Leeds United’s players had to concentrate for this league point and should be pleased about it. They won’t have many more difficult days at Elland Road this season. Saturday teetered always on the edge of storm as a team coming back from London with two defeats, trying to find balance and safety with a new manager, didn’t only need a result for the league table but to justify the club’s 10 per cent increase on the cost of season tickets. There was nothing about that in the programme from Angus Kinnear, who skipped his column. It was up to Javi Gracia and the players to make it seem a price worth paying.
It was hard for the players to impress in front of a crowd so close to snapping. Jackie Harrison, the villain of Stamford Bridge, was the game’s best example of the nervous energy. He started as if he was still in West London, dawdling over a pass that would have sent Pat Bamford through, running into defenders and getting tackled. Defending on his own goal line in the second half, he got his legs mixed up and either one of those or one of Solly March’s put the ball into the net and put Brighton back in front. But before that, he’d set up a late first half equaliser by blocking Brighton’s pass out, chasing the ball along the camber of the touchline before it could topple out of play, and popping it to Bamford, who went for goal with his right foot and, thanks to a deflection, scored off the bar. It was classic Harrison, never thinking a cause can be lost. Throughout the game, Harrison was fizzing crosses with quality but without a finisher, two reaching Luke Ayling at the back post but not becoming the goals they could have. He did it himself, then: receiving a short corner from Wilf Gnonto, he curled the ball into the far top corner, a beauty to make the score 2-2. Afterwards, crowd consensus had it that Harrison had played badly. I think he played well, but it’s the mistakes speaking louder at Leeds.
Brighton were a bigger factor in the game than Harrison, and the worst possible visitors to Elland Road at this time. Leeds fans were absolutely not in the mood for a good Brighton team, but they got one. Were Manchester City or Liverpool wearing the dayglo kits, there might have been some understanding about the way Leeds stood off, letting the away team play, relinquishing initiative in their own yard. But this was Brighton. Fabian Delph used to score pisstake goals against them in an athletics stadium in League One. It was hard for Leeds fans to take so much submission to what felt like an unnatural order, and they let their players know it, shouting and urging and booing, demanding to know what was going on.
What was happening was that Javi Gracia was trying to make sure Leeds didn’t get demolished by their antithesis. Brighton’s recently installed manager, Roberto De Zerbi, has progressed Graham Potter’s team into a way of playing that, first, looks unusual. From kick-off they passed the ball back to goalkeeper Luke Steele and he stood on it, waiting and waiting, and you could immediately feel the confusion. Secondly, it’s designed as a repudiation of all the high press franticism of everything Jesse Marsch trained Leeds players to do for the last year. It’s been normal for a while to try beating high pressing teams by tempting them into traps and playing around them. De Zerbi’s Brighton set traps on extreme mode, happy to keep the ball around their six yard box as consecutive passes between centre-backs and goalie count up into double figures and minutes tick by. Like the last temptation of Marsch they will draw RB-trained forwards higher and higher, making the space beyond them bigger and bigger. Playing this way against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool forgemasters, De Zerbi’s Brighton won 3-0 in the league, 2-1 in the cup.
Gracia had to make sure Leeds didn’t meet the same fate, using a squad of players who couldn’t have been more gullible if De Zerbi had chosen them himself. Marcelo Bielsa’s mission for Pat Bamford of chasing two defenders at once, and Brenden Aaronson’s training in Salzburg and Leeds, made Leeds’ two most forward players the two most likely to be sucked into Brighton’s traps. They weren’t. If Aaronson was frustrating when breaking in possession, he was superb at managing his instincts when pressing, a restrained mouse against Adam Webster, Lewis Dunk and Steele, the three cats. Close behind him and Bamford, United’s midfield four blocked passes to Albion’s playmakers, and Robin Koch was back in Bielsa mode, following teenage striker Evan Ferguson deep into Brighton’s half to make sure he wasn’t an option for playing out. Gracia successfully arranged Leeds so Brighton had two options: stay in their own penalty area for ninety minutes and take the 0-0, or ping long to their left wing. The problem with the latter was that it put their best player, Kaoru Mitoma, up against Luke Ayling, or more usually miles behind him with the ball at his feet. Ayling had a horrible day against a winger who is like wind with tricks, but by not giving up, and with support from teammates who knew he needed it, the effect of Mitoma’s free blowing was minimised — just the two assists, even then. Brighton, as a whole, were minimised compared to their capability. After blanks in three of De Zerbi’s first four games in charge, Brighton scored in eleven Premier League games in a row. They’ve scored three goals or more six times. If that’s not enough to make a Leeds fan weep over the comparison, their individual stats include five players with five goals or more. Only Rodrigo, with ten, has that many for us. Only three of our players passed five goals in all of last season.
None of which makes watching Brighton keeping the ball for three solid minutes as they tempted Leeds in, played around them, drove across the middle of the pitch and up to our goal any easier. The Brighton fans had started oléing that move while the ball was in their six yard box. The score was 0-0, but the away crowd were seeing the football from De Zerbi’s team they believe will take them into Europe. The home fans hated it. This move ended, though, with Max Wöber and Tyler Adams winning the ball from a loose pass, Aaronson’s quick ball to Ayling, who nutmegged Mitoma on his way into the penalty area, and a shot by Adams that deflected wide. The players were doing what they could, what Gracia had asked them to. And while Brighton’s goals were great successes for the away team’s aims, United’s resilience got them back in it twice, and Harrison’s equaliser put the last fifteen minutes on Leeds’ terms. If Brighton wanted to score a third — and, judging by De Zerbi’s post-match frustration, they certainly did — they had to leave their own penalty area and play. The game became more normal, both teams having chances in the final stages.
It was a draw, but it was annoying. Bournemouth and Everton’s wins didn’t help, as Leeds dropped to 19th in the league. The anger of Elland Road was aimed at the players, but then, they were there, weren’t they? All of them turned up, even Jackie Harrison beneath the weight of his recent bad form putting the ball in his own net, even Luke Ayling being dragged around by Mitoma. It’s hard to hide on a big pitch with 36,000 people looking at you, and they didn’t — they worked hard and got a draw. The source of the anger, though, was not in how this game was played, but in how this game came to be played this way. A year since they sacked Bielsa to ‘accelerate the coaching transition’, Leeds can no longer be protagonists in their own stadium against Brighton, who used their head coach’s walkout in September to make their team even better. Their season tickets, by the way, are about £60-100 more than Leeds United’s, but after a price freeze last summer are only going up by 4 per cent for next season. I suppose that’s one gap Leeds are narrowing on Brighton. ⬢