Phil Hay's big-match verdict: Leeds United still in hunt for play-off place

Paul Heckingbottom will consider the play-offs gone on the day that people stop asking him about them.

Monday, 26th February 2018, 8:10 am
Updated Monday, 26th February 2018, 8:15 am
Samuel Saiz got Leeds buzzing against Brentford. PIC: Simon Hulme

The questions keep coming and one win over Brentford was all it took for Leeds United to sense that the door was creaking open again.

Leeds have waited for that win far longer than Heckingbottom, whose first as head coach came at the fourth time of asking on Saturday, and there was a danger of one swallow representing the summer in bloom but Heckingbottom seemed happy to go with the flow.

“It’s out of our hands,” he said, and the Championship table did not contradict him. “Our view’s a long-term one and we can’t be making short-term decisions which damage us in the long term. What will be will be but the longer people are asking me that question and there’s interest in this season the better. I want us to stay in the hunt.”

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Gaetano Berardi tangles with Oliver Watkins. PIC: Simon Hulme

Heckingbottom has a Yorkshireman’s pragmatism about him. Heads have been lost at Elland Road since Christmas and the strain as two months and 10 games passed without a victory showed itself in the heads of Leeds’ players, but their head coach has cut a relaxed figure since replacing a down-and-out Thomas Christiansen, almost indifferent to the crisis of confidence going on around him. The play-offs are no albatross, even though Leeds still have a chance of getting there.

In contrast was Dean Smith, the Brentford manager who saw his gifted team suffer one of the off-days they are prone to. Brentford are a point ahead of Leeds despite a 1-0 defeat but Smith’s acceptance that his players had banged a collective heads against a brick wall at Elland Road was watered down by a trail of excuses: that Liam Cooper’s first-half winner was offside, that the grass was longer than it should have been, that Oliver Langford was the equivalent to “letting the Elland Road crowd referee the game”. The crowd would not have hesitated in evicting Langford themselves, annoyed by his off-the-cuff use of his yellow card and one failure to play advantage in the second half.

Heckingbottom chuckled at the complaint about the pitch, saying it had recovered from Leeds Rhinos using it earlier this month. “I thought it played a lot better than our last home game,” he said.

Cooper’s 31st-minute header from a Gjanni Alioski, guided perfectly into the far corner of Brentford’s net, drew no complaints at the time but upset Brentford when replays of it were shown. “It looked fine to me,” Heckingbottom insisted. “I’ve not seen it again but I’m not bothered.”

Brentford's Neal Maupay is muscled out by Stuart Dallas and Pontus Jansson. PIC: Simon Hulme

Cooper has missed far easier chances this season and the centre-back is one of Leeds’ players who takes criticism in spades. Felix Wiedwald, United’s goalkeeper, is another but the German upped his stock with a fingertip save from John Egan which was flying into his top corner in the 13th minute. A concession then would have winded Leeds’ badly and Heckingbottom was pleased for both players but not opposed to the idea of his squad being held to high standards.

“One thing about this place, and what I enjoy about it, is that you’ve got be big players to play here,” he said.

“You’ve got to enjoy the challenge and if you’ve got that mindset, people take to you.” Leeds have few bigger players than Samuel Saiz, or few as able to peak in fair weather and foul, and the impact of his return from suspension was keenly felt last week.

Heckingbottom had more selection concerns than he anticipated on Saturday – Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe were injured and Adam Forshaw sat in a maternity ward after his wife went into labour – but Saiz has a knack of breathing life into any permutation of team and Leeds could forget the play-offs without him. Brentford left him wandering around ineffectively for half an hour but soon tired of tracking him and reading his mind once Cooper’s goal changed the game.

Gaetano Berardi tangles with Oliver Watkins. PIC: Simon Hulme

“Brentford I admire, they’re a really good side,” Heckingbottom said. “They’re a team who are hard to stop having the ball and where you let them have the ball is key. We were a bit loose at times and let them have possession. We were a bit less composed than we’d have liked and we gave the ball back too cheaply but Felix had one save to make, which was a good save.”

Hecking-bottom’s first port of call when he took the job was to address Leeds’ shape and their organisation off the ball. In that respect he saw specific room for improvement, even in Saiz, and on Saturday he found it.

“I don’t think I can make Samu any better on the ball because he’s a terrific talent and really instinctive,” Heckingbottom said. “But I can make him a better player for the team. All the feedback we give him is work without the ball.”

United’s discipline and defensive composure, both guilty of riddling their recent form, held throughout the second half as Brentford played in front of them before straying down dead ends. Ollie Watkins, the EFL’s young player of the year last season, was withdrawn on the hour with a litany of poor touches and aimless set-pieces behind him. His replacement, Sergi Canos, proved anonymous. Leeds waded forward and almost scored a second when Pierre-Michel Lasogga beat goalkeeper Daniel Bentley but found Ryan Woods waiting to clear off the line.

Brentford's Neal Maupay is muscled out by Stuart Dallas and Pontus Jansson. PIC: Simon Hulme

Brentford got as much as they were worth from a Neal Maupay volley which sailed over the crossbar and an 89th-minute free-kick from Alan Judge which Wiedwald flapped away.

“It didn’t help that they left the grass a little bit long,” Smith said. “The pitch played poor but we weren’t good enough second half to get something out of the game.”

With hindsight, the tension of the latter stages pleased Heckingbottom.

“I’d have loved to have got another goal at the start of the second half which would have made it easier but we didn’t and now we’ve got the win, in a way I’m quite pleased,” he said. “It put us under pressure and we’ve stood up to it. If you’re limiting a team like Brentford to a few shots on target then you’re doing a good job.”

The most fundamental basics were right on Saturday and in the dying days of Christiansen’s tenure, a return to that level was called for.

The past week showed signs of life and Leeds move on to a game at Middlesbrough on Friday which joins the category of must-win.

They all are now.