Some advice, following this game, that Leeds United’s football players could listen to: stop conceding from corners, and start scoring from them instead, and things might go better. By the time they came closest to scoring United were a goal down after letting Wesley Fofana head one in. And when they came closest to scoring, from a corner in stoppage time, it was Illan Meslier, the Leeds goalkeeper, trying to power a diving header past Chelsea’s. None of this was ideal. So, some things to work on there.
There are plenty of other things Leeds can work on improving, and new manager Javi Gracia’s job essentially starts now. He has made Leeds look better, using his one officially permitted afternoon before the win over Southampton last Saturday, then Sunday and Monday before travelling to Fulham for Tuesday night’s FA Cup defeat, then Thursday and maybe Friday depending when Leeds went back down south to lose again. With a clear week now before a game at home to Brighton next Saturday, maybe Gracia can move Leeds on from looking better to being better.
But there will only be so much he can do with those days, which is why the defeat at Chelsea felt like expectations being met, with all due dismality. Leeds have not been good all season, and they weren’t about to suddenly become good now, away to Chelsea. They probably won’t become good before the end of the season, so while sudden excellence would be helpful, it can’t be reasonably expected. There’s a reason so few managers seem willing to take mid-season jobs these days. They know they’re not magic. They know trends are hard to change and easy to continue. Habits, too. Teams at the bottom of the football league divisions are like sixty-a-day smokers. You can’t expect them to just quit. Maybe, with some help, they’ll vape.
It’s a vicious spiral with an agonising howl for a heart, as being out of form makes it harder to get into form, and as bad form drags a team to the bottom, the desperation for form becomes more acute. As players perform worse, the need for them to perform brilliantly increases. Mistakes mean more and cost more in a relegation battle. But if the players weren’t likely to make mistakes, their team wouldn’t be in a relegation battle in the first place. It’s one of football’s fascinating paradoxes. The closer players get to hell, the greater the demands on them for angelic magnificence. Fans want and need Mark Viduka scoring against Arsenal. They’re much more likely to get Mark Viduka being sent off at Bolton.
Viduka did happen at Arsenal in 2003, though, and so did Jackie Harrison at Brentford in 2022, and as gaps close at the bottom of this season’s Premier League Leeds look as well placed as any of the bottom six to stay up. (The opposite also applies.) Their performance at Chelsea was disciplined as they withstood several hundred millions pounds of pressure, which made losing the game at one set-piece more galling. At least Fulham, denied chances in United’s penalty area, needed two worldies to win. As at Everton the other week, this could and should have been a valuable away point. It might make for some grim football, but Leeds look grimly determined to stay in games, less willing to throw them away. And yet, they do.
Whether as a consequence of this new caution, or from a coincidental drop in confidence, Leeds also lack inspiration in attack. Or rather, they have ideas, but not the ability to cohere in common cause and score. Even with Pat Bamford joining Rodrigo on the sick list, Leeds have an array of attacking players they can try, with Crysencio Summerville standing out at Stamford Bridge, plus of course Wilf Gnonto when he came on as a deep forward with a freer role. But getting them all to think of the same things together, then go through the steps to make that thing happen, is a problem for the United team brain. Jackie Harrison and Brenden Aaronson played how they often play, which was frustrating, but also not surprising enough to be upsetting. It’s March 2023. We either take these players with their faults or give up on the whole idea, because they’re with us for the rest of this season whatever happens.
Harrison and Aaronson are familiar now, so like family we know the worst about them. Georginio Rutter and Weston McKennie are newer and not yet fitting in. With Bamford injured, and McKennie’s physicality a theoretical advantage, Gracia could usefully concentrate on getting these two more settled in. Both look a little confused by the situation, as if they never double-checked what Victor Orta was selling them by looking at the league table. Leeds aren’t helped by having a target man nobody in this team has targeted before, who was surrounded at Chelsea by a back three, and a midfielder with erratic aim when intending possession to his attackers. Max Wöber has slotted in well but, with Junior Firpo now fixed at left-back and Luke Ayling back ahead of Rasmus Kristensen on the other side, the spine of the team is very different to the one that beat Chelsea back in August. Only five who started that game started this. From squads of nineteen, only ten were at both matches.
It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better this season, if it gets better, or it might get better before it gets worse again, then better, or not. Everton’s fortunes are instructive: get Dyche, beat Arsenal 1-0, beat Leeds, and lose to Liverpool and Aston Villa and then to Arsenal, 4-0. They were beating Nottingham Forest on Sunday but threw it away to draw. Southampton beat Everton and beat Chelsea, but lost to Grimsby, and Leeds. Then they beat Leicester. One of the crucial events of the weekend for Leeds happened in the 98th minute at the Emirates, when Arsenal scored to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win over Bournemouth.
West Ham’s 4-0 collapse at Brighton also helped Leeds, and the reaction is familiar. The board still have confidence in David Moyes, but the fans do not, singing ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ and ‘sacked in the morning’. One fan told The Athletic, ‘Supporters are fed up with Moyes for loads of reasons … we’re getting relegated based on today’s performance. Anyone who thinks we’re not is deluded.’ But in that premise there is delusion, that fans of every low team share, that one change can change everything as quick as a finger-snap. Usually, teams that have been playing badly for a long time don’t easily start playing well. With difficulty, they might improve, which is what Leeds and Javi Gracia are aiming for now, for the next thirteen games to include enough dawns, even false ones, to save them. This is what relegation scraps are like, and they’re like this for weeks. And then it’s summer, but there’s no football then, so then we’ll be bored and unhappy. ⬢