they are unlikely to encounter a true dead rubber until the penultimate weekend arrives. United have the scope to influence some live campaigns, if not their own.
Sunderland needed a win at Elland Road but left with a point after a 1-1 draw. Chris Coleman, their manager, all but held his hands up to relegation and spoke at length about the challenge of returning from League One. Preston, at the opposite end of the table, are on the same knife edge, six points from the play-offs, on a run of three straight defeats and condemned to mid-table if a fourth follows against Leeds this evening.
Alex Neil, the Preston boss, was philosophical after a costly 1-0 loss at Reading on Saturday, highlighting the inexperience of his squad.
“Maybe instead of being critical we have to give them a pat on the back for where they’ve got to,” the Scot said.
It is fitting that in 13th, Leeds rank as the leading side in the bottom half of the division. Their results depict them as such: dominant amongst the also-rans but vulnerable to the more competitive clubs.Phil Hay
North End might be afforded that level of understanding but at Leeds, appreciation of Heckingbottom’s squad is more meagre. Down in 13th place, there is one statistic which underlines that league position in simple terms: four wins from 21 games against the current top 12.
Eight of those clubs have taken four points or more from meetings with United. None, as yet, have lost twice. United picked off victories over Middlesbrough, Brentford, Norwich and Bristol City – the last, in October, standing out now as one of their most comprehensive performances – but it is fitting that in 13th, Leeds rank as the leading side in the bottom half of the division. Their results depict them as such: dominant amongst the also-rans but vulnerable to the more competitive clubs.
Sunderland threw everything at Leeds, producing 20 shots on goal to United’s 16. Preston are obliged to be as aggressive tonight, acutely aware that a draw carries as much value for them as another defeat.
Heckingbottom insisted he was not struggling to motivate his players, despite their benign situation, but admitted the drive elsewhere was palpable.
“You can’t question the motivation but I have highlighted what it’s like at this stage of the season,” he said. “I know for a fact that if (Sunderland) had performed like that between the start of the season and now, they wouldn’t be in that position. That’s fair and it’s right. But that’s what this stage brings: desperation and no fear, with nothing to lose.”
Preston, in spite of their losing run, have been the definition of solid in the main and are largely unchanged from the tight goalless draw they contested with Leeds on the second weekend of the season.
Their defensive record, bar Millwall’s, is the best outside the top six and their tally of 11 defeats is six fewer than United’s. If, as seems likely, Neil’s side fail to reach the play-offs, they will rue a high total of 15 draws.
Much as Heckingbottom might like to alter his approach at Deepdale, the range of players in his squad is tying his hands. Some of his selections on the bench, including teenage midfielder Callum Nicell on Saturday, are being driven solely by the need to comply with the EFL’s rule on a quota of seven homegrown players.
United’s head coach remarked after the draw with Sunderland that the spate on injuries around him left him with no option but to set Leeds up to attack.
“We’ve got good technical players which, at times, is good and great,” he said. “But at times we need another dimension to our game. It’s difficult when we’re putting out our team but we know we can only alter it in one way, which is to be attacking. If we’d scored the first goal (against Sunderland) I’d have been limited with the options from the bench because I’d have been playing into the opposition’s hands. That’s not where I want to be.”
With Gaetano Berardi suspended again – banned for five games after his red card over the weekend – Heckingbottom is almost out of spare defenders. Vurnon Anita and 19-year-old Tom Pearce are his options at left-back and Paudie O’Connor is likely to keep his place in the centre of defence with Liam Cooper, Matthew Pennington and Conor Shaughnessy all working their way back from injury.
O’Connor’s debut against Sunderland was accomplished and mature.
Heckingbottom put him under additional pressure in the last 25 minutes by switching to a three-man defence as Leeds fought a 1-0 deficit and was pleased to see the 20-year-old Irishman hang in gamely.
“He can be pleased with that,” Heckingbottom said. “When I made the change I knew I’d be exposing him to more one-v-ones which meant he was confronting a winger more than he would have liked. But he’ll be better for it, definitely.
“He’s played men’s football before in Ireland and he actually came to train at Barnsley (when Heckingbottom was manager at Oakwell) so I knew Paudie before I came here.
“By all accounts he’s been improving throughout the season and we had him training with us for a few weeks just in case something happened.
“We tried to bridge that gap as much as possible.”