Leeds United's best Joe Calzaghe impression in face of 'UFC' approach - Graham Smyth's Verdict
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Daniel Farke has created an immensely physical team, but not in any cliched 'dirty Leeds' sense. Ordinarily when the word physical is used to describe a team, particularly one that exists outside the Premier League, the mind conjures an image of great hulking brutes, cloggers who feast on second balls and get a kick out of kicking out. This Leeds team is physical in the sense that a game against them is made brutally exhausting by their superior athleticism, speed and the sheer relentlessness of their football. They use the ball to make you run, they chase you down if you've got it, beat you in duels to win it back and in the latter stages when your legs tire they seem to come on even stronger.
Rotherham United were the latest to be blown away on Saturday, at an Elland Road that is still to witness a defeat this season, as Leeds did their best Joe Calzaghe impression. They threw punches in bunches, pressing and creating chances galore to overwhelm the visitors almost from start to finish, wearing them down to eventually streak away on the judges' score cards.
And what the games are proving is that it is very difficult to go toe-to-toe with this Leeds side on any front. Teams have tried playing football against them and been caught by a flurry of counter attacks. Ipswich still haven't really recovered their balance since the beating they took at Elland Road. The Millers, at times, were more UFC than RUFC, but they are not the first to find that you cannot kick this Leeds team out of a game either.
To Rotherham's credit they were bright for the first couple of minutes and attempted to target Junior Firpo down the Leeds' left, without much joy it has to be said. The first goal was going to be absolutely crucial for a team without an away win in an astonishing 459 days and conceding it was almost inevitably going to be fatal. That it arrived at the wrong end for Rotherham in such controversial circumstances was harsh, in the extreme, given the comparative resources of the two teams, but Leeds would go on to ensure it made no real difference.
Firpo was heavily involved, getting to the byline to produce a cross that deflected up into the air. Patrick Bamford's arm was involved, too and even if replays proved inconclusive, there was an admission from the striker, revealed third-hand by Millers boss Leam Richardson via a half-time chat with referee Andy Madley.
What Leeds are doing really well at present is putting games in a chokehold and that's exactly what they did next. They kept play high up the pitch, rotating and linking up to sustain the pressure and maintain the possession. The quick feet of Crysencio Summerville, Georginio Rutter, Archie Gray, Willy Gnonto and others moved the ball around defenders with a measure of patience, before injecting urgency when space opened up. If Rotherham did clear the ball or threaten to break out, Ilia Gruev was here, there and everywhere, aided by Glen Kamara. Ethan Ampadu and Joe Rodon swept up everything else.
What Leeds have not been doing so well all of the time, lately, is turning their dominance into goals. Their pressure yielded chances, as it almost always does, only for Rutter to shoot over and Summerville to follow suit from an even better position. What must exhaust opposition sides mentally is the need to stay alert to danger no matter where the ball is on the pitch, because the passing ability of Gray and Ampadu, coupled with the runs in behind of Bamford and Rutter, made Leeds a threat from deep.
Leeds had to be brave in possession, though, especially in tight areas. It's easy to ask for the ball in space, but demanding it in the full knowledge that a clattering might be coming your way is a different matter. And the Millers were guilty of some industrial challenges. The one on Joe Rodon, by Jordan Hugill, was nasty. The one on Gnonto, by Sebastian Revan, was wild. The Italian bested his marker in a shoulder challenge, the Miller got up and jumped back down into a wrap-around tackle to fell Gnonto just outside the box. That it did not result in even a free-kick, never mind a booking, was bewildering.
How Leeds were not further ahead at half-time was equally baffling, because they were spectacularly undeterred and unruffled by those fouls and they just kept coming. Bamford's first touch denied him a one-vone with Viktor Johansson, who then produced a good stop to deny Gray from close range. But Leeds came out for the second half and did what Leeds do, they kept coming. Bamford hit the bar via a deflection, his rebound effort was blocked and Gnonto's follow-up was skied.
With Rotherham on the ropes, Leeds finally slipped one through the guard again, scoring a goal that was equal parts beauty and ruthlessness. Rutter's skill took him out of a lunging challenge and his pass put Summerville in a foot race with Lee Peltier. The Dutchman's physicality took over, speed and balance taking him right into Johansson's face before he poked home for a 2-0 lead.
With that, Leeds rolled through the gears. The one-touch football was too rapid. Gnonto's acceleration was too break-neck and when he found Summerville, the challenge on him was too robust for Madley. A subsequent Panenka penalty, from Summerville, was too well disguised for Johansson. His manager would have preferred a more traditional finish but the ball crossing the line left him with no real complaint.
Farke then used the scoreline to his advantage, reaching into his bench to throw on fresh legs with Tuesday's trip to Swansea City in mind. Rotherham, already well beaten, could do without Sam Byram coming on with a point to prove and a starting place to win back, or Mateo Joseph coming on to prove he has the physicality for this level, or Connor Roberts coming on to prove his aggression to a new fanbase. The subs were unable to add to the scoreline but, with the help of Ilan Meslier and two late saves, they went hunting a clean sheet and brought it back to the dressing room unscathed to celebrate six league wins on the bounce.
That streak would be ominous enough for any of the other promotion contenders, without the easily-held suspicion that Farke's side have more in the tank. They have a level of efficiency still to reach in front of goal that could turn comfortable wins into brutal knockouts. And they have two of their best performers, Pascal Struijk and Daniel James, still to come back from injury. Unbeaten at home all season, unbeaten anywhere in 2024 and sitting right there in the pocket ready and willing to trade blows with any challenger. It's a strong look.