There has been much sniping from Elland Road about the accomplished football played by Wolverhampton Wanderers this season but Wolves are not the only club who Leeds United lag behind.
Fulham exposed another gulf last night, irrespective of a raging contest at Craven Cottage.
Fulham, for the best part of two years, have had a tendency to be touted as the best team in the Championship without quite mastering it but there is a fluency and assurance in their play which Leeds can only crave.
A fortuitous goal cleared the way to a 2-0 win, claimed fortuitously by Kevin McDonald midway through the first half, but the only luck before then had been United’s in hanging on.
Paul Heckingbottom anticipated the onslaught, adamant beforehand that no side in the division was slicker than Slavisa Jokanovic’s, but United’s head coach had no remedy to the earliest stages of it and Leeds’ consistent failure to outwit the Championship’s better clubs is the basis of their mid-table position.
A November win over Middlesbrough is their sole victory against a top-six side. Had Sheffield United held on through injury-time for three points against Cardiff City on Monday, they would not have beaten any of them.
Fulham, this season, have dished out worse treatment at their own ground, a stadium where Wolves lost by the same margin a month ago, but Leeds’ brittle flanks and dearth of invention were manna from heaven for their hosts before half-time.
McDonald’s unintentional strike, flying in off his thigh, put Fulham in front and Leeds’ bold, concerted attempt to unsettle Jokanovic’s players after the break, rattling them for 15 minutes, was blown apart by a decisive, end-to-end flurry in the 63rd minute. Caleb Ekuban, in what is becoming a trend, let another one-on-one chance go begging and covered his face with his shirt after Fulham broke away and gave Aleksandar Mitrovic time to prod a shot beyond goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell. An entire campaign in microcosm, for both clubs.
Another easy chance fell to substitute Jay-Roy Grot 10 minutes from time. Grot headed over from three yards out. For a club down in 12th, it is not difficult to join the dots.
Fulham’s results have been making waves since Christmas, big enough for Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney to make the shortlist for the Championship’s player of the year award.
Ruben Neves completed the nominees named by the EFL yesterday but it was telling that Wolves, clear at the top of the division, had less representation that Jokanovic’s squad. Cairney was quiet last night, save for assisting Fulham’s second goal. Sessegnon, at 17, looked a cut above everyone.
Heckingbottom had promised to try and play Fulham at their own game and Samuel Saiz’s recall in place of Pierre-Michel Lasogga was a halfway house; a more protective shape but a theoretical increase of creativity with Saiz on the pitch. Containing Fulham was not much of a game plan at a ground which last saw an away win a week on Hallowe’en. It became a case of that very quickly.
Jokanovic’s approach had Sessegnon hugging the touchline far out on the left whenever possession dropped to his players and Leeds were outmaneuvered in that area quickly and repeatedly.
Mitrovic, the Newcastle loanee who had registered nine goals in 10 previous appearances, was teed-up nicely by Matt Targett in the fifth minute but swept a low shot beyond the near post and Floyd Ayite was denied by the opposite upright when Sessegnon got in behind Stuart Dallas and whipped a cross in front of Peacock-Farrell.
The resulting corner saw Mitrovic, at full pelt, draw a diving parry from Peacock-Farrell and by the 12th minute, Leeds could feel themselves on the ropes.
Heckingbottom was fortunate to pass the half-hour mark unwounded, save for the injury which forced him to replace Eunan O’Kane in the 22nd minute.
The addition of Kalvin Phillips to a midfield which had lacked presence before then was no bad thing.
The lull in Fulham’s play was brief, though, and the weight of possession in their favour was suffocating. Leeds packed bodies in behind their attacks, most susceptible down Sessegnon’s wing, but pushed their luck too far in the 33rd minute.
Mitrovic was first again to Targett’s outswinging corner and his header struck the leg of McDonald, causing a ricochet which unintentionally wrong-footed Peacock-Farrell and found the corner of the net. In amongst some fine play it was as scruffy as Fulham’s goals come. And inevitable, given the balance of the game.
Heckingbottom looked in vain for Leeds to gain a proper foothold.
Their first corner, six minutes before half-time, ran back to Peacock-Farrell within seconds of it landing in Fulham’s box and the only glimpse of trouble for Marcus Bettinelli passed when Samuel Saiz’s ball to Pablo Hernandez ran too far wide for Hernandez to shoot.
The one strand of encouragement for Heckingbottom was Fulham’s midfield dropping off and losing control in the final minutes of the half.
Leeds kept a hold of that area after the interval and tighter marking denied Fulham as much chance to breathe.
In a critical spell where Jokanovic’s players found themselves chasing the ball, United needed to find a way through but ran short of ideas at the edge of Bettinelli’s box.
When Fulham found a way to release themselves, their threat was more real.
A goalbound strike from the untrackable Sessegnon was pushed wide by Peacock-Farrell and Fulham’s second goal on 63 minutes was United’s season in the space of 30 seconds.
Ekuban had Leeds’ chance of the night at one end, denied one-on-one by Bettinelli in a situation which has caused the striker to freeze too often in the past month, and Fulham tore upfield, working possession to Cairney whose low cut-back was tucked away with no nonsense by Mitrovic.
The same was true of Grot, who came off the bench and somehow missed Bettinelli’s goal after Saiz dinked a lovely pass to the unmarked Dutchman.
Grot needed only a clean touch to finish but a snatched header disappeared into the air, as so much of United’s season has done.