Elland Road’s playing surface looked stodgy and tired on Saturday. It was not the only one.
The pitch will have to wait until the summer to be reconstructed, but Leeds United’s team needs revitalising rather sooner. A 10-day break has come at an ideal time.
Now there is no cup run to aim for, their season is already in danger of petering out if they cannot find new motivations.
Despite its occasional disappointments, the first half of it has been more than good enough to ensure there should be no relegation battle to fear but not so exceptional there is a Europa League place to strive for.
A top-half finish would be a considerable achievement for a newly-promoted side but will it float these players’ boats? Something needs to because such a vibrant campaign does not deserve to dribble out into malaise between now and May.
Normally, with a free 10 days in January caused by a league postponement and a free FA Cup weekend, you would expect a Premier League team to dodge the snow and jump on a plane to Dubai for a few beers, some much-needed sunshine and possibly a few hard training sessions.
Even if the logistics make that possible, it would be politically unwise. They are probably going to have to be more creative.
It all came as a bit of a surprise.
Leeds also started 2020 with three straight defeats and an FA Cup exit, and did the same when 2018 turned into 2019.
Games two (FA Cup again), three and four of 2018 were lost as well.
It was not the defeat that was the shock – their high-risk, high reward style of football makes them a win-some, lose-some team at Premier League level. It was the manner of it.
The game against Brighton and Hove Albion was not as billed.
We expected two teams playing football that at times can be open to the point of naivety. We thought we would get a passing display, unsure if either would score the goals it merited, but at least it would be worth watching.
Instead we saw a Brighton side turn from lovable losers into a much more pragmatic and successful team. This was their first victory since November. Like Leeds, they had been unable to beat League Two opposition seven days earlier, although the crucial difference was they took Newport County to a penalty shoot-out they won as the Whites melted away at Crawley Town.
On a pitch pockmarked before the game kicked off and which cut up badly – watering it at half-time seemed odd – Brighton recognised they needed to go long at times, and were particularly effective in the second quarter of the game in pushing giant centre-back Dan Burn into the inside-left channel for non-contests with Leeds’s stand-in centre-back Luke Ayling.
Leeds often went long, too, but without a target like Burn they had little success.
When they got ahead, Brighton were happy to sit back and dig in, allowing Leeds twice as much of the ball for the same amount of chances.
That said, they did still show it was possible to play on the cabbage patch, Leandro Trossard and Alexis Mac Allister exchanging passes before the latter squared for Neal Maupay, abandoned at the far post by Ayling, to tap in after 18 minutes.
Seven minutes later, Trossard’s cross-shot flew off Ayling and onto the crossbar.
Minutes earlier, Ayling had done brilliantly to head a right-wing cross safe and shortly after he threw himself in front of Burn at a free-kick, causing him to miss the target. Ben White’s shot also thundered into Ayling.
Brighton were becalmed after that, Ayling was not.
“What the **** are you doing?” he yelled at Rodrigo late in the first half. “Do something!” A minute later his rash challenge on Trossard earned a booking.
Throughout the limp first half, all Leeds offered was Rodrigo being just unable to reach Ezgjan Alioski’s cross created by Ayling’s sweeping pass, and Patrick Bamford kicking at fresh air instead of Rodrigo’s centre.
They were better after the break – Jack Harrison flashing a shot wide and great skill allowing Raphinha a cross Burn beat Bamford to – but it was a long way from the Leeds we have got used to under Bielsa.
They badly missed the suspended Kalvin Phillips and the importance of Mateusz Klich to such an energetic team is made clearer when in the poor form he is now.
Rodrigo and Raphinha were shadows of the players who tore West Bromwich apart when Leeds last won. Bamford glanced substitute Pablo Hernandez’s chipped pass when the striker of late 2020 would have buried it inside the far post.
Kiko Casilla, pushed into action by Illan Meslier’s unspecified illness, was largely let off. Trossard badly missed the target when Alioski’s error let Maupay in down the right and although he did not hold Adam Webster’s shot first time, he got to it first.
The second half was often end-to-end but low on quality, an 88th-minute scramble at the back of Brighton’s penalty area summing up Leeds’s day.
It was not a memorable one, but at the moment the context of their 2021 should not spread panic. Sometimes being on the wrong end of Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son is almost unavoidable, and Leeds did not treat the Crawley tie as a proper first-team fixture. What happens on their return will tell us much more about this result.
They look lacklustre and in need of pepping up, feeling the effects of a draining season like no other. Hopefully they are back to their old selves at Newcastle United a week on Tuesday.
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