Leeds United's bad moment has gone on too long, it calls for composure and ruthlessness - Graham Smyth's Verdict

If Leeds United are not falling apart, again, they’re doing an alarmingly good impression of a team who are.

Sunday, 9th February 2020, 11:49 am
Updated Sunday, 9th February 2020, 12:32 pm

This was a big game. It felt it, long before kick-off. There was a tension and a nervousness to the excitement inside the packed City Ground.

Both sets of fans were up for it and in good voice, the Sky cameras were always going to be there for a second versus fourth Championship encounter between two famous old clubs.

Big games call for composure and they call for ruthlessness. This game elicited neither of those things from Leeds.

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After a 2-0 defeat by Nottingham Forest, Marcelo Bielsa was right to highlight the effort levels of his players.

They ran and ran all game long, like they have all season long and they kept trying right until the final whistle.

But sometimes, effort is not all it takes.

Forest put in plenty of effort, too, a lot of theirs was in defensive actions rather than attacking intent, but it had just as much merit and even more impact on the result.

Marcelo Bielsa has options to freshen things up for Leeds United (Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Whereas there was an inevitability that followed Leeds around earlier in the season, a confidence that they would eventually take one of their many chances, there is now a fear and a paranoia around the club, that the worst is going to happen.

As Bielsa alluded to in his post-match press conference, however, it is not beneficial to let the heart rule the mind at a time like this and just like the team selection decisions he will make in the cold light of day, any analysis and debate about this team and this match should have an element of sobriety to it.

There is enough panic and hysteria surrounding Elland Road right now, without adding to it with hyperbole.

This is second-placed Leeds United being discussed, a side capable of dominating almost every other team in the Championship, managed by a coach who has allowed a global fanbase to dream once again.

It’s just that they’ve got the year off to a nightmare start and are in, what Bielsa would call, a ‘bad moment’ in the season.

Ups and downs are to be expected after all.

But what is most maddening about this rollercoaster of a campaign is that when Leeds were on the up, they could have gone so much higher.

And because they didn’t, because they wasted chances and dropped points in games they really ought to have won, like at home to Forest, Swansea and Derby, this downward trajectory feels so much steeper and more perilous than it should be.

What is more, they had an opportunity to arrest the slide, with that 3-2 win over Millwall on January 28, before the home game on February 1 against relegation-threatened Wigan.

But by allowing the Latics to leave Elland Road with three points, Leeds threw away a chance to put a spring in their step and a bit of momentum behind them.

So the bad moment has gone on too long, the mood has further soured and the gap that was once 11 points, between them and the play-off positions, is now mere goal difference.

Whatever Bielsa may say about there being no pressure on the players, other than the reasonable expectations of the club and fans, they have the look of a bunch of footballers feeling the strain.

At the City Ground, Kiko Casilla was beaten at his near post yet again, Patrick Bamford headed his only chance of the game sideways, Helder Costa did not look like a sound financial investment, Gjanni Alioski was lucky to see the second half and Pablo Hernandez carried on where he left off last week, with another below-par performance.

Ben White played in the position his suspended pal Kalvin Phillips has made his own and was unable to get to grips with it or the game.

Even the surprise introduction of Jean-Kevin Augustin for the last 19 minutes - less time than Bielsa took last Thursday to voice his displeasure at a question over Augustin’s proximity to first-team football - failed to lift Leeds, who started quite brightly without creating.

Forest had more menace to their work and Tiago Silva tested Casilla twice from long range early on.

When Hernandez gave the ball away, Ayling stepped up to try and intercept and was bypassed by a one-two and Sammy Ameobi strode into the area, Casilla failed the next test, unable to halt the Forest man’s shot at his near post.

It was the seventh time in seven games that Leeds had conceded the first goal and they rarely looked like coming back from it.

They had territory and possession but no cutting edge and not even the trademark slickness their build-up play ordinarily oozes – passes going astray, the ball being run out of play, Bryce Samba not being made to work.

The Reds were content to defend then break. They didn’t play brilliantly themselves, but they didn’t have to thanks to the one-goal cushion and a visiting side struggling to do anything to cancel it out.

Forest should have put the game to bed when Joe Lolley took both Liam Cooper and Ayling out of the equation and Lewis Grabban had not only space and time, but Casilla on the ground, yet still found the keeper with his shot and not the gaping goal.

Leeds too had one glorious second-half chance but Cooper headed a corner straight at Samba then watched in dismay as the goalkeeper somehow clawed the rebound off his line and out of the goalmouth.

If that didn’t go in, nothing would.

And with Leeds throwing caution to the wind, Forest broke, created a two-on-one and Tyler Walker finished the game as a contest with the hosts’ second goal deep in stoppage time.

Bielsa won’t hear it that his players are doubting and he won’t throw any of them under the bus, so his post-game press conference was a continuation of his recent theme, taking responsibility.

But his confidence in his ability to find, in his words, ‘new answers’ to Leeds’ problems is something fans can maybe hang their hopes on.

There needs to be a freshening up of something, somewhere.

Whether it’s giving Hernandez a rest, taking Bamford out of the firing line or finally saying enough is enough and dropping Casilla, there are many options open to him and none of them could be called unreasonable in light of all recent evidence.

This is a bad moment for Leeds and it feels like a big moment. It calls for composure but it might also call for ruthlessness.