Everything the doctor did not order
The prevailing hope coming away from Leeds United’s Crystal Palace demise was it had been a one-off. Yes, the Whites had collapsed with one of the worst second-half displays Elland Road has seen, but there had been more than enough positive play in the first half, against Nottingham Forest and in Javi Gracia’s opening matches to feel it was a blip.
However poorly Liverpool have played this season, they still have some of the continent’s best footballers in their number. Nobody was under any illusions last night would be a challenge for Leeds and one they might lose, but there would be an acceptable manner in defeat.
This was not it. By all means, fall short in trying to win the contest, but try to remind everyone of the pragmatism and defensive solidity which had been a tenet of Gracia’s opening few games.
The alarm bells set ringing by a 5-1 home defeat to a Crystal Palace side entirely outplayed for 44 minutes, would only be silenced by avoiding a similar fate. Leeds would not provide that reassurance. Instead, they would go one better and concede six on home turf right in the heat of a relegation battle.
This was a decent opening half an hour from Leeds which restricted Liverpool, for all of the possession they were dominating, to very few clear sights of Illan Meslier’s goal. However, once that bizarre handball was overlooked and the visitors took the lead, the concerning fragility of eight days earlier was all too apparent once more.
As with Marc Guehi’s goal, once Cody Gakpo found the net, confidence, purpose, intensity, cohesion, organisation and composure drained from Leeds. This was nothing like the response we saw from United when they went behind to Nottingham Forest.
If this is going to be the recipe moving forward, then Leeds are bang in trouble. They cannot navigate the final seven matches of this wretched campaign with a glass jaw that fractures as soon as the opposition lay one on them.
Gracia had compared the Palace ordeal to a boxer left dazed, confused and unable to respond in the immediate aftermath of a punch to the face. Nothing about last did anything to quell concerns Leeds will keep losing if they concede.
A fortnight is a long time in football
Two weeks ago tonight there was emerging confidence in what Gracia was demonstrating on the touchline at Leeds. The victory over Forest would take the Whites to 10 points from six games under the Spaniard, into the top six of the form table and a projected points total of 44 by the end of the campaign.
If Gracia were to carry on in that vein, with that kind of points return, there would be very serious conversations about him getting a longer-term project to manage at Elland Road. The former Watford boss’s tactical acumen had been praised, his calm manner, a reserved style with the media and a sense of normality after the sensory overload of his two predecessors.
And yet, less than two weeks later, there are now question marks around Gracia’s ability to get a handle on this tailspin the team has suddenly found itself in. One half against Palace was one thing, but to then see Leeds cut to ribbons on their own pitch for a second consecutive match made it a pattern.
For the second consecutive post-match press conference, Gracia would struggle to find an explanation for what had just gone wrong. The pressure is now on for the head coach to find the answers, and quickly.
As ever, the onus is on the head coach to find the solutions to problems the players are encountering on the field. Top-flight football teams packed with international talent do not readily concede 11 goals across back-to-back games.
Another heavy defeat at Fulham on Saturday could put this team into a pit they can’t clamber out of. What can Gracia conjure?
A case for the defence
Leeds have conceded 60 goals in the Premier League this season. That’s virtually two goals shipped in every match on average and more than any other club in the division.
The statistics suggest, based on the quantity and quality of chances faced, they should have conceded a touch shy of 52 goals this season. In basic terms, that does not reflect well on Meslier, who, the stats would suggest, should have stopped eight of those 60 he’s picked from the back of his net.
In 2020/21, the first top-flight term under Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds conceded 54 goals against an expected tally of 57.9. In 21/22, the Bielsa-Jesse Marsch hybrid, United conceded 79 goals against an expected tally of 67.8.
So, on a per-game basis, in 20/21, Leeds were conceding 1.42 goals against an expected tally of 1.52. That’s a 0.1 overperformance in every match.
In 21/22, they averaged a concession of 2.07 goals every game against an expected tally of 1.78 in every match. That’s a 0.29 underperformance.
This season, Leeds are averaging 1.93 goals conceded every game against an expected average of 1.67 per match. That’s a 0.26 underperormance for each outing.
The numbers would suggest the defence was, en masse, performing worst last season, but that small improvement is hardly good enough. This is still the league’s worst defence in 22/23.
