Leeds remain in peril but at least Allardyce has them standing up straight

Ian King
Leeds United manager Sam Allardyce during his team's Premier League match against Manchester City

Leeds United couldn’t come away from their trip to Manchester City with a point, but was it ever reasonable to have any expectation that they could?

If nothing else this week, Sam Allardyce has already proved one thing since his arrival at Leeds United. He is exceptionally good at making it all about him. It’s difficult to imagine another managerial appointment at a club fighting against relegation from the Premier League that would dominate media headlines in the way that this one has, and this can only be partly pinned on the fact that it’s happening so late in the season.

When Allardyce sits in front of a press conference and says that he’s as good as Pep or Klopp to the world’s media, he’s either completely completely self-aware or completely oblivious. There can be no middle ground, and this is the point at which we start to wonder whether he’s playing 4D chess with us all. Perhaps the very first thought of his was: “This team has been playing as though the weight of the world has been on their shoulders, as though you can visibly see the pressure bearing down upon them. Perhaps I could release that valve a little by saying the Big Sammest thing I can think of saying and acting as a sponge for that attention”. Or perhaps he just thought, “Yeah, I’m as good as these two fancy dans” and took an enormous bite out of a gala pie.

His first big decision was to brush the cobwebs off Joel Robles and install him in goal in place of Illan Meslier. In a sense, this was understandable. Robles may have not played many more than 100 games over the last decade, but there can be little question that Meslier’s recent form has been poor and that confidence is all-important in this particular position. It was a sound, logical choice, and after a quarter of an hour he seemed to have justified Allardyce’s decision by blocking a shot from Erling Haaland.

For Manchester City, the potential distractions are growing on a daily basis. The Premier League title race, for all that you may read otherwise in some corners of the press, isn’t quite decided yet. They need to keep winning. Against West Ham they’d looked a little out of sorts for spells, though this hadn’t prevented them from gliding to a comfortable 3-0 win. And next week they travel to Madrid for the first leg of their Champions league semi-final, a match will go a far longer way towards defining their season in the long run than this one.

They made seven changes to the previous game, but unlike then they seemed ‘on it’ from the outset, this time around. They pushed and pulled, prodded and poked, as though testing the Leeds defence out for structural defects. It didn’t take long to start finding them. Robles’ save from Haaland wasn’t much such a brief stay of execution that it barely qualified as one. Three minutes later, Ilkay Gungodan stroked the ball into the bottom corner as the Leeds central defence stood around picking their noses. Eight minutes later, he did it again.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Eight minutes earlier, Leeds. Eight. Was it really beyond any of their ken to figure out that perhaps if the ball was being played to Mahrez, it might be an idea to put someone on Gungodan as well? It’s hardly as though they were short of bodies in the box. They had nine players in their own penalty area for the both of the Manchester City goals. On the touchline, Allardyce glowered. If this was as bad as things could get for a manager who’s as good as Pep and Klopp, how worse might they be under a lesser mortal? It was still 2-0 by half-time, but things might have been considerably worse for Leeds.

The second half felt, for most of it at least, somewhat more like a victory lap than anything else. Manchester City passed the ball around with ease. And good God, did they pass the ball around. They passed, and passed, and passed, and passed, and passed. There was some low humour to be found in the increasingly baffled look on Haaland’s face as his software appeared to malfunction, resulting in him missing a hatful of chances.

But he didn’t miss the best one of the half. That fell to Gungodan, who was given the ball rather than Haaland to complete a hat-trick from the penalty spot after a foul on Phil Foden, but who hit the post instead. Within a minute, Leeds had got it launched towards Rodrigo, who poked the ball past Emerson and set up a surprisingly tense end to a match which had hitherto felt like a bit of a training session for the home side. That slightly lackadaisical air had returned throughout the previous 10 or 15 minutes. They’ll need to concentrate better than this against Real Madrid.

In a very obvious sense, it’s unfair to judge any new manager on their first match alone in charge of a team, and especially when that first match is away to Manchester City. But in both senses, it is also kind of, well, fair. Firstly, this one match made up a quarter of the total number that Allardyce has left to save Leeds United from relegation this season. Now that may not be very many. It may not be enough. But it is the number that he had, and he knew this when he accepted the job in the first place. And it’s easier to be forgiving of a manager in this position getting beaten by Manchester City when that manager hasn’t insisted at his first press conference that he’s just as good as some of the very best in the history of this league. He could have… just not said what he said.

One down, three to go. Next up come Newcastle United at home, which doesn’t seem particularly likely to yield much more reward than their trip to Manchester did, although perhaps a noisy Elland Road crowd will breathe some colour into the players’ cheeks. The most likely potential keys to unlock survival are their final two games of the season, away to West Ham United and at home to Spurs. West Ham’s form has dipped in recent weeks and they’re not quite safe from relegation, while Spurs have started to improve following the sacking to Cristian Stellini. They’re winnable, but neither could be described as an ‘easy’ fixture. And of course, it does remain possible – unlikely, but possible – that they fail to win any of these games and still survive.

Allardyce had the Leeds United players over to the travelling supporters at the end of the match. They may have come out of this one pointless, but at least the greeting they got was better than in recent weeks. This is clearly a very limited squad of players and whatever ‘spirit’ Allardyce can instil in these players may be as much as Leeds can depend on to base their survival chances. He is a roll of the dice, but such has been the mismanagement of this club over the last couple of seasons and such are the constraints of the time that this roll was about all they had left. And whether he’s playing 4D chess with us or not, Allardyce will have left all concerned in a better frame of mind than they likely expected to be by the end of this match. That’s why they hired him, and it’s also why doing so might even yet work.