Pitch problems and set-piece woes resurface but Leeds United deserved Elland Road ovation after Everton defeat - Graham Smyth's Verdict

It was apparent long before Everton drove away from LS11 with three points that Leeds United feel more at home away from Elland Road this season.
CROWD PLEASER - Raphinha's performance would have had a packed Elland Road buzzing but Leeds United fell to a 2-1 defeat to Everton in an empty ground. Pic: Tony JohnsonCROWD PLEASER - Raphinha's performance would have had a packed Elland Road buzzing but Leeds United fell to a 2-1 defeat to Everton in an empty ground. Pic: Tony Johnson
CROWD PLEASER - Raphinha's performance would have had a packed Elland Road buzzing but Leeds United fell to a 2-1 defeat to Everton in an empty ground. Pic: Tony Johnson

The Whites are experiencing a similar phenomenon to Carlo Ancelotti's side and others, because while football is played behind closed doors, home advantage does not appear to exist in the way it used to.

Leeds, like the Toffees, have enjoyed more Premier League joy on the road. Their best performances, the wins over Aston Villa and Leicester City, were achieved as visitors.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Ancelotti puts the superiority of his team's form away from Goodison squarely down to the lack of supporters in grounds, calling it the pattern of the season.

And although the visitors to Elland Road looked far from comfortable en route to a 2-1 win over Leeds on Wednesday night, it's not difficult to imagine just how much more pressure they would have felt had the old stadium been packed to the rafters with baying Yorkshiremen and women.

As Leeds piled into the Toffees, winning the ball back and steaming forward to create goalscoring chances, the noise would have been deafening. Ancelotti's men took a two-goal lead and a commanding position into the interval yet looked panicky and uncertain for most of the second half. He insisted they kept their concentration to the end, something a full Kop would have done their level best to test in the nervy final moments.

Every time Raphinha picked up the ball to either drive at the visitors or slam an accurate pass into the feet of a team-mate, the ground would have been buzzing. His goal would have lifted the roof and the mood and raised expectations.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And when the time wasting began late on, Michael Oliver would have been alerted to it instantly, raucously and with an urgency that would have demanded swifter, stricter action.

Alas, the ground was empty and the atmosphere a vacuum as Everton held on for victory.

The absence of home field advantage was evident right from the off on an evening that began with no small measure of relief, for Leeds, as Kalvin Phillips emerged from the tunnel with his team-mates. He had needed treatment in the warm-up from a physio having clearly felt some discomfort in his hip, putting a slight question mark over his involvement.

Yet Phillips’ mobility issues in the early minutes of the game were nothing to do with injury. He and several team-mates struggled more than Everton's players did to get to grips with the freshly-laid Elland Road surface.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Leeds made the decision to fork out somewhere in the region of £300,000 to replace a top layer that had suffered extensively from long-standing drainage issues and become problematic for the team’s flowing style of play.

A full reconstruction is still needed and will happen this summer, but this was the much talked about and anticipated debut for the new pitch, Leeds’ only signing of the January transfer market, bought from Tottenham Hotspur.

Heavy rainfall in the lead up to the visit of Everton made life difficult, white shirts hitting the green turf time and time again with far greater frequency than their blue shirted rivals, a fact that Marcelo Bielsa highlighted with a wry chuckle after the game.

Jack Harrison was one of those whose feet went from under him as he tried to switch the ball from left to right and Everton had the ball in the net seconds later. The slip was not directly responsible for the goal, there was ample opportunity for Leeds to stop a move that started in the Everton half and culminated with Lucas Digne’s cross and Gylfi Sigurdsson’s all-too-easy finish. The goalscorer’s run was untracked and Leeds were reminded, yet again, that in the Premier League nothing less than complete concentration will do.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

With the Toffees screening Phillips and looking compact and solid as Leeds tried to get a foothold, momentum was hard to come by yet Leeds grew into the game, recovering phase of play by phase of play until they eventually started to create.

Mateusz Klich curled a shot from distance that Robin Olsen shoved wide and Patrick Bamford headed over the top, before Leeds threatened with a series of set-pieces. Raphinha’s delivery to the edge of the area brought a fine volley from Gjanni Alioski that beat Olsen but hit the post and Phillips’ free-kick was flicked goalwards by Pascal Struijk, Olsen saving well.

But Leeds, again, made life even more difficult for themselves. Defending corners is a problem that predates their Premier League status and it continues to plague them. A near-post ball with a dangerous, low trajectory was won by Ben Godfrey and Dominic Calvert-Lewin was free at the back post to crash the ball and himself into the net.

Coming four minutes before the interval it sucked all the wind out of the Whites’ sails. Still, they found a second wind, in the second half.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Right from the off they upped the intensity, on and off the ball. Everton were hassled and harried, the ball was won back in good positions that allowed Leeds to play on the front foot.

Just three minutes into the half it was game on, Leeds’ pressing and making a nuisance of themselves in the final third, creating confusion that begot panic in the Everton back line and allowing Bamford to get a foot in, prodding the ball to Raphinha who guided a low shot beyond Olsen and into the net. It was the Brazilian's fourth of the season but his first at Elland Road.

The tempo remained high and Everton remained under pressure, some neat passing leading to a Stuart Dallas volley that was blocked on the edge of the area.

Barring a rare Everton foray upfield that resulted in a spin of the VAR handball roulette wheel - the hosts surviving a ball dropping onto the arm of Luke Ayling - it was all Leeds and it felt like a goal was coming.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Where they had once looked solid, Everton looked uncomfortable and only Olsen kept it 2-1. He went one way to palm out Klich’s deflected shot then sprang to his feet to block Raphinha’s follow-up at the other post, before stopping a Harrison volley. When Olsen was beaten, the woodwork played its part again, Bamford’s looping header from Dallas’ inswinging cross landing on the top of the crossbar.

Leeds kept coming, kept playing nice football and kept causing problems. Only the final act eluded them, with players slipping at crucial moments.

When Raphinha keeled over, attempting to receive an under-hit Pablo Hernandez pass, Everton very nearly made Leeds pay, breaking at pace as Calvert-Lewin went in on Illan Meslier only to be foiled by the Frenchman’s feet.

As Everton resorted to time wasting to try and kill the game, time ticked away but with Leeds playing in the right area of the pitch one last chance felt inevitable.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It arrived in the final minute of five added on and the build up typified Leeds’ second-half effort. Dallas won the ball in the visitors’ half and fed Raphinha who had pulled over to the left of centre and he paused before threading a nice ball into Bamford’s feet. There were shades of the striker’s goal at Leicester, but with bodies in the box a shot was not an option and instead he pinged it across to Tyler Roberts, unmarked on the far side of the area. The Welsh international’s first touch was excellent, he set himself for a volley and as glory beckoned he got the finish all wrong, slicing badly.

Everton’s full-time delight held more than a tinge of relief. Leeds’ anguish – Raphinha in particular wore the devastation on his sleeve – held a tinge of regret for the first-half defensive lapses that left them chasing the game.

But they could have done little more to make amends and on another day could easily have christened the new surface with what would have been a deserved victory. It was a performance that deserved more than the smattering of applause from directors and club employees.

At least, on the day when chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told the country that the peak of this Covid-19 wave has now passed, Leeds still left the pitch in a position that strongly suggests when fans finally do return, bringing with them home advantage, they will able to enjoy Premier League football, Premier League players like Raphinha and ensure Elland Road once again becomes a place opposition teams do not enjoy visiting.