Habits

Plymouth Argyle 0-2 Leeds United: Over the overload

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Joe Rodon pointing to his head to tell his teammates to switch on, looking more wizened than the oldest tree in the forest

These past few weeks were supposed to be the hard part for Leeds United, or so they looked from the depths of Christmas, after losing at Preston and West Brom. Winning every league game since – eight of them in a row, now – has put a big row of dubs in the ‘says otherwise’ column, but perhaps in Plymouth, winning the eighth, we saw more of how hard it has been to win the last six weeks. “We need to calm the load a bit down in the next couple of days,” Daniel Farke said afterwards. “We need to calm the load a bit, not just physically, but also mentally.”

Farke may also feel that the intensity of the last two months has had an effect on his players that a couple of days of rest ‘n’ relaxation, now, won’t erase. Winning, to Farke, is about habits, and good habits lead to good performances that lead to good wins. His message going into the Christmas fixtures was that if the players wanted to have success, they would have to make sacrifices:

“We are in a period when we have to go three weeks, more or less, without a day off. It’s a bit strange because normally, during this time, everyone wants to spend some time with their family, but I also tell my players, they lead such a privileged life, it’s a price you have to pay sometimes. And I don’t want to hear any moans about this.

“It’s important that the players spend even more time with their coaches, that they have more importance on their nutrition, on their sleep, on good recovery, on good habits. That’s quite crucial and it means lots of work.”

Thanks to the replay required in Plymouth, those three weeks without a day off were followed by three more, but the results, and the progress since losing the two festive matches, suggest they’ve been the best thing that could have happened to Leeds. Swansea didn’t make the penultimate game of the sequence particularly hard, but the difficulties posed by Argyle – yet again – were overcome by the resilience Leeds have been building up by spending more time with their coaches than their families. These weeks prioritising nutrition, sleep, recovery and good habits – the only way to get through a fixture schedule Farke reckoned was the most punishing in Europe – have made Farke’s Leeds better than ever.

As could be seen at Home Park, in a performance that was easily their worst in the league in 2024. Without Pat Bamford, Joel Piroe was bashing himself against Argyle’s back line, unable to make the same space for Georginio Rutter to play. Crysencio Summerville, who has been grinding for his still-high production rather than frolicking through this winter, couldn’t spark his engines. Wilf Gnonto, perhaps frustrated by Rutter’s lack of impact at no.10, kept coming in off his wing as if to move Rutter aside, creating more congestion. Plymouth, as they have in all four meetings this season, stood stubbornly through all United’s attempts at playing them off the park. Leeds had to dig in, said Farke, for “ten to fifteen minutes in the first half, and perhaps also twenty to twenty-five minutes in the second half.” By my maths, forty minutes is nearly half the game. According to the stats people, Argyle had 57 per cent of second half possession.

But Leeds are much better now at being bad. They started strong, not letting Argyle have a touch for the first ten minutes, and – the joy of Farke’s life – made the most of it with a goal. The manager still complains that Leeds lack efficiency, but since New Year’s Day they’ve been waiting until they’ve scored already before they start lacking. Bamford opened 2024 against Birmingham on 34 minutes, then scored against Cardiff on thirteen; letting Preston score after two minutes wasn’t ideal, but at least Dan James levelled quickly. The Norwich game was settled by Bamford after sixteen minutes; at Bristol City Gnonto needed half-time, but then only another 120 seconds. Rotherham: a goal in ten minutes. Swansea: two goals in ten minutes. Plymouth: after ten minutes, with the play bunched over on the left, Rutter turned – as he always seems to have time to, because if anyone tries to get close and stop his rotation, he brushes them aside – and saw Gnonto on his own on the right. “It’s not a pass,” said Argyle manager Ian Foster, who appears to have told the club’s social media team to call him ‘Fozzy’. “It’s a ball that has just gone up in the air,” he said. It came down, as Fozzy may have noticed, on Wilf Gnonto’s toe, and that touch took it around some flailing Argyle centre-back, before another touch gave Gnonto an angle for yet another, which rolled it in off the post. I dunno what else to call it when a player sees his teammate in space and kicks the ball to him so he can score a goal, but hey, I never worked as Steven ‘Stevie’ Gerrard’s assistant, so what would I know.

