A half-time 3-0 deficit away from home will tend to harsh the buzz. In one direction, anyway. While Leeds United’s vibe was being well and truly checked at St Mary’s, the Saints were revelling thanks to some classic Peacock generosity. They’d lost four in a row, and were already losing their grip on any post-relegation bounce-back hopes. Leeds were coming to town after just one defeat in eight matches, mentally riding that open top bus. If you’re at all familiar with Leeds United Football Club, what happened next will not have surprised you.
Familiarity with Leeds meant half-time brought a few scraps of hope, like perhaps Daniel Farke could inspire a Liam Miller-esque second half fightback and we’d get a result to remember for as long as that one. After all, nothing Kevin Blackwell could do should be beyond Farke, even if Liam Cooper and Pascal Struijk were playing like haunted memories of Paul Butler and Matt Kilgallon. Struijk did pull a goal back with half-an-hour to go, controlling a hectic corner and spinning and finishing with more effect that Joel Piroe managed all day. But other than that, Leeds gave as much to the idea of a second half fightback as they did to the idea of turning up in the first half. Go guys, give us nothing.
I suppose they gave us ninety seconds of possession before conceding, during which Leeds looked ready enough to move seamlessly from trouncing Watford to trampling the Saints. But everything that followed was a reminder that while the transfer window may be closed and the squad may be built and the lines between players with us or against us have been drawn, Farke’s new Leeds is still quite a fragile thing. The 3-0 wins over Millwall and Watford might have hinted at a future when Leeds could break down defences at will. Southampton, forming a tidy ten behind the ball after taking their second minute lead, did enough to get us all worrying again about how hard it is to score.
Farke spoke in defence of the defenders but, yeah, we can worry about them too. All three Southampton goals had echoes of Leeds’ fragile recent past. The opener was a simple through ball behind Cooper, who had drifted away from Adam Armstrong, trusting him to an offside trap that, when he eventually turned to look, had failed to stop the striker. Whether the next move was a failure or a miracle depends on how you rate Armstrong’s skills: he chipped a curving shot away from Illan Meslier that arced over the goal line anyway, while the goalie waved his arms like someone who just doesn’t care at a PJ & Duncan show circa 1994. For the second, Kamaldeen Sulemana made a big contribution in his first start of the season, getting behind right-back (we have to specify) Jamie Shackleton and pulling the ball back to William Smallbone, who was wandering into the penalty area unmarked all the way from being someone’s sidekick in a medieval folk tale. He gave the ball a gentle prod and it went in off the post. The third was down to Sulemana again, and maybe he’s the reason Southampton suddenly looked like a capable team. He zipped a diagonal pass across the pitch to Armstrong, who bewitched left-back (we have to specify) Sam Byram down to the ground and went in on Meslier in the same place again. Although this time a goalie-toe was close to saving the day from Armstrong’s shot, Struijk bundled the ball over the line anyway.
Is there an upside to any of that? Let’s clutch at a few straws together. After conceding three while winning 4-3 at Ipswich, Leeds kept three consecutive clean sheets, so maybe that will be the season’s pattern — a few big splurges between stout bouts. Also, it’s not like Southampton were running over Leeds: of six first half shots, four were on target, three were in the net. Their first half expected goals — yes, I’m going there — was merely 0.76, which is a lot less than the three actual goals they scored. They didn’t score in the second half — “Back to our perfect defence,” said Farke. Lastly, while Farke might claim otherwise, and the clean sheet against Watford is evidence in the captain’s favour, putting Joe Rodon back in place of Cooper seems like a simple change that Leeds can at least try.
Diagnosing this performance isn’t as easy as pointing at Cooper and sighing, though. This is what I meant about Leeds still being fragile. Will Cooper be good this season? It’s early to say, and the same applies to Glen Kamara. After a tidy show against Watford, he couldn’t help Leeds control midfield here, but: this was only his second start, after wasting his pre-season waiting to move from Rangers. Joel Piroe reverted to passenger, as he did against Sheffield Wednesday and Hull City in between his goal-happy games against Ipswich, Millwall and Watford. Maybe he’s just an every other game kinda guy, and we’ll just have to get used to that. Maybe Pat Bamford, who came on as a late sub at Southampton, still has a big role this season. Perhaps Jaidon Anthony, being eased in from the bench, will contribute more if or when he starts. Wilf Gnonto will come back from injury sometime. Djed Spence, too, who for ten minutes after signing looked ready to elevate the entire back four. Georginio Rutter, last week’s celebrated showpony, ended this game out wide where Farke has said he thinks he’s best. Who knows where he’ll play next?
In short, this team is still a long way from picking itself, if such a thing is ever possible in the Champo. We can still say that, despite this result, our team has adapted to the division better so far than Southampton’s. But we can’t ignore that all it took was Southampton playing the fleet winger they bought from Rennes on the same pitch where a few of our lads were having off days to produce a tilted, unnecessary and downright rude result. The Champo’s grand truism is that consistency is the biggest achievement, and we’ll be able to make more informed comparisons of Southampton and Leeds next week after they’ve played Stoke and Rotherham and we’ve played QPR and Bristol City. More informed, but not more meaningful, because you can’t get much more meaningful than three goals in one net against one in the other.
The good news about our QPR game is that it can hopefully cut short too much theorising and catastrophising about this match. One of the insights that has stayed with me from Marcelo Bielsa’s time was his description of one of the main tasks of a coach: “You have to undo what works before it stops working.” Daniel Farke took the same team that made every Leeds fan happy by battering Watford to Southampton, and told them to do the same things in the same ways, and they made every Leeds fan unhappy by getting battered. Every Leeds fan then turned their bitter eyes towards Farke, demanding to know why he didn’t know this would happen and make changes before it did, before I can even be sure Farke knows what works yet. I mean, Ilia Gruev hasn’t even started a game. There is still much to learn, against a calendar fluttering through autumn as leaves drop and the gap to promotion grows wider, and already: “You have to undo what works before it stops working.” Honestly, it’s a stupid game really, isn’t it? ⬢