Those players left behind in Leeds as international football starts up again this week should not count on too much rest. If Garry Monk was in any way tempted to pack his team off from Thorp Arch, that idea was under threat at the end of Saturday’s game at Nottingham Forest.
Monk has been waiting for this international break, swapping the endless cycle of fixtures in August for an unbroken run of training sessions, but an empty fortnight is more essential than even he realised. Leeds’ 3-1 defeat to Forest left their head coach with four points from five games, bad mistakes to dwell on with a pressurised Yorkshire derby to come at the end of the interlude.
Were Monk to paint the first month of the Championship season in numbers, he would stop at one in particular: five goals conceded from corners, including two in Nottingham. Leeds, it should be said, were last an example of defensive excellence some time towards the end of 2009 but a weakness which set the ball rolling badly for Monk at Queens Park Rangers on August 7 resurfaced at the City Ground.
Three times Leeds were caught sleeping from a corner by Forest and twice they were punished, first by Pajtim Kasami in the 16th minute and again in the second half when Damien Perquis gave Forest a 2-0 lead at a stage when Leeds were coming onto their hosts in semi-oppressive waves. “You can’t give yourself an uphill battle,” said Monk and the outcome proved him right. A beast of a free-kick from Kalvin Phillips briefly promised to save the day until Oliver Burke – the much-touted Forest winger who spent much of Saturday’s match under a bush – killed the game with a touch of class in injury-time.
In a league as open and attritional as the Championship, critical mistakes carry a high price. Leeds have been living with that fact for many years. Monk thought that clean sheets at Sheffield Wednesday and Luton Town had drawn a line in the sand but the sign of old habits resurfacing will keep him busy this week.
“It’ll be hard graft for us,” he said. “It’s been a busy month, definitely, but we’ve got work to do and the Championship doesn’t afford you time or lots of hours on the training field. This is a great period for us to work hard. It’s what the players need.
“This has been a frustrating day for sure. We were the architects of our own downfall. I thought we were progressing on set-pieces but we slipped back into that lack of concentration and made individual errors. We’ve got the break and something I haven’t been able to do with the group up to this point is spend a lot of hours on the training field. I get two weeks now to really drill things home, to cut out the errors and correct them.”
In the month of August, Tom Cairney’s pearler for Fulham at Elland Road was the only one of Leeds’ concessions which passed as a good goal. United had been warned once already at Forest when Burke’s header from Henri Lansbury’s corner forced a diving save from Rob Green but the red flag went unheeded. From Lansbury’s next delivery, Burke glanced the ball on again and Kasami cracked it first time into the corner of Green’s net.
Kasami’s strike was as much as there was to remember of a first half when the football felt as flat as the crowd. Monk talked about his players being in “second gear”, despite him resting 10 of them during Tuesday’s League Cup tie at Luton. Pablo Hernandez was the sole survivor but the intensity of the Championship – a challnge to a footballer who came to Leeds with only two weeks of pre-season in Qatar behind him – has not been kind to the Spaniard. Used on the left wing, his passing and vision was at its best in the five minutes before half-time when he stepped inside and played behind Monk’s strikers.
“Pablo’s not at 100 per cent yet but minutes on the pitch will make him better,” Monk said. “This two-week period will do him a lot of good, as it will all of the players.
“We played within ourselves in the first half but in the second half there was only one team trying to get a result. Forest were there for the taking. They were wasting time from the kick-off. Their keeper was taking 30 seconds to take a kick. They’d settled for 1-0 and they looked worried at 1-0. Had we cut out the errors and concentrated better, we’d have got a result.”
In between repeated lulls where Forest’s back four passed the ball amongst each other unheeded, Leeds shaped the second half without scoring when their performance peaked. Hadi Sacko had the chance of the game at 1-0, played into the box by a ricochet on 67 minutes, but hacked his shot over the crossbar. Despite looking dangerous, Monk withdrew him soon after and then watched in disbelief on 71 minutes as a Ben Osborn, who ran Luke Ayling ragged, dropped a corner onto the head of Perquis four yards out. His header down into the ground bounced up and beyond Green.
There was hope briefly when Kalvin Phillips – a replacement for Ronaldo Vieira after the 18-year-old avoided a second yellow card by virtue of a referee who played advantage and decided not to revisit the foul – banged a blistering free-kick past Stephen Henderson but Forest’s keeper prevented an equaliser in the wet with a sharp low save from Marcus Antonsson and saw another ambitious finish from Phillips sail a foot over his crossbar.
Forest were already through four minutes of injury-time and scenting victory when Burke came alive by losing Ayling and Liam Cooper from a throw-in, turning into the area and shooting low through Green’s legs.
“You can’t make mistakes in crucial moments because this league relies on them,” Monk said. “We’d made progress in the last couple of games and it was surprising to see those mistakes again. It’s something I’ll have to go back to and drum into the players. If they’re not capable of doing it then we have to change. Had we concentrated on those set pieces we’d probably have won.”
For Monk this gig is still to feel fully in hand. His team is more out-there than Uwe Rosler’s, more inclined to cut loose and gamble, but his first month of the season has been worse. There is not enough yet to properly distinguish United’s football under Monk from that of his predecessor, Steve Evans. Huddersfield Town are up next, currently top of the table and a side who routed Evans’ Leeds 5-1 at Elland Road in March.
“I try to be very open and truthful about things,” Monk said. “You can see what we’re doing, you can see the potential of the team, but we’re costing ourselves. Sometimes that’s more frustrating than anything.
“If we cut out the mistakes we’ll be a very good side.”