Despite three wins in a week lifting the gloom around Elland Road like a binge-drinking weekend in Prague, Saturday’s defeat was a sobering reminder that everyday malfunctioning at Leeds United is the norm and cannot be easily removed.
It is true that just as nine points out of nine does not make Leeds United play-off contenders, and Evans was quick to nip that particular hallucinogen-induced illusion in the bud in fairness, so equally this 4-1 defeat does not make Leeds a bad team overnight, at least no more ordinary than we already knew they were.
“We have become a mid-table team” said Steve Evans with, presumably, a skewed sense of fulfilment. Leeds fans looking at a charge sheet of 14th, 13th, 15th and 15th-placed finishes over the last four seasons could be forgiven for receiving such revelations with all the appreciation of a P45 on Christmas Eve. Of course, what Evans is alluding to is his remit of steering Leeds away from the relegation zone when he took the job in October. The fact that the club had no loftier objectives just two months into a new season, perhaps says it all about the identity crisis it is still enveloped in, but it is true that Evans has managed to keep Leeds a comfortable distance from absolute peril for much of his tenure. For this we should be thankful, but such achievement has not come with any tangible sense of improvement, as Saturday so vividly illustrated.
Today, it appears Leeds are careering towards another 15th-place finish like an unmanned shopping trolley hurtling down Wesley Street, and any Leeds fan would be forgiven for failing to herald that with party poppers and a palpable sense of progression. The feeling remains that Leeds are stuck in a perpetual cycle where results like Saturday’s are never far away.
“This wasn’t a 4-1 game” said Steve Evans, and he was right. Huddersfield missed an 11th-minute penalty after Sol Bamba upended Joe Lolley’s weaving run, and had two or three opportunities to really twist the knife in the final ten minutes, when Leeds’ collective head had gone and vacated the stadium with the disgruntled masses. This scoreline could have been far worse, and we wonder what lessons we could have learnt from a 5-1 or 6-1 home defeat to Huddersfield?
Yet this game was finely balanced in the first half. Leeds’ only period of tactical superiority resulted in them taking the lead on 22 minutes. Reacting positively to the missed spot-kick Leeds carried the momentum forward and took the lead from a Stuart Dallas header after fine work from Liam Bridcutt. There was little between the teams for the remainder of the half, and had Leeds ridden the first 45 minutes out without conceding this may have played out differently, and certainly the game hinged on Mark Hudson’s stooping header shortly before half-time. From there, Huddersfield picked Leeds off with worrying ease, and tactically and mentally Leeds never came out of the dressing room for the second half.
“Huddersfield wanted it more than us” said Steve Evans, and this is perhaps the crux of one of the many things that is wrong at Leeds United. To be bullied out of a local derby at home in front of 29,000 fans suggests that many of these players do not have the mentality to play for Leeds United. In truth, they are the latest in a long line of similarly un-blessed protagonists. How that is possible when Leeds players have been ‘managed’ by such military oppressors such as Neil Warnock and now Steve Evans, suggests the general state of confusion and a lack of general leadership and togetherness at the club turns otherwise stout and focussed individuals into psychological basket cases upon donning the white shirt.
It is a vague and generalised notion, but how else can you explain some of the frankly horrific home defeats in recent years? And what else can you attribute one of the worst home records in the division to this season, when the away record is almost the polar opposite? Elland Road is crying out for a team that feeds off the potential that is bubbling so feverishly just beneath the surface, but you sense that fundamental change is all that can prevent further days of abject dishonouring like this one.
Individual, un-forced errors can be pointed to for some of the key moments of course. Alex Mowatt’s suicidal backpass to Marco Silvestri lead to the avoidable corner from which Huddersfield took the lead on 69 minutes. Eight minutes later Leeds had conceded twice more, with a Brighton-shaped capitulation, during which Guiseppe Bellusci also gave the ball away needlessly in a dangerous area and was then caught hopelessly out of position as the Terriers bagged a fourth. Ultimately however, desire is something that can take you a long way in football, much further than natural ability in many cases, particularly at this level. It is something you can’t teach or fabricate though, you either have it in you or you don’t, or you want to bust a gut for your manager or your ultimate leader, or you don’t. It perhaps explains why seven Leeds defenders in the six-yard box failed to do anything about Mark Hudson heading Huddersfield’s pivotal equaliser, and perhaps why countless presentable crosses and corners sail into opponents’ penalty areas without a single Leeds player within ten yards.
“You haven’t seen ‘Steve Evans’ Leeds United’ yet” said Steve Evans. You have to ask yourself why, five months and 27 games into his tenure, this is the case. Sure, there are undoubtedly players who Evans wanted in January and no doubt since, in the emergency loan market, but such time is plenty to mould a team in your image. Leeds don’t have a shape or a defined way of playing. There are too many key players that Evans is not getting enough out of. This time last year Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook were flying, arguably Stuart Dallas is capable of much more. In a team that balances so tantalisingly on the boundary between good and poor Leeds can’t afford for such individuals to offer relatively meagre returns.
We haven’t seen ‘Steve Evans’ Leeds United’ yet, and it is perfectly possible that we never will. Massimo Cellino has already started the process of talking to other individuals about the head coach’s position, if stories in the newspapers are to be believed. But very recent history tells us that Steve Evans won’t get a shot at a summer of rebuilding, however much an ‘OK’ record suggests he deserves to. Evans doesn’t wear the look of a man that will be allowed to build at Leeds United. That’s not me indoctrinated in the trigger-happy mentality that Cellino has brainwashed us with, that’s me merely reacting to form. Sooner rather than later, it will happen.
Harvard professors would struggle to establish what Leeds United’s measure of success is, and while three wins sandwiched between two heavy defeats might not be ‘Steve Evans’ Leeds United’, it is symptomatic of the overall sense of stasis and a lack of direction surrounding the club. Whoever is guiding the team, it doesn’t matter. It is Leeds United. And that’s the problem.