New normal for Leeds United but an all too familiar story at Cardiff City - Graham Smyth's Verdict

NEW NORMAL - Kalvin Phillips takes a corner for Leeds United in front of an almost entirely empty stand at the Cardiff City Stadium. Pic: PANEW NORMAL - Kalvin Phillips takes a corner for Leeds United in front of an almost entirely empty stand at the Cardiff City Stadium. Pic: PA
NEW NORMAL - Kalvin Phillips takes a corner for Leeds United in front of an almost entirely empty stand at the Cardiff City Stadium. Pic: PA
This was football, exactly as Leeds United know it. They know it all too well.

For all the strange new rituals, the absence of noise and supporters, some things remained disappointingly familiar for Whites.

The Championship restart got off to the best possible start with Saturday’s results – Fulham losing to Brentford and West Brom being held by Birmingham teed it up nicely for Leeds to go to Cardiff and make a statement.

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Yet when their moment came, they fluffed their crosses, shots and lines, in a 2-0 defeat that sucked all the excitement out of the sport’s return, unless you’re a Cardiff fan.

A first-half goal from Junior Hoilett gave Leeds a mountain to climb, but it was one they constructed entirely by themselves.

Kalvin Phillips’ careless, needless giveaway in the middle of the park allowed Hoilett a free run at a defence that backed off and the result was a left-foot strike that flashed past Illan Meslier.

In the second half, with Leeds looking more and more flustered by the stop-start nature of the game and Cardiff’s resolute defending-by-numbers, Liam Cooper’s pass to Gjanni Alioski was picked off and Robert Glatzel hammered another shot from distance in off the post.

Two shots on target, two goals, three points.

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FAMILIAR STORY - Leeds United had more chances than their opponents Cardiff City but lost 2-0. Pic: PAFAMILIAR STORY - Leeds United had more chances than their opponents Cardiff City but lost 2-0. Pic: PA
FAMILIAR STORY - Leeds United had more chances than their opponents Cardiff City but lost 2-0. Pic: PA

The Bluebirds laid down the essential blueprint for beating Leeds, who themselves never seem to be that clinical – defend well, pack your penalty area, take few risks, take your chances and ride your luck a little.

There was luck involved in both their goals but make no mistake, Cardiff played well. They pressed Leeds early on, sat deep at other times and broke quickly and efficiently when the opportunity arose. Defending well against Leeds is easy to say and difficult to do. They come at you quickly, relentlessly and on the most part with no little amount of imagination, so you have to be intensely focused and very well drilled.

Ultimately, they were both of those things. And crucially, they took their chances and Leeds did not.

Marcelo Bielsa considered it a strange match, given the host’s 100 per cent efficiency in terms of shooting at goal, but there was nothing unusual about attack after attack being repelled or breaking down through a lack of care or quality, it has happened before to his team.

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What did make it odd was the circumstances in which it took place, the alien environment created by an absence of fans and atmosphere.

The new normal isn’t a patch on the old one, with a lack of the natural build up of anticipation and passion that comes with thousands of Whites in a sold out away end.

It did have the feel of a training ground game or an Under-23s match, with just a couple of hundred inside the stadium and each on-field shout echoing around the empty stands.

That might have contributed to the lack of intensity in Leeds’ start to the game, or it might have been Cardiff’s more than adequate impression of Leeds’ own pressing game. They chased defenders in possession, closed down angles and forced Leeds to chip little balls round the corner or retreat back to their box and the safety of Meslier.

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Cardiff looked to profit from corners and long throws earned mostly through their front line’s hard work, but Leeds, led by Liam Cooper, stood up well to the early aerial threat.

And once they had settled into some kind of rhythm themselves, Leeds took control of the first half.

They made progress through their traditional routes, both full-backs getting forward to support the wingers, Tyler Roberts dropping into spaces in the middle of the pitch to link defence with attack, central midfield with the wings.

What Leeds didn’t do a lot of was create good chances and they couldn’t quite cut Cardiff open, save a couple of entries into the channels between centre-halves and full-backs.

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But the moment Leeds let slip of their control, they were punished.

Phillips’ blind pass left his side all at sea, Hoilett strode into the space afforded him and he found the net.

Against a team with an organised defensive rearguard and some pace with which to break, Leeds were going to have to do it the hard way to win from this position.

They looked like they knew it too.

Frustration was evident in the body language of the men in charcoal and pink as they trooped off for the break, having watched their best chance of the half, a goalbound Jack Harrison shot from close range, rebound back off an offside Patrick Bamford in the six-yard box.

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The same frustration didn’t take long to surface after the interval.

Bielsa could sense it, even before Mateusz Klich flew into a challenge that might have earned a yellow card, and was imploring them to remain calm.

Even the Argentine struggled to follow his own advice however, having sat on his bucket for the vast majority of the first half and the start of the second, he began to pace and he beat a regular path to the edge of the technical area to bellow instruction or encouragement.

The frustration of his players, at their own inability to pick Cardiff apart from good positions and good possession, began to manifest in a variety of ways. Free-kicks were conceded, heavy tackles were made in response to their own free-kicks that were not given, and passes went astray in both halves of the pitch.

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Cardiff looked composed and controlled, Leeds looked urgent but on the verge of desperate and rushed.

Alex Smithies was rarely troubled all afternoon yet he was razor sharp to deny Roberts, who arrived alone at the back post to meet Bamford’s knock down.

Bielsa continued to encourage his team. ‘Very good Helder, very good Patrick,’ he cried, after the former almost found the latter with a through ball.

But with the urgency came another mistake, another pass picked off and another Cardiff goal.

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Playing at tempo became more difficult as the game wore on and the extra substitutions took their toll on Leeds’ rhythm and the time the ball was actually in play.

The rest of the game had a pattern that wasn’t easy on the eye.

Leeds would attack, get the ball wide and then nothing much else of note would happen.

Crosses did come in, but they didn’t result in shots on goal.

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Even six minutes of time added on failed to bring a single moment of joy, before the final whistle signalled the start of an inquest we’ve all heard before.

Football is back. It’s not always a beautiful game.

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