Phil Hay’s verdict: Narrow loss can’t hide gulf in class between Leeds United and Aston Villa

Bailey Peacock-Farrell stands large to save a shot from Villa goalscorer Lewis Grabban.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell stands large to save a shot from Villa goalscorer Lewis Grabban.
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There was no humiliation, a small mercy in itself, but Leeds United know their place when a narrow defeat at Aston Villa exceeds expectancy.

Leeds are in the Championship in body but making up the numbers in spirit, staring vacantly from a distance at the division’s lucrative playground.

Villa are inside that playground with everything to play for and it was their good luck to cross paths with Leeds at the end of a week in which United began projecting a familiar of themselves: that of a club who know where they want to go but are far from coherent in demonstrating how they intend to get there.

The final games of this season are akin to watching a picture fade; the last days of a team which will surely be pulled to pieces over the summer.

Precisely who oversees that surgery remains to be seen after suggestions this week that the club’s head coach, Paul Heckingbottom, might pay with his job for the way in which the season has flagged.

What dissent there was at Villa Park last night was aimed at director of football Victor Orta rather than Heckingbottom, implying that the greater share of public opinion is weighted against someone else, but Leeds cannot shake the feeling that so much about them needs to change.

They scrapped with Villa and restricted Steve Bruce’s side to a 1-0 win but the hosts banked it without giving Villa Park a performance to write home about. A simple header from Lewis Grabban was enough of a difference.

Grabban scored just before the half-hour, clearing the way for Villa to enjoy the night, but nerves gripped Bruce’s players after a second goal refused to come.

Heckingbottom, whose record shows seven losses from 13 matches, tweaked his team at half-time, introduced Samuel Saiz and provoked the burst of impetus which Leeds are able to find at irregular intervals.

Fleeting chances came and fleeting chances went as possession and good positions were lost to a lack of craft around Villa’s box.

Heckingbottom’s players, or those which are left in a squad who are dropping like flies, huffed and puffed in the manner which has taken them to 14th place in the division. The league doesn’t lie and neither did the game in Birmingham.

There was no expectation on Heckingbottom’s part, or so he said, of any of his injured crowd playing at Villa but Matthew Pennington appeared unexpectedly in a defence with an average age of 22; a third-choice centre-back partnering one who was not even part of that head count a week ago.

Eunan O’Kane took a place on the bench and it was hard not to think that both he and Pennington had been pushed to recover, so thin were Heckingbottom’s resources on Wednesday and so hard-pressed did Pennington look before half-time.

Form has wallowed badly in the collapse of this season and expectations of this team were on the floor long before a trip to Villa Park which felt like a hospital pass.

Leeds continue to meet those expectations consistently. They kept the night respectable but there was inevitability in the teams’ respective body language; Leeds unexpectant and Villa optimistic that something would give. It gave inside half an hour.

It took only a cursory look at Villa’s teamsheet to suggest that Leeds would suffer: Snodgrass, Grealish, Grabban and Kodjia at the top of Steve Bruce’s team, meaning Albert Adomah – part of the Championship’s team of the year – could tuck himself up in the dug-out.

Villa had the weight of automatic promotion on their shoulders, regardless of the fact that three points last night were a guarantee of a play-off spot. It was win or bust in pursuit of Fulham but their tension barely showed.

On an evening when urgency was needed, Villa turned the screw slowly. There was a trademark shot from Robert Snodgrass, left-footed and curling, after Leeds left him free on the edge of the box but Peacock-Farrell got behind it and parried it clear.

There were darting runs down each wing but Leeds tried to play in the same way. Sam Johnstone tipped Gjanni Alioski’s effort over after Pablo Hernandez spotted the Macedonian alone on the right, and a volley from Hernandez deflected kindly into Johnstone’s hands. For a while there was parity in the centre of midfield, the least Heckingbottom and his players needed.

Villa pressed but left themselves prone to counter-attacks, swarming in numbers when they carried possession towards United’s box but forced to watch their collective back. Leeds were imprecise in crucial areas and unfortunate too, given nothing when Mile Jedinak appeared to bring down Caleb Ekuban as the striker skipped away into Villa’s area. Their inability to make inroads cost them on 29 minutes.

Villa’s attacks sucked Leeds into deeper and deeper defending, to no avail when Grabban rose to head Jack Grealish’s delivery across Peacock-Farrell and inside the far post. Grealish kept alive an overhit Snodgrass cross and found Grabban’s leap with a weighted ball. Pennington was caught short as the striker jumped to dispatch it.

His goal allowed Villa to make the rest of the first half look easy. Leeds avoided a second concession but the threat of it was always there in the en masse retreats which met Villa’s attempts to get at Peacock-Farrell. Around Johnstone’s box, United’s attempts at intricacy gave Villa easy get-outs, trying without success to pick perfect passes. After so many weeks spent carrying the team, Hernandez’s touch packed up and deserted him.

Half-time brought a customary change of tack from Heckingbottom – Samuel Saiz on for Ekuban, leaving Roofe to fend on his own up front – and Phillips forced Glenn Whelan into a goalline clearance within five minutes of the restart.

Ronaldo Vieira whipped a long-range strike over and Villa Park began to ooze anxiety in the absence of a better lead. Peacock-Farrell stood firm to flick away Kodjia’s volley but it was not long before Bruce looked to Adomah to put the game to bed with 23 minutes to play.

Adomah should have done so when Grealish, with vision and skill beyond that of any other player on the field, read the winger’s run into the box but Peacock-Farrell anticipated his volley and blocked it with his legs in the 76th minute.

Scott Hogan was then prevented from burying a one-on-one chance when Pennington recovered and slid the ball from his feet. In Peacock-Farrell Leeds have found a goalkeeper worth trusting. In Tom Pearce and Paudie O’Connor they found some nerve and maturity last night. There are threads to cling to at Elland Road. They are simply too slender to alter the bigger picture.