The questions Leeds United must answer after Brighton blow - Graham Smyth's Verdict

This might be the most relaxed the atmosphere around Leeds United will ever be, after years of the tension that high hopes, crushing disappointment and, most recently, glory has given them.

Sunday, 2nd May 2021, 9:28 am
BUTTERFLY EFFECT - Ben White floated through the Leeds United side more than once as Brighton hit Marcelo Bielsa's men hard and avoided taking damage. Pic: Getty

If all goes to plan, expectations will rise over the next season or so and the tension will quickly creep in again.

Right now, Premier League status has been secured handsomely and there is no real chance of qualification for European football, which makes for an untypical, understated finale to the season.

The Whites are accustomed to big feelings at this stage of the proceedings, whether fury, devastation or, last season at least, ecstacy.

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It's all a bit unfamiliar, drifting harmlessly to the conclusion with few serious cares in the world.

At Brighton it didn't appear to suit them at all.

For a club who, in the last three games, have been punching far above their weight and refusing to get knocked down by super-heavyweights, this was a battle against an outfit much closer to their own stature.

It inspired nothing more than a sluggish, insipid performance, however, and the 2-0 defeat that ensued, ending a six-game unbeaten streak, was the kind of punch that stops a fighter in their tracks, halting all momentum and making them think.

It was a result that asked questions.

A knee injury sustained in training took Kalvin Phillips out of the side and without him Leeds' record this season now stands at seven defeats from nine games. Does their punch resistance disappear when he's not there to provide the muscle in midfield?

Raphinha continues to be a big miss ever since he was decked by Fernandinho at Manchester City. Do Leeds have top-flight punching power without the Brazilian wing wizard?

And where is this club's fit in the Premier League next season, after a crucial summer of recruitment? Which is their weight category? Where are the improvements going to be made that will give them more consistency in a division where anyone can get knocked out in any contest?

It would be unfair to answer that last question simply on the basis of this one match, but Gjanni Alioski's performance at left-back drew further attention to an area that has given the odd black eye even going back into the Championship days.

With the contract offer on the table still unsigned, his future appears ever more likely to lie elsewhere yet even if a player who has done a job this season against elite opposition was to remain, an upgrade will be made.

Sadly he was unable to do a job against Brighton. The first half penalty he gave away was his Tyson Fury self-uppercut moment, stumbling and bringing Danny Welbeck with him to gift the hosts an opener, Pascal Groß beating Illan Meslier from the spot.

Groß had, for the most part, been well shackled in the early parts of the game by Robin Koch, Bielsa's latest attempt to resolve the Phillips problem.

The beauty of Phillips' play is how instinctive it is for him to get his body in the right position and there was a sign of that in a lovely bit of football from Koch, outmuscling Groß, keeping the ball, moving forward and earning a free-kick.

Last season's answer to the defensive midfield conundrum without Phillips was loanee Ben White and the defender reminded Leeds of just how good he was, floating like a butterfly through the visiting side to get Brighton high up the pitch.

When Leandro Trossard found it too easy to create space just inside the Leeds area for a shot Meslier held, the indications were starting to emerge that even though Koch was playing quite well, Leeds were on their heels and taking too many heavy blows.

Fighting their way off the ropes, the Whites cleared their heads and pushed forward, only to find Brighton comfortable behind a blue defensive shell. Graham Potter's back three defended solidly but with Yves Bissouma getting his foot in here and there in front of them, they did not have to work too hard to make Leeds miss.

The Whites didn't get in behind, couldn't find their runners and struggled to beat men in individual duels, so even when they bossed possession for a spell, their punches fell short and didn't hurt Brighton. A lack of accuracy meant the hosts avoided taking any damage, several Leeds players guilty of wayward passes.

Trailing at the break, Bielsa replaced Alioski with Ian Poveda, hoping his speed and trickery would find a way where Dallas, back in his old position for the first half, had not.

His quick feet provided a few nice moments but nothing more in a second half that was arguably worse than the first for Leeds.

They could have shipped more goals early on, Joël Veltman failing to find the target when he arrived alone at the back post to meet a low cross, Welbeck getting in behind only to be foiled by Meslier's vital touch and Dallas' goalmouth clearance.

Patrick Bamford cut a lonely, dejected figure as the game passed him by. An hour of football yielded next to no touches in the final third and although that was down to his team-mates' inability to bring him into it, it was he Bielsa replaced, with Rodrigo.

The Spaniard fared no better. His first contribution was something he's been guilty of too often in a stop-start season, giving away a free-kick in his own half from which Brighton threatened, White heading over.

Will a pre-season under Bielsa finally bring the best out of the Spanish international and if so in which position will he thrive? Further questions that were hanging in the air long before this game kicked off.

It took until the final quarter of an hour but Leeds finally mustered a second half attempt at goal when Dallas blasted a volley just over the top, but it was mostly a chance of the hosts' creation, having given the ball away easily and then only half cleared a cross.

Four minutes later Brighton stung like a bee and Leeds were reeling.

Pascal Struijk struggled to get the ball clear of the area and Welbeck took it down sublimely, controlling and turning in one devastating movement before jabbing it hard past Meslier.

Brighton have been accused of being too nice this season, playing pretty football without getting results. Leeds on the other hand have been spoken of as a horrible lot to play against, such has been their intensity. They can take a punch to give a punch and thanks to their incredible conditioning, can overwhelm teams with a relentless flurry of attacks. As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer put it, they can 'steamroller' you in the second half.

You wouldn't have known it, watching this game, because they didn't lay a glove on their hosts.

If offered, Brighton would trade seasons in a heartbeat and that must be remembered in the wake of a first defeat since March. On Saturday evening the Whites were down, but they're far from out.

If nothing else, this was a useful exercise in reminding everyone that there is work to do before Leeds can contend for more than just midtable. Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. Bielsa was not in a philosophical mood when the second goal went in, however, so don't expect a relaxed week at Thorp Arch.