It may have consigned Leeds United to a fifth straight defeat and extended their run of games without a win to seven, but the 1-0 loss at home to league leaders Leicester showed signs of encouragement for Brian McDermott.
Ahead of the televised Championship encounter at Elland Road, the split in hopes and expectations of the home fans was almost tangible. The preceding humiliations at the hands of Rochdale then Sheffield Wednesday had left many fearing the worst against an in-form Leicester side who had won their last five league outings and were sitting rather pretty at the top of the tree.
It was going to be another embarrassment, another heavy defeat in front of the cameras, the realists and cynics predicted. On the other side of the fence were those who saw Leicester’s visit as the perfect opportunity for United to redeem themselves. After all, it would be typical of Leeds, as the underdogs, to pull off a shock win against a supposedly better outfit, the eternal optimists suggested, straws firmly in-hand. In the end, neither was quite on the money as the Foxes edged the three points with a late 1-0 win, but it was an outcome nearer to the pre-match predictions of the Elland Road optimists and a performance which suggested that Leeds are about to turn this tricky corner.
In the 6-0 hammering at Sheffield Wednesday the previous weekend and the 2-0 FA Cup embarrassment at Rochdale the week before that, Brian McDermott had decided to ditch the 3-5-2 system, which had brought mixed results, and experiment with more of a 3-4-3 set-up. The manor of both defeats outlined the flaws in the system and McDermott spoke of how he would “go back to basics” ahead of the Leicester game. The Leeds boss did just that, reverting to a 4-4-2 formation which has been a rarity for the Whites so far this season. With Matt Smith serving a suspension, Luke Varney returned to the starting line-up to partner new captain Ross McCormack up front, featuring for the first time since a 1-0 defeat away to Blackburn in late November. Elsewhere, Sam Byram and Stephen Warnock returned as full-backs, new signings Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart kept their places on opposite flanks while perhaps the surprise inclusion came in midfield as McDermott opted for the experience of Michael Brown ahead of Alex Mowatt to partner Rodolph Austin. There was no place for defender Marius Zaliukas after his horror show at Hillsborough, but a few eyebrows were raised as El-Hadji Diouf was named among the substitutes despite being told he is free to leave the club.
The last time this fixture was played out, back in August at the King Power Stadium, the season was just a week old and both sides were touted as early promotion hopefuls despite a cagey 0-0 draw, in which moments of brilliance were few-and-far-between. That day marked the start of Rodolph Austin’s Leeds captaincy and the Jamaican was rewarded with the Man of the Match award following a formidable display. It seemed to be the perfect fit and was hailed as another McDermott masterstroke by the majority of the Elland Road faithful. Austin’s admission that he needed time to consider before accepting the role was initially regarded as a positive thing, but on reflection, hints of a lack of self-confidence to carry out the job were evident and they came to the fore following the Sheffield Wednesday defeat as Austin asked to be relieved of his duties, a commendable and dignified move it must be said. Five months is an incredibly long time in football and by the time Leicester visited Elland Road, Austin was again lining up in midfield, but the only armband he wore on this bitterly cold January afternoon was a commemorative one to mark the death of United legend Bobby Collins. It was McCormack who was tasked with the leadership role and Austin was able to enjoy a burden-free afternoon and offer glimpses of a return to form.
It was the hosts who started the game the brightest as McCormack almost got his big day off to a dream start, clipping the post with a header from Varney’s cross after just four minutes. The Leicester back four looked uncharacteristically shaky and spurred on by the Kop which they attacked in the first-half, Leeds immediately had their visitors on the back foot. McDermott’s side were issued a warning of Leicester’s counter-attacking capabilities as Jamie Vardy raced through to strike the post at the other end, but encouragingly, the hosts continued to create chances, a fundamental ingredient of winning games and something that had been absent in recent weeks.
McCormack, seemingly thriving under his new responsibilities, saw a clever lob cleared off the line before forcing former team-mate Kasper Schmeichel into a smart save and Tom Lees headed over from a corner, but the new United captain was then guilty of passing up the best opportunity of the game. A shocking back-pass from Paul Konchesky allowed the Scotland international a clear sight of goal and he went through one-on-one with Schmeichel. The Championship’s top scorer looked set to open his account for 2014, but McCormack had too much time to visualise which part of the net he was going to find and United’s former number one stood firm to deny him. Anthony Knockaert blazed over at the other end and although either side could have been in front at the break, it was Leeds who had enjoyed the better openings.
