Why alien attitude could do the job for Jesse Marsch and Leeds United at Wolves

As Leeds United come down from the intoxicating high of a last-gasp winner to prepare for Wolves, chief football writer Graham Smyth makes the argument for a boring goalless stalemate.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 17th March 2022, 4:40 am

Anyone for a 0-0 draw? Just this once?

Leeds United, for weeks, have been teetering on an emotional tightrope, leaning predominantly towards despair before Sunday’s violent lurch back in the direction of joy, which still came after a wobble.

The club’s precarious position in the Premier League table is chief among the reasons for the collective inner turmoil, although being parted from Marcelo Bielsa was always going to grieve the very souls of so many. Even Jesse Marsch, here for a little more than two weeks, has already experienced the devastating low of that Aston Villa beating and the exhilarating high of a stoppage-time win over Norwich City. He is quickly discovering, as anyone linked to the club to any degree does, that Leeds don’t really do boring.

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They haven’t tended to settle for draws, either, having gone for it in every game under his predecessor with rarely ever a nod towards shoring up a defence or playing for a draw, and new man Marsch was in no mood to settle for one when the Canaries made it 1-1 at Elland Road on Sunday.

He threw on Joe Gelhardt, a centre-forward, for Mateusz Klich, a midfielder, and went for it. One long ball, a flick on, a dribble, a pass and a two-yard strike later, Marsch was rewarded and Leeds were veering wildly towards happiness.

Leeds had to win that one; a draw against the division’s worst side just wasn’t good enough, not after what transpired when Villa visited three days earlier and, by doing so, they’ve made a draw so much more acceptable on Friday night at Wolves.

And it might not feel very exciting, or indeed very Leeds, but a second 0-0 draw of the season would be just fine.

ALIEN ATTITUDE - Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch opted for pragmatism when a goal up against Norwich City so a similar outlook can be expected away at Wolves. Pic: Getty

If it’s going to come against any of the nine teams the Whites still have to face, it would be Wolves. Bruno Lage’s men may be seventh but they’ve scored fewer goals than Leeds and their tally of 29 is bettered, or worsened rather, by only four outfits - three of whom are in the bottom four.

In 11 of their 12 defeats this season in all competitions, Wolves have been shut out by the opposition and, on eight occasions, a single goal has been enough to condemn them to a loss.

Their paucity of goals has been more than made up for by the meanness of their defence, however. Only three teams - the top three teams in fact - boast a better goals against column. In all competitions, they have 13 clean sheets, to Leeds’ five. Lage’s men can defend.

So, while Marsch will have been telling his players all week that they will get chances because, more often than not they do create and, with Patrick Bamford back, life in the final third is made easier, he will also be stressing how difficult it will be to put the ball in the Wolves net.

There’s no doubt he will want a positive, aggressive performance and three points that would let the club sign off for the international break with an impressive flourish but deep down, in secret, he might just snap your hand off now if it pushed a clean sheet and a draw in his direction.

Leeds haven’t had a clean sheet since November and what they do, besides guaranteeing at least a point, is breed confidence in an area where Marsch’s side are far from assured.

For almost four years under Bielsa, they heard and read all about how good they were at attacking and entertaining but, for the guts of the last two, they’ve heard just as much about how they 'cannot defend.'

Under Bielsa it was the ‘schoolboy’ tag from pundits and that became difficult to argue in the latter stages of his tenure, as a combination of individual errors and the man-to-man marking system made them so porous. Individualism and the remnants of Bielsa's defensive style were what Marsch pointed to after capitulating to Aston Villa, but regardless of who or what was to blame, Leeds were once again accused of incompetence in their own third of the pitch.

No-one would favour a defence-first philosophy at Elland Road and CEO Angus Kinnear insists Marsch ‘placing a premium on scoring goals over simply preventing them’ helped earn him the job. Right now, however, a solid defensive performance and a clean sheet would be just the job. A point, at the home of the team in seventh, would be a job well done. Going into a two-week break on the back of two positive results and, at long last, a clean sheet would do a team so punchdrunk from that only-just-snapped losing streak the world of good.

Marsch's priority at present is not to make supporters fall in love with his football, it's to keep Leeds in the Premier League. A thrilling relegation would not only make Bielsa's sacking a pointless cruelty but render Marsch's time and effort utterly futile. Better to not go down at all than go down swinging, and if survival is achieved then he can set about delivering the desired dopamine dosage after a likely, if not necessary summer rebuild.

A clean sheet, whether in a win or a draw, would help the already-lofty Illan Meslier draw himself back up to his full height and stand a little taller, having spent too much time stooping down to pick the ball out of his net. It would allow a defence that has creaked and cracked to crow again and midfielders like Adam Forshaw and Mateusz Klich to feel their kilometres and kilometres of defensive running were not completed in vain. And, with Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper to return after the international break, it would reassure everyone currently on the tightrope that balance, proper balance, could soon be restored.

Leeds won’t play for a draw from the start but, if it’s heading that way with the full-time whistle approaching, Marsch will surely be tempted to stick and not twist with an attacking substitution.

“Every point is valuable for us,” said Marsch before Norwich, perhaps trying to take a little of the pressure off his players before that must-win game. Wolves, away, is not must-win and, even if it doesn’t yield joy, plain old satisfaction shouldn’t be underestimated.

With a midfield two in front of the back line, Leeds no longer look so certain of conceding a shooting chance when they lose the ball in transition and there are bodies in spaces, where before only space existed.

But to earn a clean sheet it's going to take a defensive performance stripped of the errors that appeared even against Norwich, when a ball over the top was allowed to reach Teemu Pukki and a cross was not only permitted into the area but to the feet of Kenny McClean. Ball watching against a much better team like Wolves will be costly. So too will frailty down either flank. Leicester and Villa both found joy in wide areas due to the narrow nature of Marsch's system and the ease with which Stuart Dallas in particular was isolated. Adama Traore is, mercifully, no longer among Leeds' potential headaches at Molineux but Lage will task his wing-backs with exploiting any space or weakness on the flanks, so Raphinha and whoever gets the nod out of Daniel James and Jack Harrison will have to do their bit defensively.

Patrick Bamford, if he's ready to eke out another hour from his body as it returns to competition state, doesn't only make the Leeds attack better, he presses so well that the side's defence begins much further up the pitch. Rodrigo was so much better on Sunday, he showed fight as well as quality but has yet to fully convince anyone of his pressing ability. If he's fit for this one, he has to be where Marsch wants him, out of possession, or has to get himself there. Maybe James' with his rampant work-rate and energy would be preferential as the other man in the front two, if solidity is the aim. It certainly was when Marsch opted to put Robin Koch on the pitch to protect a 1-0 lead on Sunday. That particular swap didn't work out as he had hoped, but it isn't likely to deter him from setting Leeds up to be hard to beat on Friday.

And by taking fewer chances in possession, seeking to go direct as they did at times against Norwich, as they did for both goals in fact, Leeds can protect themselves from the pain of turnovers in dangerous areas.

When all you’ve known for months and years is a gung-ho thrill ride, even when the risks were great, a bit of pragmatism might be nice, for a change. Not always, of course, for Leeds need more than that, they need hope and excitement and football to be proud of. Supporters have grown too fond of excitement and the potency of attacking desire, to swap it for total footballing sobriety. But right now, for this game, needs must.