Winning ugly and riding the storm
This week’s reflections on Leeds United’s last March 18 visit to Molineux scoffed at the chances of anything remotely as incredible happening again any time soon. The four injuries, red card and 2-0-down comeback after a disastrous opening 45 minutes were safe on their plinth as United’s only miracle at Molineux for another few decades.
Yesterday was not in any way as miraculous, but just as incident-packed, relentless and entertaining, especially for neutrals. There was no need for any miracles because Leeds had the lead from the sixth minute and never relinquished it.
More than a miracle, grit was needed to take the points home on Saturday. The Whites did not play like a side which looked like it had four goals in it. Unlike their recent outings, they were strangely clinical.
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Four shots on target. Four goals. Their strikes were punctuated by periods of pressure from their hosts, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Illan Meslier and his backline were under siege for long spells, especially between Rasmus Kristensen’s goal and Jonny’s red card.
At 3-1 and 3-2, it seemed like there would be only one winner on the day. The momentum was with the hosts, the Sir Jack Hayward Stand was sucking the ball into the six-yard box and Javi Gracia looked helpless on the touchline.
It seemed inevitable we would be writing about this disastrous campaign hitting new lows with a 3-0 lead eradicated by an opponent going one better than Jesse Marsch’s 2022 miracle. Wave after wave of attack smashed into the Meslier-Koch-Wober rockface, which stood tall.
Leeds held out for long enough to see fate turn in their favour. Jonny’s horrendous, late, studs-up tackle on Luke Ayling would rightly see him removed. It was the blow which knocked just enough stuffing out of Julen Lopetegui’s side.
The belief seeped out of the home players and the afternoon-long frustration in the stands could be held back no more. Michael Salisbury would only fan the flames with his failure to rule out Rodrigo’s late fourth strike after an alleged foul on Adama Traore.
This was not a vintage four-goal performance supporters will look back on in years to come as a complete display which dominated their opponent. This was winning ugly, something Leeds have not done anywhere near enough of across the past 18 months.
They rode out the storms when they swirled, stuck in and took their chances when they came. Nobody of a Leeds persuasion will care about the referee’s decisions or the home side’s superior stats. They came for the three points and took them. Onto the next one.
Kristensen gets his moment right when Leeds need it
Kristensen had proved to be one of the stories of the week in Leeds. The 25-year-old’s omission from Denmark’s squad for the first time since his international debut had posed some questions on his status at Elland Road.
Gracia would speak in the Dane’s defence and lavish praise on his exemplary team ethic, but the record showed last summer’s eight-figure addition had just 45 minutes of league football under his belt for the calendar year. Kristensen’s barely been getting off the bench, let alone starting the matches he thought he would.
And yet here was the right-back’s moment. Kristensen was Gracia’s first port of call as he sensed the tide turning in the hosts’ favour. The head coach would again show pragmatism and flexibility in switching to a back five for the first time.
Four touches later, Leeds were three goals clear. Kristensen outmuscled Jonny (him again), sold Max Kilman a feint and then drilled the ball under Jose Sa to cue the pandemonium. A first Leeds goal, an important one and at the end of a week the defender probably felt he had a lot of people to prove wrong.
Gracia’s record starts to shine
Yesterday felt like something of a tipping point for early opinions on Gracia. Southampton were beaten, but it was a narrow victory over a poor opponent. There were losses to Fulham and Chelsea, but via wonder goals and a set-piece.
Then there was the home draw with Champions League-chasing Brighton & Hove Albion, but only via uninspiring tactics and two wonder goals of their own. It had felt like a neat balance going into the Wolves games, some good stuff, some bad stuff, but the head coach deserved time before verdicts were found.
Nothing conclusive can be drawn on the back of yesterday either, but after five matches Gracia is quietly impressing. Seven points from the 12 he’s contested in the league is a superb return from a decent mix of opposition and venues.
Across two home games, two away games, two relegation battlers and two European chasers, there is a solid body of work to see why trust in Gracia is growing. Yesterday, he finally saw sense in Wilfried Gnonto’s inclusion before being flexible enough to try out a back five with Kristensen’s introduction.
Even the Spaniard grinned at the notion he had planned for an immediate goal from Kristensen, but the later impacts of Crysencio Summerville and Rodrigo, as the match flow was breaking up, were far more calculated. Even Pascal Struijk played a big role in steadying the ship at the back when he came on with Wolves in the ascendancy at 3-2 down.
If Leeds are reverting to a team which beats its rivals, and gives better sides close calls home and away, the supporters will take passive approaches like last weekend’s all day long.
This is exactly what everyone was talking about when they evaluated just how tightly packed the bottom nine in the league table were. One win and a couple of other results going your way can send you shooting up the division.
When it’s your own team, languishing in 19th, it’s always hard to imagine the stars aligning on such a shift. And yet here’s Leeds United sitting pretty in 14th until April 1 at the earliest. The Whites are still only two points above the drop zone, but the optics change everything.
For the next fortnight, every time a Leeds employee, player or fan casts a glance over the table they will have the warm glow of survival on the brain rather than the cold reality of impending doom. Saturday’s result brings belief. Survival does not need to be spoken into existence, Leeds can win games and their rivals can lose them.
The maths work for United just as well as they work for everyone else, no matter how forlorn that has felt at points of this campaign. It’s a shame none of us will be able to see what that result does for the mood at Thorp Arch over the next fortnight either.
Gracia and the players will be able to see the springs in steps at training, the increased laughter and renewed motivation in training to fight for every inch. Momentum, belief and confidence is addictive.
Arsenal will, of course, be an immense challenge which demands one of Gracia’s more pragmatic, compact plans, like we saw at Stamford Bridge, but that meaty double-header with Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace will be well serviced by a morale-booster like yesterday.
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