Last summer, when Leeds took a stock check of their squad going into their post-Bielsa phase, Meslier was held up as the third marquee talent in their squad, behind Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha. All three were young enough to be sold on with room for improvement at a buyer, but with a transfer value boosted by meaningful, frontline exposure in one of Europe’s big five leagues.
Phillips and Raphinha’s exits were more than enough for one summer, but they left behind Meslier, one of the most experienced 23-year-old goalkeepers in Europe. Tottenham Hotspur are among the continent’s Champions League clubs repeatedly linked with Meslier.
It’s always going to be hard for scouting teams to ignore a barely-20-something goalkeeper with already more than 100 Premier League appearances to his name. Traditionally, it is not unusual for goalkeepers to peak in their mid-30s, which gives Meslier at least another 10 years until he’s the finished article.
Yes, he has been inconsistent for the Whites, as the numbers underline, but, ironically, it’s Liverpool who best sum up Meslier’s status. The stopper was the man of the match at Anfield on the night Leeds won 2-1 after his incredible nine-save haul in October.
By the end of last night, Meslier had conceded the last 10 shots on target he had faced, stretching back to the Palace mauling. There are question marks there, but few which aren’t answered by his age.
Has Meslier been pushed enough by the veteran stand-in Leeds went out and acquired last summer? Joel Robles has, by all accounts, made a fantastic impression within the squad, but does he have enough quality to put meaningful pressure on Meslier for his shirt?
Is Robles a legitimate starter in the league for Leeds? Meslier is absolutely the kind of project Leeds should be committing to, but the lack of a realistic alternative to turn the screw may be where the failing lies.
Trying to be the least worst?
Such has been the speed and severity of this downturn for Leeds, it’s only natural to wonder where the next points are coming from. Two wins from the next three nip that train of thought in the bud, but nothing in the last two matches would suggest Leeds can hack even conceding a goal at the moment.
Fulham were supposed to be one of the early candidates for the top-flight beach, but a convincing win at Everton showed their appetite at the weekend. Meanwhile, Dean Smith will be into his third game at the Leicester City helm and, in theory, providing a new manager bounce when they visit Elland Road next Tuesday.
And then, of course, there is Bournemouth, who are brimming with confidence on four wins from their last six games. That’s not the easy trip to a newly-promoted side many of us had hoped for a few weeks back.
If Leeds are not going to find the extra six points history would suggest they need to virtually guarantee safety, they could be looking over their shoulders with hope their rivals do not pick up a head of steam. The average league position of United’s remaining opposition is 10th.
The average position of Leicester’s remaining opponents is 12th. For Forest and Everton, like Leeds, the average is 10th. There is very little to call between who is still to face who down these last seven matches.
After the Forest win and then the dominance of the opening 44 minutes against Palace, there was almost the brief sense Leeds would secure safety with weeks to spare and face a quiet end to the campaign. The bottom has fallen out of that possibility and in the space of three halves it’s hard to see anything other than another final-day nail-biter.
Saturday shock tactics?
There had been enough in the Forest win and Palace first half to justify retaining some faith in those starting line-ups last night. However, the manner of last night’s loss can only precipitate the call for changes on Saturday in the capital.
Meslier’s position has been discussed, but it’s hard to see Gracia going that far to bring in Joel Robles for such an important run of games. Meslier should have enough credit in the bank to continue between the sticks.
A coin could be flipped on the right-backs. Rasmus Kristensen did nothing to make him an easy hold in Luke Ayling’s absence on Monday night.
Central defence is where we might see the boldest moves. Max Wober needs to be the first name on Saturday’s teamsheet and you would argue Pascal Struijk should be making way in the middle rather than Junior Firpo at left-back.
Robin Koch, who has played more than any other outfield player for Leeds this season, had generally been having a solid campaign. Taking him out as well could be overkill, but Gracia must be tempted by Wober’s form and Liam Cooper’s leadership with backs tight against the wall in Craven Cottage.
A dearth of central midfielders might well protect Marc Roca and Weston McKennie from two dire performances against Liverpool. Adam Forshaw banked critical minutes last night, but it seems a big ask to bomb him straight into such an important spell of fixtures.
Darko Gyabi’s star has risen this season with the under-21s, but is this the time and place for a 19-year-old to make his full league debut? Jack Harrison and Luis Sinisterra have enough recent credit in the bank to continue out wide, but Brenden Aaronson needs removing for a talent like Wilfried Gnonto.