Leeds United’s ominous response to a face-to-face with Daniel Farke fear - Graham Smyth's Verdict
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For Argyle a game at Elland Road was a big deal and that is in no way an attempt to patronise. A league game against Leeds United, so recently a Premier League outfit and for so long a massive club, is a sign of how far the Pilgrims have progressed. This is Plymouth's first time in the Championship since 2010 and they have spent more of the intervening years in League Two than League One. A first meeting of the clubs since 2007 presented a chance, no matter how slim, to beat Leeds for the first time since 1989.
For Leeds, with all due respect to the visitors, this is exactly the kind of game that is there to be ticked off. Won, but ticked off. It's not a grand occasion, it carries no real history or pomp. There is little point in going to all the trouble of beating league-leading Leicester City away, only to drop points at home to a newly promoted Plymouth. It was the victory over the Foxes, a performance and result that earned huge and deserved praise, that sowed a seed in Farke's mind. And when his players trained well all week the seed grew into a knot of anxiety. It was all going a little too well. A sucker punch could be on its way. He kept his concern largely to himself but looking back at his pre-match quotes you could detect it in his tone. The plea for everyone at Elland Road to be absolutely on it, for example, rather than rocking up expecting a routine victory and a bellyful of goals. That kind of attitude, in this kind of league, can cause you all kinds of problems.
Farke's worries will have been alleviated ever so slightly by what he saw in the first half because Leeds took the game by the throat and refused to let go, dominating possession. Any suggestion that his players expected to turn up and roll Plymouth over through sheer technical superiority was blown away by the work that went into Leeds' two first half goals.
Yes, there was the usual lovely link-up play between Crysencio Summerville and Georginio Rutter to take Leeds into the Argyle area, but it was the closing down of Glen Kamara that forced an errant clearance, Daniel James profiting with a fine strike from the edge of the box. A player known principally for his pace and work-rate, James is showing quality on a consistent basis under Farke and has now doubled his goal tally for the Whites.
His link-up play with Archie Gray was a promising feature of the first 45 minutes for Leeds and he very visibly had the beating of Kaine Kesler-Hayden. That culminated in a Gray ball down the line, a wonderful first-time touch to Piroe from James and a slide rule return pass that sent the Welsh winger away. Had his cut-back been a fraction more accurate, Summerville would have made it 2-0.
Elland Road thought the lead had been doubled when Sam Byram popped up centrally to feed Summerville, whose finish was perfect, but up went the flag. Leeds were flying, though, finding their rhythm in possession. And yet their second goal, again, owed just as much to hard work as it did ball retention and ability. Summerville went chasing after a defender, picked his pocket and drove towards the area before finding the overlapping run of Piroe, who made no mistake with a close range finish. Twenty-eight minutes gone, 2-0 up and well on their way to a rout.
Leeds' near total dominance of the first half did not quite make it back out onto the pitch with Farke's players after the break, a fact evidenced by Morgan Whittaker's early test of Illan Meslier. Byram going off with a hamstring problem brought Junior Firpo on, but not before 10-man Leeds were very nearly exploited down their left flank.
Chances still continued to flow at the other end, though. Rutter put a good one over the bar, he put an outrageous ball over the top for Piroe who headed over, he put the ball on substitute Willy Gnonto's toes in a great position, only for the Italian's shot to be blocked and then he put Jaidon Anthony in, only for Michael Cooper to save. The absence of a third goal allowed Plymouth to retain that sliver of belief because while Leeds had Argyle on the hook and reeled in, they were still just about wriggling.
And as night follows day, Leeds' wastefulness was followed by a purely clinical Plymouth attack, with a channel run down the right, a ball into the middle and finish from Ben Waine. It came on 84 minutes and teased the prospect of that sucker punch Farke had been worrying about. What will have pleased him, though, is how his side ducked and weaved, defending a pair of corners before moving smartly to avoid further damage. Indeed they could have supplied the definitive knockout blow in stoppage time, but Gnonto and Patrick Bamford were not quite able to get onto the same page. That mattered little when the whistle went and in fact not much else mattered to Farke than the win. "I'll take these three points all day long," he said. "If you would have offered me to win 2-1 before the game I would have signed for it."
Leeds go into the international break having ticked off three straight but very different wins. They blew Huddersfield Town away completely in the first half before coasting. They fought tooth and nail to nullify Leicester and secure a classic away win. And they did the job against Plymouth, who made them work for it. A win is a win, is a win. By hook or by crook they all count and they're adding up, ominously, for Leeds. Leicester’s lead, which was once 14 points and would have been 17 had they beaten Leeds, is now eight. Take nothing for granted in the Championship.