An afternoon in Nottingham Forest’s company was enough to explain how they and Aston Villa served up a 5-5 draw in November. Forest are prone to a rare kind of madness and Leeds United were sucked into it yesterday, emerging on the wrong side of a six-goal scoreline.
Leeds have a tendency to lean towards the ridiculous themselves and the drama they have created over Christmas would be enough for an entire season but the chaos of New Year’s Day did not befit a head coach whose idea of rampant football involves dominance and control. There was dominance in Nottingham but too little control and Leeds enter the new year with back-to-back defeats behind them for the first time on Marcelo Bielsa’s watch.
That statistic is telling since prior to Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Hull City, only three Championship games had gone against Bielsa and only one - a 4-1 beating at West Bromwich Albion - involved anything like the disarray which Leeds found themselves in towards the end of the second half against Forest.
Trailing 1-0 at half-time and stripped of Kalvin Phillips after his 42nd-minute red card, Leeds began another magical comeback, only to see a 2-1 lead become a 4-2 deficit in the space of seven minutes. There is a limit to the number of rabbits Bielsa’s players can pull from the same hat and Forest steadied themselves from a serious wobble after half-time to find the weak points in United’s skin.
The disorder at The City Ground was almost instant, beginning in the fifth minute with Adam Forshaw gifting Jack Colback the opening goal, and it went on through the first half as referee Darren England avoided an obvious red card for Jack Robinson before showing an equally blatant one to Phillips.
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Bielsa went for broke in the second half and Jack Clarke and Gjanni Alioski gave United an improbable lead with 64 minutes played but Leeds’ defensive positioning deserted them and two goals from corners dragged Aitor Karanka’s side back in front. A fourth Forest strike from Ben Osborn on 76 minutes put the Spaniard’s players out of reach.
Leeds’ advantage at the top of the Championship was cut to two points, a sight which depends on the eye of the beholder. United could not have wished for a better league position but clubs are bunching up behind them again and the January transfer market is there to be used. Bielsa seems reluctant to dive in but Leeds’ ample quality does not equate to vast superiority and it was only through two 95th-minute goals that a nine-point haul in the past fortnight did not drop to five.
Bielsa anticipated that Forest away, Leeds’ fourth game in 10 days, would be the most challenging of the lot despite the signs of trouble afoot at The City Ground.
Karanka opened his programme notes by wishing Forest’s supporters a happy new year but it is far from clear how much of 2019 his tenure will see. Forest were aggrieved, understandably, by Kemar Roofe using his arm to deny them a win at Elland Road in October but the weeks since then have caused far more introspection, much of it focused on Karanka himself.
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The narrative yesterday centred around the question of whether he could survive a defeat to Leeds. After Saturday’s loss at Millwall Karanka admitted that speculation about him was distracting his players and and three wins in 10 since their date at Elland Road told in a table which ejected Forest from the play-off positions three weeks ago. Lewis Grabban missing out through injury was another dig in the ribs.
Bielsa’s expectation of a difficult day in Nottingham did not tempt him to rest tired minds or legs and the same team who lost to Hull City over the weekend were sent out again. Bielsa’s young bench exemplifies the dearth of options available to him but it is questionable whether a head coach like him, so averse to chopping and changing, would have taken a significantly different tack had his squad been twice the size.
Nothing in his pre-match planning, however, was helped by Leeds conceding in the fifth minute and conceding in a shambolic manner. Karanka was reflecting on more ill fortune as Michael Hefele succumbed to a very early injury when Forshaw sold Bailey Peacock-Farrell short with a backpass which Colback took around Peacock-Farrell and rolled into the early net.
The lethargy in Bielsa’s defence was there from the start and nearly as costly 10 minutes later when Claudio Yacob met a corner with a downward header which clipped the outside of a post but Leeds were on the wrong end of a hotly-contested decision moments later after Barry Douglas’ long punt saw Jack Harrison break away, forcing Robinson to bring him down on the edge of Forest’s box. Robinson was Forest’s last man and Harrison was shaping to shoot but England let the defender off with a booking.
Leeds United's injured players join supporters at Nottingham Forest
It was as contentious an incident as Roofe’s handball at Elland Road, a clear infringement which earned Leeds a 1-1 draw in the club’s previous meeting, but England - unlike Geoff Eltringham two months earlier - could not claim to have missed the infringement. A covering Danny Fox was his only excuse, and even that was stretching it.
Bielsa looked for a reaction and got it from Jack Harrison, the winger he has persevered with despite so many ineffectual outings. Harrison made Leeds tick on the right, providing Gjanni Alioski with a header which Alioski nodded over and timing a pass nicely to allow Roofe to shoot at Costel Pantilimon. Forest’s goalkeeper stood up to the effort and brought it under control.
Alioski went closer on the half-hour with a glancing finish which Joe Lolley diverted beyond his own net and Leeds’ dominance of possession was reaching 75 per cent when Phillips self-combusted two minutes before half-time.
Phillips dived in on Adlene Guedioura after allowing the ball to run loose and caught Guedioura with his studs up. It gave England little choice, despite the official’s earlier leniency, and a red card appeared. Karanka might have been the manager under the cosh but it was Bielsa who found that everything which could have gone wrong did.
It took a big, point-blank save from Peacock-Farrell to deny Lolley a second Forest goal after Forshaw played Leeds into trouble again in first-half injury-time and Bielsa was obliged to make a change at the break but by removing Harrison and making room for Jack Clarke, he withdrew his most dangerous player.
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To Bielsa’s credit, the change worked. Seven minutes into the second half, and with Leeds happy to gamble by leaving themselves short at the back, Mateusz Klich fed the ball to Clarke who smashed it through Pantilimon at his near post. Leeds were three at the back, with all their chips down, and level again.
The idea of Bielsa settling for a point was as ludicrous as the idea of him accepting defeat at half-time. Leeds continued to attack and present space in behind their midfield and Roofe was a yard away from guiding a lob over a badly-positioned Pantilimon around the hour but the keeper could do nothing in the 64th minute when Pontus Jansson’s header from a Hernandez cross was volleyed in by Alioski.
The euphoria was intense but painfully brief. Five minutes later, Robinson nodded a corner into the path of Colback who swept a shot past Peacock-Farrell and United’s keeper was beaten for a third time three minutes later when Murphy’s downward header bounced inside the far post. It was 3-2 going on 5-5 and Forest scored a fourth in the 76th minute as substitute Osborn stepped inside Forshaw and found the top corner.
Even a coach as open-minded as Bielsa would welcome an end to mayhem like this.