The second the club insisted that “we have 15 cup finals to win”, in reference to the 15 remaining games of the season we all winced. Leeds fans know that the club is not capable of winning cup finals, so to suggest promotion rested on our ability to not only perform in one game, but 15 consecutive ones seemed hilarious.
After the faux-outrage of Spygate and the utterly ridiculous fine levied on the club (see my piece in the latest issue of The Square Ball on this very subject), football had somehow become a secondary issue. Dominating Derby the day after the non-story broke was probably the last time Leeds genuinely looked like a promotion winning team.
Before that we had stumbled, but Derby was a real statement of intent. Against a backdrop of media outrage and irrelevant punditry, Leeds looked like a side comfortably a cut above their opponent. The Stoke game that followed brought the club crashing back down to Earth as they looked completely sussed out by another coach. Leeds could have played for days without beating Stoke. This is where our dogged commitment to a single tactical system has its limits – if death by a thousand cuts isn’t killing, we don’t have another weapon to deploy.
A somewhat rubbish late win against Rotherham followed where statistically Leeds would dominate but ultimately look to struggle putting a poor side to bed, but it was significant to consider Stoke as a temporary blip on a calendar of results. The real humbling came in a sold-out home game against Norwich.
A lot has changed since we turned them over 3-0 at Carrow Road. While we’ve faded in our intensity and ferocity, the Canaries have found their feet and started to smash sides left and right. It wasn’t even as appalling as it felt – the first two goals were deflections, the referee was giving Leeds nothing and we had no response to the pendulum swinging so heavily against us.
Boro was yet another disappointing game where Leeds floundered and struggled to overcome a tactical system designed to prevent and frustrate. Again, the stats would show Leeds dominating every metric but goal-scoring opportunities seemed few and far between. A late injury time equaliser would save red faces, but again Leeds scraped through.
Leeds would look like confident promotion candidates against Swansea and fans would be incredulous that we weren’t somehow more than 2 goals up as the final moments of the game drew in – so confident and dominant had our performance been that it looked like a further declaration that Leeds could outplay sides. Then a sloppy late penalty created a typically tense final 5 minutes as the whites tried to hold onto what had previously been a very comfortable lead. The doubts about our ability would start to creep in – yet had we finished 2-0, they wouldn’t have.
A narrow 2-1 win against Bolton underlined how difficult Leeds have been making “easy” games (not that there are any easy games in this division, but these are teams we’re expected to beat and also sides our promotion rivals are thoroughly rail-roading). An early penalty (rare!) put Leeds ahead but some sloppy defending allowed Bolton to equalise. Again, Leeds struggled to make dominating the ball convert into real pressure on the Bolton goal. In earnest, it wasn’t until a goalkeeping error from a miss-hit Alioski cross fell into the net that Leeds looked like they were walking away with 3 points.
And this is where we’ve struggled. We can dominate the ball, we can keep possession, we can have corners and free kicks, but the number of times we legitimately make the opposition goalkeeper work is relatively few (or at least it feels that way, the statistics may speak otherwise).
This all culminated against QPR – another game we were treating as a guaranteed win – not just because QPR were on the run of 7 consecutive losses, but as our game in hand, Leeds would have gone back top with a win. Alas, QPR deserved the victory by frustrating Leeds and again, the failure to constantly convert statistical dominance into real-world goal-mouth pressure meant that the game could have continued for hours until a goal was likely. Sure, Bamford and Dallas would force the keeper into a flurry of smart saves, but on the balance of play it was hard to think of countless chances we had failed to convert. A back-post tap-in Bamford missed and the aforementioned chance…
And that’s where Leeds find themselves. Facing a West Brom side in 4th who themselves are coming off the back of a defeat against a promotion rival. Though West Brom haven’t played since last Saturday, whereas Leeds are distinctly less fresh. A win will put Leeds top again (albeit temporarily), and a loss will keep us 3rd (but narrow the gap to 4th to just a single point).
It’s lazy to refer to games as “must win” when the club have already called them cup-finals, but they all are must-win. To get promoted we need to go up automatically, which means we need to find our form again, beat West Brom and make sure when the fixture comes around in a couple of weeks, we beat Sheffield United to put our future in our own hands again. Because at the moment, we’re relying on other teams to slip up. There’s 13 points between us and Derby in 7th, with 12 games to go.