There's no point

Leeds United 3-1 Swansea City: Let them play

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Dan James runs towards the north-west corner, celebrating his goal against Swansea by putting his hand to the Leeds badge on his shirt

While Leeds United are ticking off these home wins – one hundred percent of the last six, preceded by three draws – it’s creating a contrast with some of those three draws, the 0-0 with Sheffield Wednesday in particular, and four of the last five aways: defeats to Southampton and Stoke, draws with Hull City and Rotherham. In the midst of those trips, Leeds went and beat Leicester, but the other results are keeping United far behind the Foxes at the top.

This cold Wednesday night, when Swansea were welcomed to Elland Road by a contingent of former players, didn’t retain the warmth of a bewildering first five minutes, but offered a couple of clues about the conditions that help Leeds with a routine win. First, Crysencio Summerville. Second, opponents who think they have a chance.

For as long as Summerville stays fit and in form, Leeds have some guarantees for the first part. He was vital to United’s phantom lead, stealing the ball from a Swansea throw-in, beating two players while he brought it under control at speed, running down the left and feeding Georginio Rutter, who saw everything he needed at the back post – precisely one Dan James – and cracked a low cross for him to finish, and be called offside. Then Summerville was vital to the counted equaliser, just three minutes later, by sprinting in off the left wing, beating two with help from a one-two with Glen Kamara, and playing a through ball that was so good, so perfectly placed and weighted, that Joel Piroe didn’t have to make any change to his stride as he ran off a defender’s shoulder. Once the ball was in front of him, a quick shake of his hips put his right foot in the right place to stroke it beneath the goalie into the corner of the net.

In between those goals, still in the first minute in fact, Swansea had taken the lead while Dan James was still deciding whether he’d overcelebrated his disallowed goal against his former club. Leeds as a whole weren’t paying attention and when the ball was punted forward, Pascal Struijk did the worst thing he could think of by heading it nowhere near Illan Meslier, and Jamie Patterson beat the goalie with a deft bit of lobbing.

Maybe that’s what prevented this match becoming a Rotherham style stalemate. Last Friday in South Yorkshire, Leeds took an early, easy lead, then reverted to a type that they showed again against Swansea, creating and squandering chances to finish the match early. That time Rotherham didn’t equalise until first half stoppage time, giving them a simple task for the second half of defending a point. After equalising straight away against Swansea, Leeds used first half stoppage time to take the lead – a simple pass over the top by Ethan Ampadu, then a deceptively complicated first touch to bring the ball down by Rutter, who had strength to hold off a challenge and calmness to slot a finish down the goalkeeper’s side. By that time, though, regardless of the score, the Swans were in the game. Or they thought they were, which was good enough for Leeds.

“There’s no point coming here playing 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 and trying to survive for ninety minutes,” said Swansea manager Michael Duff after the game. “We won’t do it. I don’t think we’ve got the personnel to do that. We’ve got some good footballers in the building … We did not come here just to try and survive, we looked to play and were incisive with it.”

If only more teams were as obliging as Swansea. They came with the idea they could win, and the whirling start to the game lingered in them like adrenalin. With Rutter and Ampadu’s opportunist union the only difference at half-time, Swansea had forty-five minutes for those good footballers to assert themselves in this building and get at least more than nothing from their long journey north. It turned out to be the template for United’s best spell of the game – which equates to the most frustrating, as Summerville and James pounced on misplaced Swan balls but couldn’t finish – before James, on the hour, made it 3-1. Big ups Sam Byram, on halfway, for sizing up one of those good footballers and pummelling him with a tackle that snapped the ball to Rutter; his pass was simple once James, scurrying across his path from the right, pointed into the penalty area, and James’ finish was simple, he just smashed the ball at the goalie’s head, knowing the Swan would duck.

It’s not so long ago that every team was coming to Elland Road filled with optimism, but it’s only recently that they’ve been made to pay for it like this. Leeds, still eight points from top, are benefiting from being in the sweetish spot of chaser, rather than chased, meaning more teams will fancy their chances than against the apparently impenetrable Leicester City. The Foxes have faltered a little of late, and the statistical shape of those stumbles – high possession, but fewer expected goals than one – suggests they’re struggling when being shut out. We’ve seen that being United’s problem, too, but Leeds only failed to nudge their xG above 1.0 at Birmingham and Southampton, when they were a very different team, and adding up the real goals that count, they’ve scored just one fewer now than Leicester. On Wednesday, Swansea had nearly half the ball, but after their first minute opener, they didn’t make another good chance. With 25% less possession than against Rotherham, Leeds scored three times as many.

There’s a curious inversion to this, as it was Elland Road where we feared Leeds would have more difficulty breaking teams down, if they come to defend in packs and hope to draw. Instead, Leeds aren’t having many problems at home, usually helped by a first half goal (or four) to spoil any defensive game plans. Playing away from Elland Road has been more difficult, where Leeds have only taken first half leads against Ipswich – another game that feels like another era – Millwall (won 3-0) and Rotherham (drew 1-1).

Maybe – and this is where I do a thing of skewering my own stupid arguments – maybe it’s not about the other teams, and what they do. Leeds have only taken less than ten shots in one game once this season, at Birmingham. They’ve only taken less than fourteen one other time, at Leicester. Fans are arriving at games not wondering if Leeds will score, but when, and how many. That might be adversely affecting the atmosphere, making the crowd more expectant than exuberant, but it isn’t stopping the players backing themselves in what comes down to a 50/50 every time – is this shot going in, or not? Against Swansea, after robbing a defender, Dan James took a shot that was weak, and saved. Two minutes later he was blasting the ball into the net. It’s a good basis for a good season, whatever the other team do, or think they can do. ⬢

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