Intensity levels dropped in the second-half and the end-to-end contest that had thrilled neutrals for the opening hour or so soon turned into a midfield battle and Leicester started to look the most likely to score, but Leeds were holding on. After Matty James had come close for the visitors, Leeds eventually re-found their feet somewhat and Elland Road debutant Cameron Stewart took it upon himself to try and force an opening, twice cutting inside and seeing his efforts blocked.
With around 15 minutes remaining, Leicester introduced veteran striker Kevin Phillips as they looked to snatch it and he immediately looked a threat. Leeds then brought on Diouf and Lee Peltier in the closing stages, clearly thinking they could still take the three points. But it was the 40-year-old Phillips who proved to be the most influential late substitute as he dummied Liam Moore’s cross, causing confusion in the Leeds defence and allowing David Nugent to poke home a winner from close range.
The late goal was a cruel blow but Leicester’s class prevailed despite the Whites’ hard-working display and perhaps the best reflection of their performance was that Schmeichel was named Man of the Match at full-time. If the opposition goalkeeper is walking away with the champagne, you know it hasn’t been your day. What more can you do?
The score-line may have been the wrong one for Leeds, but McDermott certainly got a number of things right on an afternoon which threatened to compound United’s misery even further. Both teams operated 4-4-2 systems and this gave the hosts a much more balanced look. Deploying natural wingers, the full-backs were able to focus on their defensive duties and Leeds carried a genuine threat in attack. Although Kebe and Stewart are yet to show their true potential, their presence on the flanks gives United the look of a genuinely dangerous side on the break, especially compared to relying on defenders to provide all of the width in recent weeks. Despite the efforts of Pugh and Peltier, and Byram at times, it is a huge ask of a full-back to constantly attack and defend, whereas having natural wide men alleviates that pressure and the full-backs are able to complement the attack when deemed necessary.
It was just match fitness for Kebe, and the lack of a true ball player in the middle, perhaps an Alex Mowatt or a Luke Murphy, which stopped the duo from being as effective as they can be. Varney’s endless running of the channels and chasing down of balls freed up McCormack much in the same way which Andy Keogh, arguably his most effective strike partner in his time at Elland Road, did. Brown kept his discipline and Austin was much improved, while Byram and Warnock seamlessly slotted into a defence which looked settled on the whole. It may not be the team which McDermott envisages to be part of the long-term plan, but it offers a short-term solution to a short-term issue.
One of the biggest positives that Leeds can take away from the game is that they genuinely tested what is probably the best team in the league and a shoe-in for promotion. Against Sheffield Wednesday, United mustered just one shot on target all game, a speculative effort by Austin from distance midway through the second-half, greeted by sarcastic cheers from the travelling fans. Against the league leaders, Leeds hit the target four times and five efforts were off, a marked improvement and a glimmer of hope at least. Leeds struggled all afternoon to get out of their own half and into dangerous areas at Hillsborough but they saw much more action in the final third and the wide areas against Leicester. Defensively, Leeds also showed signs of improvement. 43 clearances were made as opposed to the 29 the weekend before and 31 headed duals were won, significantly more than the 11 won at Hillsborough.
Ultimately, the result leaves Leeds in 12th, six points short of a play-off spot and although he was pleased with the showing from his side, McDermott was clearly frustrated to have suffered defeat again. He told Sky Sports: “The performance was chalk and cheese from last week but we still lost. They get a break right at the end, but we could’ve been three up at half-time. I said at half-time ‘It’s going to be a one-goal game’ and they just got it. They’re top of the league and they got the break but we deserved to be in front as from the first-half, we were much, much better.The players showed the character and the supporters appreciated the character shown, but we are devastated that we haven’t got the result today.”
Over a week now stands between United and their next game – a home meeting with Ipswich – and that is likely to offer some welcome relief on the back of a hectic Christmas period and five consecutive defeats. The January transfer window is also likely to prove pivotal on where they finish this season, but on Saturday’s showing against Leicester, they certainly aren’t out of the hunt for a top-six finish.