Leeds United are in the red zone – and their midfielders aren't helping

14 Apr 2024

Sammie Szmodics scored and like that, Elland Road’s battery died. Eight minutes to go but a sea of thousand-mile stares in the stands said the game was gone. Optimism spent, the bubble burst. And gone it was.

Leeds United - Figure 1
Photo The Athletic

It will seem to Leeds United like a split second since they were in the throes of self-confidence but the fortnight behind them has posed unanswered questions, not least among the club’s own crowd. They know how it goes around here: positivity running into doubt before stumbling into one of those holes Leeds are so good at digging for themselves. The thing they always wonder at Elland Road is who is waiting to smash the open door in their face. Who in this performance will play the part of Jack Marriott?

A 1-0 defeat to Blackburn Rovers yesterday was a show Elland Road had seen so many times: the required outcome crystal clear, the struggle to make it happen draining sanity, drip by drip, until the knife-edge leaves only two possibilities — either Leeds spring something from the hat or the worst happens. And up popped Szmodics to activate option two at the end of the clinical counter-attack Blackburn had been seeking all game.

Daniel Farke had no way of dragging it back from there. If Leeds’ season goes wrong at the last, one of the abiding images of him will be his vain protests in stoppage time, begging Blackburn to rein in their time-wasting and speed up play. His first-team coach, Christopher John, was sent off for losing his head over a penalty decision Patrick Bamford didn’t get. These are the worst moments in management, when no one can hear you scream, when a first home defeat of the season drops in mid-April and does so like a concrete bollard.

“You’re working for a pretty emotional club with a great history,” Farke said afterwards. “I love to work for such an emotional club but the shirt can be pretty heavy, because of the expectation.”

Daniel Farke cut an agitated figure. on Saturday (Ed Sykes/Getty Images)

As results flickered over the past fortnight, the clamour around Farke was for a change up front, and those of a Leeds persuasion calling for Bamford to be dropped got their wish. Or got their wish to a point. Bamford out, Mateo Joseph in was the shout on the streets and Farke met the noise halfway by going with Joel Piroe. But a different tactical decision, one taken in the centre of midfield, served to highlight a limitation in the team Farke has built and one he might rue if promotion gives him the slip.

Leeds, for reasons that are not always apparent, suffer mental blocks in recruiting for certain positions. Their inability to sign good left-backs is legendary and should the last three games of the Championship term tee up a summer of prep for the Premier League, they will be back in that specific shopping aisle during the next transfer window.

Leeds United - Figure 2
Photo The Athletic

They were bitten more severely, though, by going light on central midfielders in Marcelo Bielsa’s final season as head coach — not quite getting Conor Gallagher from Chelsea, not quite offering enough for Lewis O’Brien at Huddersfield Town — and an aspect of the recruitment strategy under Farke was to cover the bases there; to create choice, to mitigate injuries and form, to avoid the pretence that someone like Robin Koch or Pascal Struijk had the attributes to moonlight there.

Three of Farke’s four most expensive signings, Ethan Ampadu, Glen Kamara and Ilia Gruev, were central midfielders. The outlay on those three totalled £17million ($21.2m), and Farke biding his time before committing to Kamara and Gruev late last summer was indicative of how critical it felt to pick well from the market. A consequence of that business was that Archie Gray would get plenty of minutes on the pitch but rarely play there, taking the baton from Luke Ayling at right-back instead.

Gray, though, is the central midfielder on Farke’s books with the most attacking mind; forward-facing, an ambitious passer, more of an eye for goal. Ampadu is particularly good at progressing play but Leeds’ style under Farke — and no disputing that it has largely worked — involves a midfield that holds steady, advances possession to a certain point and then looks to the fire around the fringes to do the rest, the very definition of a platform. The build-up plants the seeds for shots and the build-up plants the seeds for finishes, but the goals and assists, the hard currency, consistently come from elsewhere in the squad.

Between them, Farke’s four recognised central midfielders have not scored one league goal. Gray thought he had at home to Leicester City, only to see a twice-deflected shot recategorised as an own goal, and that in itself — the impact of the strike, an impact Leicester still seem to be suffering from now — reiterates the fact that goals matter more than how they materialise.

Gray has seen his chances of chipping in at a steady central-midfield rate diminished by so many appearances as a full-back but the numbers show very limited attacking output all round: a combined 11 shots on targets among those four players, a combined seven assists, 11 Opta-defined ‘big chances’ created for a side who have created 87 across the squad.

Given that Leeds have been dominant in so many matches, and given that their goals have been spread across 14 players, the midfield unit coming up blank has almost taken some doing. With the season’s anxiety at its height  — the red zone as they might call it in the U.S., the vinegar strokes as Viz magazine would have it — this is when contributions from unlikely sources count most, like Kamara weighing in with his first league goal for 15 months or Gruev coming up with the second of his senior career.

Leeds needed some of that at Coventry City last weekend. They needed some of that against Sunderland on Tuesday. Their opportunity at promotion seems destined to come down to individual players continuing to do exactly as they have been doing all year.

Perhaps prodded by the urgency of the task in hand yesterday, Farke was drawn into mixing it up against Blackburn. Bamford made way for Piroe, Wilfried Gnonto replaced Dan James and Connor Roberts took the place of Kamara. It was that third change, Roberts for Kamara, that launched Gray into midfield, the position he likes best and where his potentially stellar career will surely play out long-term. The shake of Farke’s line-up carried with it the prospect of harnessing Gray’s imagination and livening Leeds up.

That was the theory but despite the passages of the game where United could have beaten Blackburn, this is how Leeds tend to lose under Farke: chances appearing but not with the relentlessness to make a team crumble; ideas running low towards the end and leaving everything in the lap of tricky runners out wide; substitutions not paying off and a cheap concession.

It went without saying that salvation was not going to come from the centre of Farke’s midfield and the sole strand of relief was Ipswich Town’s 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough. Three games to go and nowhere to hide. Inspiration has to come from somewhere.

(Top photo: Ed Sykes/Getty Images)

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