In the outfield it was no contest whatsoever and Bailey Peacock-Farrell came away from Elland Road as Leeds United’s light in the dark.
It was strange to say on an evening when Leeds were given a horrible education and conceded three times without reply but their goalkeeper, the youngest player amongst them, left the inquest to others.
Peacock-Farrell, at 21 years of age, was Paul Heckingbottom’s big call of the night and a defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers proved two things: that Felix Wiedwald deserved to be dropped but that the root of United’s decaying season cannot be traced solely to the German. The rot goes further and deeper than Wiedwald and Wolves duly exposed the worst of it.
Wolves, who play with touch and imagination like few Championship teams ever have, are in the business of exposing the division as a whole but the sad reality of Peacock-Farrell’s grown-up resistance was that it prevented a massacre. Wolves led 2-0 at half-time through two headers from corners but on the strength of their attacking in open play, the scoreline might have read five.
Peacock-Farrell did his bit by denying Ivan Cavaleiro and Leo Bonatini, the latter with a textbook one-on-one reaction, and his second appearance in a Leeds sheet cannot fail to earn him a third away at Reading on Saturday. Wiedwald is shot and it remains to be seen if his career at Elland Road, which began with a transfer from Werder Bremen last summer, has any life left in it.
Wolves found a way past Peacock-Farrell in the 28th minute and again in the last minute before half-time, both taken at the expense of a defence who were confounded by corners from Barry Douglas. Romain Saiss bagged the first and Willy Boly the second after a previous effort came back off the crossbar. This, in theory, against a Wolves side with doubt in their minds after three games without a win. Substitute Benik Afobe wrapped the game up with a lob on 73 minutes.
Nuno’s squad, constructed with contacts of Jorge Mendes, to the chagrin of some in the Championship, is so far above so much of the Championship that narrowing the gap on them is the least of Leeds’ worries and the margin felt no closer last night than it did during United’s 4-1 loss at Molineux in November. What matters more is the disparity between Leeds and the best of the rest, the total absence of creative nous last night, and the damage the realisation of that gulf has done to the mood at Elland Road.
The Wiedwald problem reached the point of no return at Middlesbrough last Friday, compelling Heckingbottom to drop him and save him from his own draining confidence. In the absence of Andy Lonergan, who suffered a neck injury two weeks ago, the gloves passed to Peacock-Farrell for only the second time in a Leeds shirt. Almost two years on from his senior debut, the selection dropped him in the deepest of ends.
Wolves have resembled the firing squad for most of this season and someone had to risk the bullets, albeit against a line-up missing Ruben Neves through suspension. Peacock-Farrell’s most recent appearances came during a short loan in National League North with York City before Christmas, where he played four times and conceded nine goals, but it seemed plain at Middlesbrough that Wiedwald’s game had gone.
Leeds tried to protect Peacock-Farrell with a high and energetic press, limiting Wolves’ time on the ball and containing them outside his box.
Nuno’s players were slick enough to control the play with one-touch passing but not to find a way through until shortly before the half-hour. Bonatini, who went to town early on this season but last scored in December, let a pass slide off his boot as he shaped to slip between United’s centre-backs and Ivan Cavaleiro’s dangerous burst to the byline was dealt with by Pontus Jansson. It took 20 minutes for Wolves to ask what Peacock-Farrell was made of.
Diogo Jota drove a counter-attack over halfway, setting up Cavaleiro for a volley which Peacock-Farrell dived to push wide. There was less he could have done two minutes later when Matt Doherty’s cross presented Jota with a tap-in but Jota took his eye off the ball and mis-kicked it behind him.
There was a trend in Wolves’ early finishing, with Bonatini inexplicably attempting to finish with his thigh when Douglas’ free-kick found him unmarked, but the pace and fluency of their bursts forward became overwhelming. Leeds had been wobbling with increasingly anxiety before Saiss forced the opening goal in the 28th minute.
The effort was simple, with the midfielder stooping unmarked to nod Douglas’ corner into the corner of the net, but the build-up of pressure was brutal and bound to pay-off before long. As they found at Molineux three months ago, the risk of a counter punch was there whenever Leeds committed players forward. It is not by chance that Wolves are on the verge of automatic promotion with their remaining games in double figures.
Before half-time Heckingbottom’s captain, Liam Cooper, was lost to injury after going down as a corner dropped into Wolves’ box and United’s head coach could feel the night conspiring. Adam Forshaw picked up an early booking which left him on the edge. Stuart Dallas’ shot seven minutes before half-time, blocked before it could reach John Ruddy, was a rare shot in anger.
At the other end, Cooper’s replacement, Matthew Pennington, got away with a bad loss of possession to Bonatini before Peacock-Farrell intervened with a brilliant save from the Brazilian, palming the ball away as Bonatini attempted to dink it over him. The defence in front of him had splintered completely and left him to fend for himself.
In that respect the youngster could do nothing and when another Douglas corner was nodded against the crossbar by Danny Batth in the 45th minute, Boly rose highest to steer the rebound into the net. Elland Road gave a sigh of resignation.
Hadi Sacko paid the price at the interval, removed from a first start in 10 months which vividly explained the gap in between, and Pablo Hernandez came forth in search of another second-half fightback. There are only so many one deflated group of footballers can produce.
Jota hit the underside of Peacock-Farrell’s bar with a 14-yard rocket after the hour and Nuno made his bench work for him by replacing Bonatini with Afobe 20 minutes from the end. Three minutes later, Afobe latched onto a chipped pass from Jota and sent a fine lob from a line out into the back of the net as Peacock-Farrell sprinted out and committed himself. If there were questions in that moment about the keeper’s positioning, the blame for Wolves’ walkover lay elsewhere.