In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on the season so far.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
I’ve been writing about Leeds United for a lot of years, and the hardest element of it is in periods from week-to-week when you have to find different ways to say the same thing. This was especially challenging in the Warnock and McDermott eras when Leeds United were generally rubbish and expectations were low. It was a little easier in the first two years of Marcelo Bielsa’s reign, when Leeds were winning every week and at least you had a different player to gush over; one week Pablo, next week Stuart Dallas, then Patrick Bamford, then Luke Ayling etc. Now I’m faced with writing the same thing every week, and yet our fortunes and emotions are so wildly fluctuating.
As we take an unnatural break in the season, for a World Cup which feels ever-more absurd the closer we get to it, it would appear on the face of it to be an opportunity to draw breath and reflect, and to some extent it is. But then the only conclusion we can draw from our first 14 games, is that we can’t draw any conclusions. Are we a better team than last season or not? I’ve no idea.
Certainly there have been many positives over the first section of the season, but equally, there have been several times where it’s felt we have made no progress at all in the last 12 months. Many fans will be satisfied with where we are in the table at the moment and will hold fresh memories of two stunning victories over Liverpool and Bournemouth, and rightly so, and yet, as we sit here now, one game and 30 minutes ago everybody was ready to chuck the whole lot in the bin and find a new hobby when we were 3-1 down at home to Bournemouth after an hour.
Jesse Marsch has summed everything up quite neatly in his recent press conferences, saying we should be much higher up in the table based on our general performances, and while that is true, most clubs will probably have credible grounds to say the same thing. The better teams obviously find a way to turn those critical moments into points, and that’s perhaps where Leeds have fallen short over the course of the season so far, even if the two recent wins showed great signs of an improvement in that regard.
The other pertinent point that Marsch made was that last Saturday’s defeat at Tottenham perfectly summed up our season so far in a succinct 90-minute package; plenty of promise, some well-crafted goals, some inexplicable officiating, some hide-behind-the-sofa vulnerability in wide areas, and ultimately, nowhere near enough to show for it all in the final mashings.
And while we can’t draw any conclusions on where this team is heading, as we hit pause on the season for six weeks, we can maybe find words to summarise how things have gone; promising? Intriguing? Unlucky? Disappointing? I’d probably go with ‘frustrating’ myself, although at times that could be extended to maddening, infuriating and irritating. In truth, Marsch is right; we should have had more points, and even if the Tottenham game was not the most frustrating defeat of the season so far, it made a damn fine case for it.
I’ve seen the 4-3 defeat in North London compared to various previous games since last Saturday, but for me, the feeling on the final whistle was the same as last season’s 3-2 defeat away at Chelsea. A game we went into with low expectations, but played really well in and took the lead, but eventually lost and with a huge slice of ‘big six’ officiating thrown in for good measure. In short, it felt like a grave injustice that we had lost the game and it was hard to compute that we had earned absolutely nothing from the performance. But in a nutshell that is the harsh reality of the Premier League. And while we can point to VAR comprehensively failing us as a football club with Harry Kane’s first equaliser and the unashamed assault on Illan Meslier, we can’t hide from the fact that we also contributed to our own downfall with a generous helping of defensive naivety.
In terms of frustrating games this season, we can also point to Southampton and Crystal Palace away, Arsenal at home, with the missed penalty and the second half onslaught, and the fact that we also led at home to Fulham. It’s not unreasonable to suggest we could and should have dug a couple more wins out of those games, and that suddenly paints a very different picture, but the fact that we haven’t means there is an awful lot for Marsch and his staff to work on in the long stretch before the Manchester City game on December 28th.
When you consider how many points we have lost from winning positions, it suggests the problem is not simply defending, but is down to the structure of the whole team and how we impose ourselves on games. Bar the Chelsea win in August, we have not been comfortable with a lead at any point, even when we’ve eventually won games, so perhaps the issue is a psychological thing, as much as it is about shape, tactics or personnel. But then when we appreciate how very precious Premier League points are, it is no surprise that a win feels like a hot potato or a bar of wet soap, as soon as you have it within your grasp.
In that sense, working on the mental side of game management is something we can focus on during the distraction-free weeks of November and December. But that’s not to say there haven’t been numerous occasions when we’ve looked wide open as a defensive unit, so team shape and individual responsibilities should definitely feature on the ‘to do’ list. It’s tempting to suggest Leeds are not far away from being a good side, but there are undeniably issues that need ironing out. These are, however, fundamentally important issues when it comes down to winning football matches, and hence we maybe need an industrial-sized iron. But the improvement and consistency needed is achievable on the evidence of ‘some’ games this season.
Leeds sit 15th at the break and at just above the one-point-per-game tally that usually sees you safe. With the way the bottom half of the table is shaping up, however, no one can afford to stay on that kind of trajectory and make any assumptions, and there’s no doubt Leeds need to up the points return when the Premier League resumes post-Christmas.
And would it be a conclusion to draw if we said we definitely look ‘capable’ of upping the points return above a point per game? If so, then perhaps that’s the positivity we need as Jesse Marsch and the lads get stuck into a mini/pre/mid season training binge and look to come out the other side in much better shape and with a more convincing argument that they are a good side. No team can survive on hard luck stories, so now is the time to make changes where they are palpably needed, and to make sure I’m writing a different story.