Watch the reaction of Leeds United’s players at full-time of their Griffin Park defeat to see behind the curtain. The social media team did some sterling work on Tuesday with a few well-placed motivational messages and call-to-arms, but you can’t cover that level of disappointment with blind optimism. Marcelo Bielsa’s players fell to the turf, crippled by their own failure. There was anger. There were tears.
There are two ways to finish third in the Championship. The first is to surge and almost break into the automatic promotion places, and the second is to fall away and have to make do with your lot. Depending on your route, the play-offs therefore appear a very different prospect. In terms of momentum, Leeds are sat at the bottom of a cliff looking up.
This is the argument against the equity of the play-offs. If, as is usual, there are at least three clubs in the race for automatic promotion, they have no choice but to push themselves to the limit in pursuit of that goal. Having expended so much energy and fallen just short, the team in third is then put at a significant disadvantage against those who may have coasted into the play-offs (West Brom being this season’s obvious example). Leeds are currently 15 points ahead of Derby County, but lie on the canvas like their players lay on the Griffin Park grass.
Still, Leeds knew the deal and they had a place in the top two in their hands. Had they taken even 10 points from their last four league games against Wigan (strugglers), Brentford (bottom half), Aston Villa and Ipswich (doomed), Sheffield United could not have passed them. Chris Wilder’s team have hit their straps with perfect timing, but Leeds left the door unlocked and the best silver out on the coffee table.
But if Easter weekend was the stage for Leeds’s collapse, supporters have feared this slump for some time. Bielsa’s team have lost eight league games in 2019, as many as Birmingham City and Millwall. Since the turn of the year, they rank seventh in the Championship.
But then Leeds shouldn’t be here at all. This squad – and this manager – has performed way above reasonable pre-season expectations. If there is any weight in the argument that Bielsa’s high-energy football and demand for pressing off the ball has sapped the players of energy and left them empty in April and May, they would not be in the top six without it. You cannot admire the manner in which a young, small squad has attacked this division and then lambast them for the same principles now.
Instead, Bielsa has been let down by those around him. It isn’t a perfect measure, but Leeds registered 54 shots against Wigan and Brentford, and scored once. That’s not good enough. They have created an average of 13.1 chances per game this season, comfortably the highest in the Championship. They have attempted 75 more shots than any other side, but rank fifth for goals. The finishing has been badly lacking.
But that leads to Bielsa’s second problem: a lack of investment from above. With Izzy Brown and Patrick Bamford missing the first half of the season through injury, it was always likely that Leeds would need more firepower. The injury to Kemar Roofe was unfortunate, but it only punished Leeds severely for the mistake they had already made. They failed to get a deal for Swansea’s Daniel James over the line having allowed it to go down to the wire, and ended the January transfer window without signing a single outfield player. Samu Saiz was allowed to join Getafe, leaving them in arrears.
In any normal circumstances, that would have been a backwards step. But with Bielsa demanding more physically from his players than they had ever given before, and with Leeds possessing a squad thin on numbers, any drop in intensity comes as no surprise to supporters. With Leeds in their best position for years to secure a return to the Premier League, did the club’s hierarchy get hoodwinked by Bielsa’s football or miserly at the worst possible time?
Bamford has been guilty of missing chances, but Leeds are lucky that he’s been available at all. Muscle injuries are commonplace after returning from serious injury. They now face the prospect of a three-game season without key personnel. Ezgjan Alioski is the latest player to be ruled out for the play-offs, joining left-back Barry Douglas and Brown.
Bielsa will do all he can to gear his players up for the play-offs, and ensure that the psychological damage of the last week causes no lasting impact. A potential tie against Derby County and Frank Lampard adds a layer of narrative that neutrals will find particularly delicious, but it should also motivate Bielsa. In truth, no added incentive is needed.
But it’s impossible to shake the feeling that Leeds have missed their biggest shot at the Promised Land. They may be marching and pressing on together, but that only works if everyone is pulling in the right direction and fully committed to giving their best manager in years the best possible chance of succeeding. This does not look like a team that is ready to go again – not yet. Getting Leeds promoted now represents a task almost as tough as it was in August.
FEATURE How WhatsApp changed football
While you’re here, why not take advantage of our brilliant new subscribers’ offer? Get 5 copies of the world’s greatest football magazine for just £5 – the game’s greatest stories and finest journalism direct to your door for less than the cost of a London pint. Cheers!