United’s second goal definitely did involve a pass. Summerville might have preferred it to involve two, but judging by his reaction to being subbed in Swansea, Rutter has got a bit tired of setting them up and not scoring. Tiredness was also Farke’s explanation for Rutter giving the ball away a lot as Argyle built up the pressure after half-time, which led to him swapping back to his old no.9 spot where he could play without possession. This put Piroe more on the ball, and in one of those moments that make you wonder just what the heck Piroe is all about, anyway, he shuffled and pushed a through ball like prime Pablo Hernandez onto Rutter’s toe. He could have played Summerville in, but another of Farke’s polite requests to his lads has been having an effect lately. After Summerville’s deflected shot at Swansea was followed by Piroe aiming for the goalie’s face and scoring off his shoulder, Rutter opted for his manager’s favoured brutal finish and just hit it. That he nutmegged both defender and keeper as he put the ball in the net was a little extra treat.

This was the 72nd minute, a little beyond halfway through the second half but a cliched good time to score nonetheless. United had just been coming out from under Argyle’s resurgence anyway, and this made everything as clear as the skies must be over Plymouth, not that anyone from Leeds has seen them through the rain, the fog, and the rain this year. Farke came about as close as he has all season to a defensive move, bringing Connor Roberts on to play right wing, but Leeds were strong enough collectively in that department to withstand Argyle’s attempts and their own, occasional, unforced errors. Good defences get good results, and this back six – with Illan Meslier behind them simply looking, in Farke’s view, solid, without needing to make many saves – “you literally could feel his appearance on the pitch today” – have been the core cause of conceding just one in eight. Southampton, in their last eight, have conceded nine; Ipswich, eight. Plus two to Maidstone lol etc. Overall Leeds now have the joint best defence in the division, letting in like Leicester only 26.

United’s progress towards the top of the table has felt slow, but everything in the Champo feels slow because the season is so damn long. You know the one about the tortoise and the hare, though. Even after dropping down to 4th place, the gap to 2nd kept reducing. Even as Southampton went unbeaten 22 times, Leeds – with the help of an extra game – overtook them. The gap to Leicester – ridiculous, insurmountable, a freak and a canyon – is now no more than the gap used to be between Leeds and Ipswich, with the Foxes next to come to Elland Road.

It has taken time because, while the Championship is slow, time is the one thing it doesn’t give you, so Farke has never been able to take his hastily assembled and constantly evolving squad away to Thorp Arch for an extended spell of learning to play. His method, instead, has been to get them good at everything else involved in being a good footballer, the habits that create the conditions for success. You don’t have time to make a footballer in the Champo, but you can get one fit enough and dedicated enough to play like the best footballer they can be. This helps explain why, during the most intense set of fixtures in all Europe, Farke has kept rolling out the same team game after game – he wants them locked into a groove, on it at all times, turning weekend-midweek into a rhythm not a curse. Ethan Ampadu, halfway through a season of being willingly flogged, has never played better. For contrast try Kalvin Phillips, who it’s hard to remember being a regular player, who has never played worse.

However much time Farke is thinking of giving the players off this week will have to be curtailed by the next game’s move to Friday night, so they can’t party hearty for too long. Also, thanks to Leicester’s defeat to Middlesbrough this weekend, they shouldn’t worry about it too much. The chance to move nearer to 1st place is a bonus, and if Leeds don’t take it, it shouldn’t affect the main aim of getting promoted by hook, or by crook, or by please not the play-offs but hey that might be fun too. After the rising tension of 2024 so far, the next fortnight is as near to a free hit as any team can hope for at this end of the Champo – a home game against the runaway leaders, then an FA Cup match at a Premier League team. Neither game is our real business – unless we win them. Business is Huddersfield away on the 2nd March, then ten more games in a run of the Champo’s fodderest fodder, until May, the final day, and Southampton.

It’s important, Farke said, “that you find also the moments when you release a bit the pressure and release a bit the mental load.” The players looked, in Plymouth, like they’ve earned this moment. They, and we, should make the most of it. ⬢

(Photograph by Stan Kasala/News Images, via Alamy)

DON'T MISS ANYTHING FROM TSB

Pick your emails:
  • Support The Square Ball

    Get more from TSB+

    ⬢ Ad-free podcast
    ⬢ Extra episodes
    ⬢ The Match Ball Live video
    ⬢ Every digital magazine
    ⬢ Daily email and more
    ⬢ From £4.99 a month
    ⬢ Click here for one month free trial
members_show_2023_web_thumbnail
AV, Leeds United, Video, Video 2023-24
members_show_2023_web_thumbnail
A Decade On
240614_PHIL_HAY_1
Don't Be a Stranger
240613_SUMMER
Who Else?
tsb_podcast_2023_thumbnail
This Friday Night
tsb_podcast_2023_thumbnail
Gap Year
240609_MEMBERS_SHOW
Summer of 96
members_show_2023_web_thumbnail
TSB
Shorts
240607_PHIL_HAY_1
Up Your Sleeve
The Square Ball