Daniel Farke is quite a hard person to read but I think I’m beginning to either work it out, or get lulled into his world where I end up doing bad raps about him (Norwich) or parading him atop a horse (Lippstadt). When he said, after his Leeds side beat Plymouth, that “If we stay on 31 points we’ll probably be relegated” and that before the match he’d thought, “the training week was very good and my gut feeling was it’s all too easy” and so Leeds were at high risk of losing, I felt a shudder of recognition and had a moment of realisation: he’s a Leeds United fan.
He can talk like one to the press, anyway, but I wonder if it goes a little deeper than that. During a first half that Leeds dominated, he became visibly agitated when the result of that was two goals and some showboating. As if the technical area had been taken over by a member of one of the historically hardest to please home supports in the country – where Don Revie’s team were moaned at for not winning in more exciting ways and John Charles, the world’s best player, was criticised for making his teammates look ordinary – Farke complained when failed backheels led to Plymouth chances, appealed for calm and sense as half-time approached, then set off down the tunnel as if ready to shout at his team for putting themselves into a position where they could play the game too easily. Every Leeds fan knows those feelings, especially the ones who watched Simon Grayson’s Leeds go 4-1 up against Preston and knew, in their bones, that a 4-6 defeat was coming.
It’s impossible to know how much of Farke’s fit with Leeds is down to the way he just is as a person, and how much is about how he’s able to adapt to where he’s coaching, without putting oneself into the roomy-round-the-toes shoes of a Norwich fan and finding out how he seemed to them. Whatever way it’s happening, though, it is good to have a manager who seems to be in sync and sympathy with our club’s supporters. Last season began with Jesse Marsch, who told the fans we would have to learn about his tactics to understand the right times for us to cheer, and ended with Sam Allardyce, who seemed to sort of low-key hate us but had no problems loving the half-a-million pounds of our ticket money he walked away with. So far this season, when we’re nervous about following a big win at Leicester against a so-called ‘easy’ club, so is Farke; and while he might have been joking about still getting relegated from this position, we always say we’re joking about stuff like that too, while avoiding eye contact and gripping a rabbit’s foot.
This match nearly was very easy. Perhaps Farke will be happy that it wasn’t. Plymouth stormed out of League One last season, not with the ridiculous +66 goal difference of 2nd place (then, and in the Championship now) Ipswich Town, but with 101 points and 82 goals scored. Adapting to the Championship isn’t going so well for them – they’ve scored 27, the same as Leeds have, but have let 27 in too – and based on this performance, making a mess of things at the back is now their specialty. I couldn’t work out if their defenders were bad players, stupid, or just having a bad day, but the number of inexplicable punts towards their own penalty area was a remarkable thing. After a torrid start up against Dan James, Kaine Kesler-Hayden was switched to left-back – Bali Mumba almost getting booked for taking too long to swap with him and take a throw-in – and from there he was spun by Georginio Rutter, then brought him down in the penalty area as if asking the ref to penalise him, lost his nerve in a challenge with Glen Kamara and gave the ball to Dan James, who from the edge of the box picked a spot in the top corner to make it 1-0 with a lovely shot. For 2-0 Crysencio Summerville tackled Julio Pleguezuelo as he tried to dribble out of defence, then took the ball back from Joel Piroe who zoomed around the outside and took Summerville’s pass towards the six yard box, slipping it under the goalie like the finisher he hasn’t been in recent weeks while all the tricky kids were doing the scoring.
We hadn’t done half an hour yet and that became a problem. Leeds were going Huddersfield mode, but to be fair to Plymouth and despite their early appearances, this time the visitors turned out to actually have a clue. United’s front four started teeing up chances to each other as if chances were going to come all day, and for a while it did feel like that, until inevitably it didn’t. Perhaps this is a contradiction from Farke that the players need to hear resolved: he has told them to be careful how they use their talents and not to embarrass their opponents, but he has also gone with a 3-1-6 Ajax-from-hell formation to win a game at Norwich. He strives for discipline, then fist pumps all four stands and some of the corners after a win. He has created a team that thrives when it frolics, but as if he has made a monster, he despairs when it lacks a ruthless edge. He does want his players to be good lads, polite and generous. He doesn’t want them tapping the ball to each other in the attacking penalty area as if they’re trying to share the goals around. Not at 2-0, anyway, and the margin between ease and unease on Saturday afternoon was one more. One more goal before half-time and I wonder how much Leeds would have gone to party, and how much Farke would have loved it.
Instead Leeds fell into the truism about 2-0 being a dangerous lead and couldn’t properly work out how to play the second half. Chance still followed chance and goals should have come, but without the joie de vivre of the first half. Sam Byram took his delicate hamstrings away and was replaced by Junior Firpo, and then wingers were swapped for their substitute versions, and anxiety, which creeps, crept. Plymouth brought on a Scum fan, Joe Edwards, to kick anybody he could and get a yellow card for rugby tackling Dan James, and what should have been a relaxed, injury avoiding procession towards the international break ground to a halt when Argyle scored a well worked goal by passing behind Ethan Ampadu in a channel between Firpo for Byram and Liam Cooper, in for Pascal Struijk, then crossed, and Ben Waine finished. There were six minutes left. Now this was something to rouse the away fans and worry the home crowd.
Perhaps it was better this way. Football can be boring without jeopardy, and Farke can use games like this as practical examples of his warnings against complacence. Happily, Plymouth were a low risk opponent. There was one decent chance from a corner and a few counter attacks, but Leeds were still creating chances while Plymouth were still sabotaging their own best hopes. Deep into six minutes of stoppage time, instead of collecting a pass and launching the ball into the mixer, Morgan Whittaker let it bounce off his leg out for a throw-in. And he’s one of their best players. Leeds were fine.
And so they should be. Plymouth are aspirants to this level; Leeds have a team that should be getting up and out of it. At opposite ends of the table, self-sabotage looks among each club’s biggest risks. Argyle could be decent if they, I dunno, think more? They’re better than Huddersfield, by Christ. At the top, United trail Leicester and Ipswich because the board’s mistakes since 2021 had repercussions beyond relegation and set back our promotion bid before it could get started. Summer is long behind us now, though, so words like ‘loan clauses’ and ‘P&S impact’ and ‘refusing to play’ are not a factor until at least next summer. The work now is about overcoming the damage those things did, and not throwing any new darts at our own feet in the meantime. Farke is right that we could lose games like this if the players don’t concentrate. He’s also right that we could still get relegated to League One. It’s unlikely, but by allowing the possibility, he’s thinking like a Leeds fan. And that’s very welcome. ⬢