Phil Hay on Leeds United: No excuses after allowed after taming of Hull City

Mirco Antenucci in recent action against Rotherham.
Mirco Antenucci in recent action against Rotherham.
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There is a reason why clubs invest so heavily in performance analysis.

At the risk of blinding managers with statistics, it allows them to trust what they think they are seeing in the heat of a competitive game. It confirms assumptions and vindicates suspicions with numbers and hard facts.

Take Mirco Antenucci. When Steve Evans looked at the striker’s performance in his first game in charge – a 1-1 draw at Fulham on a night when Leeds United and Antenucci played well – he found that Antenucci’s individual sprints had doubled in number from his last start under Uwe Rosler. It would have mattered more had Joe Lewis, the Fulham goalkeeper, not got his fingers to Antenucci’s goalbound shot in stoppage-time – goals win more matches than sprints after all – but the analysis told Evans that Antenucci was a player with the capacity to go further.

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The Italian is only an example and Evans could draw similar comparisons with many of the players he inherited in October. Leeds have been wedged into the bottom half of the Championship this season and largely because of their own flaws but there is aptitude among the squad which has not been realised consistently. When Kalvin Phillips covered 13.3km at Bristol City in August, a greater distance than any Premier League player that same week, Bristol City had nothing more than United’s late loss of nerve to thank for a 2-2 draw. When Liam Bridcutt defensively out-performed every other Championship midfielder on Saturday, Hull City ran into trouble. Football can be magic but it is not always that mysterious.

Bridcutt, in a deep-lying position, will help a team who have entrenched weaknesses at the back; weaknesses which can only be solved via the transfer market. Evans could justify signing a goalkeeper as genuine competition for Marco Silvestri. He would not need to explain the recruitment of one or more centre-backs next month, provided the club are happy for him to load up that section of the wage bill. But Saturday’s win over Hull – Bridcutt excepted – was produced with existing resources. It was, in the first half at least, a victory for tactical management and a collective attempt to find internal solutions.

The acceptance that Leeds are in trouble, or were potentially in serious trouble before last weekend, was not the same as saying that much of the existing squad are unsuited to finding a way out of it. The first goal against Hull, the pick of the three, was a majestically simple move involving a weighted pass from Lewis Cook, a sharp square-ball from Stuart Dallas and a tidy finish from Chris Wood. Or to put it another away, an England Under-19 international to a £1.3m winger to a circa-£3m striker. There is no time at Elland Road, no patience left, but it is remarkable how quickly players of good calibre are smothered by scepticism. And remarkable how quickly their good calibre is forgotten or talked down.

Dallas’s flashes of invention on the right have defined his season. Leeds need more of it. Wood has seen enough good chances – and, in his defence, sniffed out enough good chances – to be well clear of 10 goals by now. If Cook is a player who Bournemouth value at around £10m, and Eddie Howe is making no secret of his interest, then more Championship games should belong to him. En masse against Hull, Evans’s side seemed to decide that they were tired of coming up short. The difference was tangible.

It is clear to everyone that the present environment at Elland Road is difficult to thrive in. To say otherwise would be naive. Evans made the point last week that when stories broke about United’s entire squad being up for sale – reports he categorically denied – it was the first topic of conversation in the changing room at Thorp Arch on Thursday morning.

Players are human and players at Leeds are largely in the dark about goings-on around them. It takes time to adapt and certain individuals never will. Part of the reason why Alex Mowatt was able to play so freely and so well last season was that he has grown up in this world. “It’s the only club I’ve played for,” Mowatt said in April. “I think all this is normal.”

It was Peter Lorimer, however, who made the point recently that uncertainty at a club does not give players a “free pass”. The atmosphere might go some way to explaining performances like the no-show at Queens Park Rangers but it can not excuse them. Not when Leeds are capable of playing better and less erratically. Hull was a top win and a valuable scalp. Next up, six games in which five of the opposition are alongside Leeds in the bottom half of the league. Any self-respecting squad would like the look of that run and good players would make the most of it.

Chris Wood scoresa late in the first half to make reduce the deficit to 3-1 at home to Norwich last season. Picture: Varley.

Haven’t we met before? Previous Elland Road meetings between Leeds United and Norwich City