No curse at play against West Ham but Leeds United's London 'problem' will soon need resolving - Graham Smyth's Verdict
'No wins in London, no problem.’
Stuart Dallas’ tweet in the midst of Leeds United’s title celebrations last July was as true as it was tongue-in-cheek
Leeds United didn’t need a single victory in the capital last season, for they still finished top and with a comfortable 10-point cushion.
They haven’t really needed a single win in the capital this season either, because they’ve put together enough victories and accrued enough points elsewhere to assume a mid-table position with a nine-point cushion between them and the drop zone, with a game in hand over 18th-placed Fulham.
‘No wins in London no problem.’
The same words captioned Luke Ayling’s photo of a somewhat merry Dallas on their summer holiday in Ibiza.
Marcelo Bielsa’s players could not help but be acutely aware of the narrative that followed them on their trips south to face Charlton, Millwall, Fulham, QPR and Brentford – all of whom fell to defeat at Elland Road it should be pointed out.
The narrative predated last season and predates Bielsa.
Leeds last won in London 1,185 days ago, when Kemar Roofe helped himself to all three goals in a 3-1 victory over QPR on December 9, 2017.
Two draws and 13 defeats have followed and with each unsuccessful attempt to silence the London narrative it has become more and more entrenched in the Leeds United story and, perhaps, the club’s psyche.
Had it not at least needled a little at Dallas and co, it would likely not have formed any part of their post-promotion social output.
And needle it should.
Leeds might not have needed a win in London last season or indeed this – defeats at Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea have been less than ideal but hardly hampered the newly-promoted side in putting together a perfectly acceptable record – yet to move to the next phase of Andrea Radrizzani’s plan Leeds are going to need more wins and are going to carry far heavier expectations with them into The Smoke.
Make no mistake, however, defeat has never been an acceptable outcome for Bielsa and his men, operating under their current expectation of simply staying up.
The dissatisfaction has been clear after each and every one of their London games.
There is always the feeling that Leeds could and should have done more.
Mateusz Klich could scarcely hide his chagrin after the 4-1 beating at Crystal Palace and at the Emirates, Ayling refused to put a positive spin on the the 4-2 scoreline: “It’s quite easy to play when you’re 4-0 down and run around and look like you’re doing alright but the game is pretty much done by then.”
It was an all-too similar story at West Ham.
There was no curse at play, simply a poor first half, the set-piece problems that Bielsa has been unable to resolve and missed chances.
Leeds looked like they were doing alright in a second half they largely dominated, but the deserved 2-0 half-time scoreline was the full-time scoreline, the Hammers troubled but not their net.
The return of Kalvin Phillips was, at least, a positive.
Early on he popped up in the right places to link the defence and midfield or attack, playing clever passes in Leeds’ first two attacks, the first of which brought a fruitless corner, the second a Helder Costa shot over the bar.
The Portuguese’ kneecap then denied Leeds an opener, VAR deciding it was offside as he reached Dallas’ raking ball from the left and pulled it back for Tyler Roberts to tuck home.
And before the 10-minute mark the ball was in the net again, Patrick Bamford finishing smartly at the near post from a Raphinha pull back that came after the ball went out for a goal-kick.
Leeds’ biggest enemy in the opening 20 minutes had been their own passing, players forcing the play instead of keeping it simple and turning over possession.
Roberts, Diego Llorente and Liam Cooper were were all guilty and the latter’s inaccurate diagonal set the Hammers on a counter that brought the opener.
Jesse Lingard played a one-two with Said Benrahma and cut to the middle as he reached the area, tempting Ayling into a trip. Lingard took the spot-kick, Illan Meslier saved his initial effort but the rebound fell kindly and the London side’s loanee from Manchester United made it 1-0.
A deflected Aaron Cresswell free-kick threatened to make it 2-0, the ball deceiving Meslier but bouncing wide of the post.
The resulting corner did bring a second however, Craig Dawson losing Llorente to head home unmarked at the back post.
Just like that, with 29 minutes gone, Leeds were staring another London disappointment in the face.
Their bright start counted for nought and heads seemed to go, passes continually falling short or sailing in the wrong direction, Klich and Roberts offering little presence in the middle.
West Ham were so efficient by comparison as they mopped up loose balls and passed their way quickly and simply into space to hurt Leeds.
Attacking out wide and getting to the byline brought more corners with which to torment the visitors, Llorente in particular failing to get to grips with his man, Dawson heading against the post towards the end of the half.
Bielsa replaced ineffective pair Costa and Klich at the break, Gjanni Alioski going to left-back, Jack Harrison playing on the left wing, meaning a midfield role for Dallas.
And Leeds started brightly again, creating a trio of chances from which they should have scored at least once.
Llorente’s through ball sent Bamford in behind the defence and he curled his shot past the far post, the ruthless finishing he’s shown this season deserting him.
Raphinha’s over-head kick was palmed over by Lukasz Fabianski and then the winger shot wide after making space for himself in the area.
For West Ham, Fornals thumped a 25-yard effort off Meslier’s crossbar, the hosts dangerous even from corners that were cleared from the area.
Raphinha continued to be Leeds’ likeliest source of a goal, appearing in the area in enough space to meet Alioski’s cut back and send it goalward, albeit too close to the keeper to really trouble him.
Dallas gave Leeds so much more in the middle during the second half, helping to move play from back to front and Leeds put West Ham under real pressure.
If Bamford’s earlier miss had been surprising, the one he blazed over from eight yards from Raphinha’s pass was shocking.
When Ayling’s ball across the six-yard box was left by Bamford and Rodrigo was beaten to it at the back post by Coufal, it was clear this was not going to be the night that Leeds silenced the London narrative.
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Thank you Laura Collins