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Leeds Live
Leeds Live
Beren Cross

Leeds United failings could boil down to a four-day acid test for Javi Gracia

Waiting for Rodrigo

No sooner had Georginio Rutter stuck his hand up for Leeds United’s number nine role, than he had it snapped back down to his waist by Kalidou Koulibaly and co. Chelsea’s three-man backline had the Whites’ record signing so deeply pocketed, just five of his 14 passes found teammates and on six separate occasions he immediately lost possession with his first touch.

Rutter is not a number nine who can lead the line or play in attack on his own, especially against three centre-backs. More than ever, the 20-year-old looked like the inside forward or second striker Leeds had seemingly signed in January.

The Whites needed a striker in the winter window to make an immediate impact and Victor Orta produced Rutter, a prospect who, in two or three years, may end up being one of the best wide forwards in Europe. Unfortunately, on a day when injury again came between Rodrigo, Patrick Bamford and the pitch, Rutter was left ploughing a lone furrow and coming up short.

READ MORE: Ayling's Summerville anger, Gracia's telling Leeds United touchline call and moments missed

Mateo Joseph, 19, sat on the bench with three prior minutes of Premier League football, was plan B. As hard-working, enthusiastic and prolific as he is with the under-21s, Joseph’s not had the same teenage impact as Wilfried Gnonto up to now and Stamford Bridge always looked a tall order for the Spaniard.

It was a scenario which only emphasised how much Rodrigo, a former record signing who has faced his own fair share of criticism, is missed. In the seven matches since the forward had ankle surgery, Leeds have scored three goals, drawing blanks on five occasions.

Bamford, finally fit enough to start five of those seven outings, hasn’t scored since the January 18 shellacking of Cardiff City. Even the club’s most natural number nine is struggling to break deadlocks, though the one-time England international has had a fight on just keeping fit.

Rodrigo, looked on as a misfit in Marcelo Bielsa’s system on his darkest days, has ironically become the great hope in this relegation dogfight. On the evidence of the last four weeks, the Whites are not going to score the goals to keep themselves in the division.

When the 31-year-old spoke to LeedsLive last week, he said he expected to return to contention before the international break. That means Javi Gracia may just have his top scorer available to face either Brighton & Hove Albion or Wolverhampton Wanderers in the coming weeks.

In the first Premier League season under Bielsa, 1.6 goals were scored every match. Last season that dropped to 1.1 and then this year it has only moved up to 1.2. It’s a concerning trend which has to be addressed, if not down the run-in then in the summer when, hopefully, Leeds will be preparing for another season in the top flight.

A Gnonto rod for Gracia’s back

Given the aforementioned crisis in the final third, the logic of removing arguably your most effective, fit attacker from the starting line-up has to be questioned. Gracia made a rod for his own back yesterday in taking Gnonto out of the team.

The 19-year-old had started 14 of the previous 15 matches in all competitions for Leeds going into Stamford Bridge, with four goals during that streak. More than the strikes themselves, Gnonto consistently does more in the final third than just about anyone else in the Leeds side.

While management of Gnonto’s minutes is important, especially for a player still so young, dropping him out of the team only puts pressure on Gracia. The Spaniard would not even put the decision down to fatigue after the game.

“I thought, for today, it was better to try two wingers like Jack [Harrison] and [Crysencio] Summerville,” he said. “It was my decision, try to think and counter and think during the game they will be important as well.

“Today, my thinking was we will get points during the game, not only with the first XI, we need all the players to get the points when in play.”

Leeds cannot afford to become too reliant on Gnonto and expect him to bail the side out week after week, but at a point where your Premier League status is at risk, Gracia needs to get the team’s best weapons on the field as much as possible.

A solid defence

If the attack is coming under the microscope for the wrong reasons, the defence does deserve credit for how it has firmed up in recent weeks. Luke Ayling’s renaissance began with the Manchester United double-header and he has not looked back since.

While Liam Cooper deals with his latest, frustrating injury, Ayling has flourished with the armband. While everyone else is struggling with broken bodies, the vice-captain is the last man standing from the old guard.

Ayling is a representative of the past, of where Leeds have come from and a reminder of why this top-flight status matters so much to the club and the supporters. The right-back is the wise head on the field keeping everyone around him in check.

At the centre of the backline, Robin Koch and Max Wober are going from strength to strength in their partnership. Even if Cooper were fit for next weekend’s clash with Brighton, there would be no grounds for messing with this duo.

Junior Firpo is the real success story of the past few weeks. From a point where supporters winced at the sight of his name on the teamsheet, the left-back has found some rhythm and more than held his own through this run of five starts in the side.

The winner against Southampton was a bonus, Firpo has been more than deserving of vocal praise even without that goal. Raheem Sterling seemed to be causing issues for him in the opening 15 minutes, but once he settled he barely found himself in any sticky situations.

As with the centre-backs, Firpo is at the point now where there should be little appetite for Pascal Stuijk or Wober to be used out there in the former Barcelona man’s place.

Where are the points coming from?

The significance of February’s fixtures is really coming home to roost now. When you looked at that run of Nottingham Forest, Everton and Southampton across 20 days they were billed as virtually must-win games.

The Whites, across three different bosses, would return three points from nine and go into the next phase of fixtures scanning for their next realistic opportunities. Anything can happen in any given match, but when you weigh up the league and form tables you get a clear picture on where the Whites can feasibly look to pick up the points they need.

There are 13 games to play and Leeds have 22 points. A round figure to secure safety with some degree of comfort might be five wins or four wins and a few draws.

A few weeks ago the trip to Molineux may have looked moderately appetising, but Julen Lopetegui now has Wolves up to 13th in the real table and eighth in the form charts. What does jump out, however, is that first week in April.

The postponed Forest match has been rescheduled for four days before Crystal Palace visit Elland Road. As double-headers at LS11 go, that could be right up there in the recent history of the club.

Written before Forest play Everton at the City Ground, Steve Cooper’s side have been resurgent in recent weeks, but have that softer underbelly you feel could yet drag them back into the mess. In the second match of that week, Palace are the only other side in the league to have picked up as few points (four) from the last six as Leeds.

Patrick Vieira’s side are in a desperate state with no wins from their last nine matches. They now face Manchester City, Brighton, Arsenal and Leicester City before visiting Leeds, so an upturn in form before their meeting seems unlikely.

It doesn’t feel dramatic to stress Leeds almost certainly need six points from that pair of home matches across four days if they are to seriously stand a chance of avoiding the Championship. Leicester, another struggling side with good players on paper, also visit in April and give Leeds another good chance to strike off three more of those 15 points they need.

If it remains a tight fight until the death, the trip to Bournemouth in the late April sunshine could be unforgettably tense. Sandwiched by home games against Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur, the final away game of the season, at West Ham United, is winnable, but does not look like a match you want to bank on.

Nobody in August (pre-Chelsea demolition) would have looked at Stamford Bridge as a ground to make or break United’s season, but in the context of what was going on down there under Graham Potter, there has to be some frustration. Leeds ultimately lost to a set-piece goal and had decent phases of pressure of their own, without really stretching Kepa Arrizabalaga for sustained spells.

Gracia is only three games into his tenure and there is, of course, no sense of pressure on his job status, but immense pressure on his ability to get a tune from this Leeds team. The penny may be dropping on what he has let himself in for.


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