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Leeds Live
Beren Cross

Bleak reality finally hits Leeds United hard with final-day promises on course to be broken

League table finally bites back

Two Premier League wins in 16 matches prior to yesterday had, miraculously, been enough to always keep a few teams between Leeds United and the drop zone. There has always been a false sense of security from that slender buffer to the gritty end of the league table.

It’s largely been propped up by the inadequacies of bottom-half rivals, but, finally, reality caught up with the Whites this weekend. Wins for Everton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leicester City, Nottingham Forest and even a draw for West Ham United have delivered the blow that will shake Elland Road.

Since the zenith of that Chelsea demolition, no club in the league has picked up fewer points than the Whites. Their 11 points from 17 matches are better than bottom-of-the-table Southampton, also with 11 points, on goal difference only.

READ MORE: Every word Jesse Marsch said on Leeds United's defeat, pressure, fan anger and his job

Within five days of the upbeat optimism generated by the January transfer window, a stark reminder of where this team is currently at on the field has washed that away. Forest, who memorably began the campaign with one win in 11 matches, are now six points clear of United with more than half of the season played.

What’s more, Steve Cooper’s side were not good. Their one moment of quality was drilled home with technical brilliance by Brennan Johnson, but thereafter, Illan Meslier was virtually a spectator.

The Whites dominated 70 per cent of possession, but mustered just four shots on target, three of which were in the first half. The second period was a lacklustre, blunted, rusty, confused mess of a performance drenched in the stress of must-win connotations.

Leeds have got by with their two, last-gasp autumn wins and recent set of draws. Points which have papered over the cracks and kept the wolf from the door.

Kept at bay no more, the wood is splintering and the table’s claws are poking through the veneer.

Missing Rodrigo

After 157 minutes since mid-January and no league starts since mid-October, the fear with Patrick Bamford’s enforced thrust into the starting line-up was rustiness. So it proved. The ball seemed to bounce off the number nine, his first touch was heavy, his dribbling clumsy and his acceleration sluggish.

The 76-minute return to the starting line-up at Accrington Stanley in the previous match was quickly forgotten as Premier League opposition made its presence felt in Bamford’s back. The striker was smothered and it was arguably even harder for record-signing Georginio Rutter.

The Frenchman would touch the ball six times across the 25 to 30 minutes he had from the bench. It was easy to forget Rutter, all £30m-plus of him was even on the field as he battled with the strength and nous of Willy Boly and Scott McKenna.

Rodrigo is unlikely to be available until April 1’s trip to Arsenal at the earliest, on the other side of next month’s international break, and if Jesse Marsch wants to get this attack purring again he has to resolve these current issues. Bamford and Rutter are the solutions and it has to work with them.

Rodrigo went through a similar issue in the matches with Manchester City and Newcastle United after the restart. There would be only 47 touches for United’s striker across the 152 minutes he had from the two games.

That statistic seemed to become less of a factor as the Spain international reasserted himself as a key figure in recent weeks. Marsch can only hope his two alternatives will play their way into fitness and form.

Struijk’s slump continues

Pascal Struijk is yet to come through the mini-slump he’s going through at the moment. The 23-year-old remains one of the club’s best development stories in recent years and hopes remain high for the long-term project he’s going to prove, but like any player, he’s had a tough time of it recently.

The early foul, yellow card and free-kick which ultimately yielded Forest’s opening goal set the tone for Struijk, who was exposed repeatedly by Johnson down United’s left. There should be little doubt the Dutch defender will come good again, but errors are seeping in and his confidence is evidently dwindling in the choices he makes.

The one question mark hanging over the final days of the transfer window was Marsch’s cover in the backline after Diego Llorente’s exit. Max Wober has been excellent at centre or full-back, but he cannot be in two places at once.

Wednesday night is likely to see Robin Koch's return from suspension as Wober shuffles across to left-back, which is fine, but if and when injuries hit more than one defender, Struijk or Junior Firpo, himself walking the formbook tightrope, need to be dependable.

Searching for another Anfield miracle

“So right now, we're at a point again, it's almost like before Liverpool where we know we have to get a result, period.” Marsch neatly summed up exactly where this is all going after the match.

We’re in miracle territory. Going into the City Ground, everyone was clear the time for excuses and caveats had gone. Delivery of cold, hard points was the minimum expectation for February and it has started in bleak circumstances.

After two wins in 17 league games, Marsch does not have the leeway to look at Manchester United’s form and call a draw a good result, even though 99 per cent of fans would take that on recent evidence. The American knows his head is going to be on the chopping block in the near future if Leeds don’t start turning opponents over, whoever they are.

As he says himself, the next few days will resemble the mood going into Anfield at the end of last October. Without a win in eight, Leeds were fresh from defeats to Leicester City and Fulham with the weight of Liverpool and Anfield on the horizon.

The home defeat to newly-promoted Fulham was so hard to swallow, three days after rolling over for 20th-placed Leicester, some wondered if Marsch would even make the Merseyside touchline. With United’s stock at a season-low, minds wandered to the February 2022 trip to Liverpool and the six goals Marcelo Bielsa’s side were pasted with during his final days.

Against all the odds, Leeds would play one of their finest matches of the campaign, with Illan Meslier in the form of his life, and defeat the 19/20 champions. These are the kind of odds Leeds have to overcome again, but twice in the space of four days if possible.

The difference is Liverpool have gone on to show this iteration of the club is having one of its worst campaigns in recent history. The Red Devils, by contrast, have won their last 13 home matches on the bounce in all competitions.

Erik ten Hag’s side have lost once at home in the league all season and that was on the opening day. Also, Marcus Rashford has scored 11 goals in his last 13 appearances. He’s on fire.

Marsch has no option, but to focus on making things right in the next available game, no matter how daunting that may be. In reality though, Leeds are facing the possibility of another two defeats to make it two wins from 19 in the league.

After such hefty, unequivocal backing in the January window, on and off the field, it seems baffling to even contemplate the board sacking Marsch, but the statistics speak for themselves. Do they give him the Man United games to pull off the unimaginable and then give someone new the six-pointers against Everton and Southampton?

Or do they honour the commitment they have made to Marsch’s vision and give him the chance to win those games against the relegation rivals at the end of the month? The risk there is one February loss turning into five and, perhaps, the bottom of the table.

The results have not been there for a long time under Marsch, but the performances, especially those against Brentford and Aston Villa, were suggesting Marsch may finally be onto something. All of that was quickly forgotten at the City Ground, where the frustrations of a dire second-half turn blinded anyone to the vaguely decent first-half patterns kept out by Keylor Navas.

The pain, stress and, ultimate, relief of last season’s dogfight had the survivors promising they would never let the club be in that situation again. Right now it’s hard to see anything other than a fight to top-flight death in May.


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