Leeds United's perfect scenario and a Championship nightmare - Graham Smyth's Middlesbrough Verdict
and live on Freeview channel 276
Leeds can still very much be categorised as a new team, given the sheer scale of change in the summer and how little time they have spent together as a squad. Jaidon Anthony only signed 93 days ago to complete the group and in the 13 weeks since transfer deadline day, almost six have been lost to international breaks. The clash with Middlesbrough on Saturday, won 3-2, was the 19th of a 46-game season. These are still the early days of Farke's reign. And as he has spoken about so often, these are the early days of many of the careers in development under his watch. Teenagers and young men not long into their 20s, learning their trade, making mistakes and realising potential. Farke also has players not yet up to speed, like Djed Spence, a player widely expected to do good things but one with just 10 minutes of action to his name in the white of Leeds. Willy Gnonto, Anthony and Patrick Bamford will all hope their best days of 2023/24 are ahead of them, having struggled for game time and end product from their cameos.
And in more general terms, Leeds are a team with room for improvement. The game against Middlesbrough showed both their strengths and their flaws, but if you can learn lessons while winning then it's just about the perfect scenario for a young team and its manager.
What this game, with its madcap first half and slightly less chaotic but still dramatic second half, could teach them might be significant, because it held a number of scenarios that will crop up again. The first is, by now, quite familiar to Leeds because they have had to come from behind with relative regularity this season. According to Opta no other Championship side has gained more points from losing positions and just days after shipping a first minute goal to Swansea, they let in a second minute Boro goal.
The side presenting perhaps the stiffest test at Elland Road so far this season came to play, intent on passing the ball out from the back and taking risks in their own third of the pitch. Their first attempt didn't go so well, Archie Gray reading the switch and cutting it out to tee up Joel Piroe for a shot that cleared the bar. But Boro had another go, in the third minute, and this time worked the switch perfectly to go down the left, before Emmanuel Latte Lath cut past Gray to fire home at the near post.
Illan Meslier was the matchday programme cover star and in his interview he talked about the knowledge that with so much time left in the game and so much quality in the team they could come back against the Swans despite the early concession. In that game they did so almost immediately and it was the same against Boro.
It took them three bites at the cherry to level, but they still managed it by the fifth minute. Daniel James' dinked effort was cleared from the goalmouth, Georginio Rutter's shot was deflected and saved but Sam Byram kept it alive, crossed to the back post and James was there with a towering header.
By the seventh minute Leeds were leading. Rutter found Gray, his cross took a nick but still found its way to the back post and this time it was Crysencio Summerville providing the headed finish.
What followed was a short-lived but almost costly loss of control from the hosts, allowing Emmanuel Latte Lath a pair of chances he should have buried. The first sailed over the bar and Illan Meslier snuffed out the second.
Leeds then reclaimed all the momentum and got back on top, bringing about a second familiar scenario, in the missing of chances that could make life so much easier. A searing counter attack led by Summerville led to a shot Rutter should have done better with, and James' pace drew goalkeeper Seny Dieng to the edge of his area but the winger's attempt to loft the ball over him didn't have quite enough on it.
A third goal did come before the break, though, after already-injury-stricken Boro lost Paddy McNair to injury. On came Matt Clarke, himself just back from a long-term injury, and his first contribution was to lose out in a challenge to Rutter and flick out an arm to ankle tap the striker in the area. Joel Piroe took the penalty well and Leeds took a 3-1 lead.
But rather than locking the game down until the break, Leeds went chasing out of possession as per their manager's instructions, but in his words got over-excited. Pascal Struijk wobbled at moments in the first half and he got caught out pressing his man high up the pitch, Boro using the vacated space to break into and win a corner. When it came in, Byram was caught flat-footed and Latte Lath headed in his second.
The old efficiency issue cropped up again early in the second half, Rutter being slipped in by Ethan Ampadu and while he evidently expected a flag, none came. Neither did a goal, his finish too tame and ultimately saved, even if a goal-kick was awarded. So it stayed 3-2 and Boro stayed in the game and looked more than a little dangerous, albeit without testing Meslier.
Even when the visitors went down to 10 after Anfernee Dijksteel took a second yellow for catching James, it wasn't done. Leeds initially set about doing exactly what a team with a man advantage should do, sending the ball left and right to make the 10 men chase and shift and tire. They just didn't make the advantage count decisively, now and then letting their excitement and the crowd's urgency get the better of them when composure was needed. And though Farke's men kept a reasonably firm grip on proceedings, one Boro break ended in a shot against the post and a hugely important block from Joe Rodon. The result felt likely, it felt deserved but only when the final whistle went did it feel safe.
"Hopefully we get better game by game and even out of this first half we learn a lot, learn what is necessary in order to play on the front foot because there were many positive things," said Farke.
"Also in terms of game management, especially for a young side with a 3-1 lead, the stadium is buzzing and everyone wants you to go forward in each and every moment. Then not to lose the nerves and stay tidy in your passing when your choices aren't the risky ones, it's something we can and have to learn and improve. As long as we win games like we do at the moment, we’re still on a good path."
The idea of Farke's team getting better offensively and becoming more clinical is a tantalising one, because the goals have been flying in at Elland Road and his front four are greedily helping themselves. An uplift in efficiency in front of goal, which doesn't bear thinking about for Championship defenders yet to visit LS11, will only come with hard work according to Farke. A greater handle on game management will only come with time and experience. Either would make a very promising team into a nightmare for just about everyone else in the division. Nelson Mandela once said 'I never lose, I either win or learn' but Leeds, right now, are winning and learning.