The trouble with Leeds United's Crystal Palace draw is not simply performance - Graham Smyth's Verdict

No one cares too much when performances aren’t good enough at the deep end of the Premier League relegation battle, if results are.

By Graham Smyth
Tuesday, 26th April 2022, 8:29 am

That was the case at Watford where Jesse Marsch’s Leeds United were so far from their vintage best yet ended the afternoon 3-0 winners. All was well because it ended so well, with a result that made it 10 points from a possible 12.

The trouble with Monday night’s goalless draw with Crystal Palace is that the result cannot yet be declared good enough and the performance was one to forget.

Through no real fault of Marsch’s, the 16 days between the Watford and Palace games saw things tighten unbearably at the bottom of the table. Marsch expected it. He even predicted it. The hope was that the 16 days without a game, without losing players to international duty, would allow him to get more of a melodious tune from his squad.

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What followed at Selhurst Park was discordant and jarring but yet again it did not bring about a defeat. It increased the gap between Leeds and Everton, albeit only by a point – one that will be just as precious as any other won by the Whites this season, if it helps them stay up. Time and the final Premier League table will either absolve the performance or judge it harshly.

It was obvious from the off that Leeds were going to offer up similar fare to their previous outing. Pinball was the game for the first couple of minutes, neither side being given sufficient time in possession to craft much.

It took a pass over the top into the path of Jean-Philippe Mateta to bring the first chance, Illan Meslier’s slightly delayed reaction allowing the Palace man to nick the ball past him but not Diego Llorente, covering his keeper.

Leeds looked fresh enough off the ball, Daniel James’ energy making life uncomfortable for the home back line, but on it they struggled to find any early rhythm.

TENSIONS FRAYING - Leeds United and Crystal Palace went tit-for-tat with fouls and physicality in their 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park. Pic: Getty

Palace though were able to put together a nice back-to-front move that swept downfield through Eberechi Eze and Conor Gallagher before Nathaniel Clyne was put in space on the right, Meslier able to gather Wilfried Zaha’s header.

The right flank continued to be a problem, Gallagher once again given sufficient room to produce a fantastic ball round the corner to put Jordan Ayew behind the backline, Llorente getting a vital touch that deprived Mateta of a certain opener.

It took the half to reach its midway point before Leeds could say they’d created something, Phillips winning possession and feeding Jack Harrison whose quick feet earned a corner. When it was delivered, Liam Cooper nodded straight at Vicente Guaita.

Leeds will take joy from wherever they can get it, from sources familiar or not, and the sight of Raphinha hurling a long throw into the area for Klich to flick on was strange enough before Cooper, of all people, backheeled it to Stuart Dallas for a blocked shot.

There was still no real fluidity to the visitors’ play, however, and Palace continued to play the more convincing stuff.

Patrick Vieira's system was allowing Gallagher to make the kind of impact Leeds hoped he would for them when they made their loan offer last summer. Whether it was the game's flow, or lack thereof, unfamiliarity with Marsch's system or the rust that has accrued since December, Kalvin Phillips was not allowed to shine as he can in his first start for more than four months. His impact was reduced, more often than not, to physicality.

And with Zaha drawing contact and winning free-kicks, one of which was headed at Meslier by Mateta, the game descended into something of a tit-for-tat battle in the latter stages of the first half, referee Darren England struggling to keep a lid on it until his yellow card came out for Joachim Andersen’s foul on Rodrigo.

Any frustration felt by Leeds at Zaha’s antics was likely dwarfed by their feelings on their own performance and the terse nature of Klich’s chat with Marsch just prior to the break said as much.

Robin Koch took the Pole’s place for the second half and while Lecceds took less than a minute to produce something meaningful in the final third, it was thanks to their left-back and right winger, Dallas’ excellent work releasing Raphinha whose shot deflected wide.

There was no discernible change in overall tone or quality, however. It was scrappy and frenetic and barring a couple of vaguely promising moments at either end – a Dallas’ shot the best of them – a less than thrilling affair.

Entertainment came chiefly from the tackles flying in and the simmering tension between the sides.

Eventually the Palace flair players took the game by the scruff and played the better stuff, on the flanks mainly – Zaha giving Ayling a hard time and Olise, on for Ayew, doing the same to Dallas. Both wingers were involved in a move that ended with Meslier saving from Zaha, then Llorente had to slide in and halt Gallagher who had been fed by Olise.

The game’s best moments, even if they were half chances, were all coming at one end of the pitch and the pressure mounted on the visitors. Gallagher sent an acrobatic effort just over and Meslier was forced into a double save by Zaha. All Palace were lacking was a finish and Leeds' reliance on that was, at times, worrying. They did dig in and they did fight and they rode their luck as teams battling relegation sometimes must.

The visitors briefly broke the spell of dominance in order to tee up substitute Joe Gelhardt for a long range effort, Guaita untroubled, before the final few minutes robbed Leeds fans of their fingernails.

At full-time Marsch was, in his fashion, wringing the positives from the game. The point was chief among them, with the clean sheet not far behind. His side are unbeaten in five, which undeniably creates a measure of momentum. He believes being more compact is protecting the team more effectively and while he admits there is still much to work on, he came away from Selhurst Park apparently satisfied with the night’s efforts. In the long term he will surely seek to elicit so much more from his side in terms of composure and fluidity - becoming the Premier League's pinball wizards will not fly with many Whites - but it bears repeating: results right now are king.

That said, three games against the elite are looming large and to emerge from any of those with any positives, or indeed any kind of results, will require much better performances.