Leeds United are starting to heal, but still require convalescence

Ian King
Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa

Leeds United picked up a critical three points at Norwich, but they still look like a team recovering from a difficult start to the season.

Following their 7-0 defeat at Chelsea, a lot has been written about Norwich City, and not much of it has been terribly complimentary. They’ve already been compared to the worst Premier League team of all time, and many seem to have decided that their season is already over with only just over a quarter of it actually played. Norwich’s response was to come out fighting, reminding anybody who will listen that they spent quite a lot of money on quite a lot of players during the summer, and that they will still retain their faith in Daniel Farke.

But what of Leeds United? They travelled to Carrow Road having won just one of their first nine games of the season, but have faced little of the criticism of Norwich, even though they’re in their second season in the Premier League. It’s likely that some of this might be because everybody loves Marcelo Bielsa, but Leeds have been nervy and uncomfortable so far this season, and while their injury situation has been bad, players have been recovering and returning to the team without too many signs of improvement.

Their sole Premier League win of the season was a nervy 1-0 win against Watford at the start of October, and it was hoped that this would provide a launchpad for things to come. But this didn’t happen. Leeds took a point from the next two games and took almost the whole of those two matches to score, an injury-time equaliser against Wolverhampton Wanderers.

When these matches are played between struggling teams, we expect them to be tense and nervy, with the pressure of the occasion hanging over the players, weighing them down. But on this occasion, the opening was, if anything, frantic. Within a couple of minutes, the crisis almost deepened considerably when the ball bounced up and hit Daniel James on the arm. It was inside the penalty area, and if that’s what constitutes a ‘natural’ position, then James may need to see an orthopaedist, but the flag didn’t go up, the referee’s whistle didn’t blow and the VAR watchers didn’t drag play back either.

Not long afterwards, James got through on goal and rounded Tim Krul, only to have his finish cleared off the line by Grant Hanley. James’ finish hinted at Leeds’ apparent nervousness, just a degree too cautious to get it past the covering defender. Marcelo Bielsa needed Patrick Bamford, but Bamford is still injured.

The pace slowed down as the half progressed because teams are incapable of maintaining that level for an entire 45 minutes. It would be unfair to suggest that Norwich didn’t apply themselves; they worked as any other Premier League team over the course of the weekend. It just felt as though they didn’t quite have the imagination to be able unlock Leeds.

The visitors, meanwhile, looked nervy and unsure of themselves throughout the half. Passes went astray. The ambitious ball was rejected in favour of the conservative. Leeds played like what they are, a talented team with shortcomings whose confidence has been shot to pieces by a poor start to the season. By half-time, it was still impossible to see which of these two states might be preferable.

If the first half had been unexpectedly cagey, the opening stages of the second half brought the sort of defensive football that has seen these two teams slump to the bottom of the table. The return of Raphinha didn’t seem to make much difference to Leeds’ fortunes in the first half, but early in the second his class shone through; picked out on the right by James, he controlled the ball beautifully with one touch, wriggled inside and drove a low shot past Krul to give Leeds the lead.

But this advantage lasted barely 90 seconds. Norwich went straight to the other end, and Ilian Meslier and Jamie Shackleton got themselves in a tangle to win them a cheap corner on the left which Andrew Omobamidele headed in to bring Norwich level. But their parity lasted barely a couple of minutes, when Rodrigo’s low shot squeezed under Krul’s body for a third goal in less than five minutes. It was an uncharacteristic error from Tim Krul, but characteristic of Norwich’s season so far.

As the clock ran down, Norwich’s shortcomings became all the more apparent. There seemed little urgency throughout the final ten minutes. Leeds were obviously happy to hold on to what they’d already got, but Norwich looked tired and bedraggled, as though they didn’t have anything more to give. On the couple of occasions when they did come close to getting behind the Leeds defence, the final ball was missing.

Their season isn’t over, and this was definitely an improvement upon their previous outing at Stamford Bridge, but their next four matches come against Brentford, Southampton, Wolves and Newcastle, all of whom are in the bottom half of the table. If they can’t take anything much from those games, talk of their demise will no longer sound so premature. There were boos upon the full-time whistle at Carrow Road. Patience is starting to run out.

None of this will bother Leeds, of course. It might have taken a mistake by the opposing goalkeeper to get over the line and their performance was far from sparkling, but the win lifted them back out of the relegation places, and when you’ve won just one of your first nine league games of the season, you’ll take another win from the tenth, no matter how it comes about. The return of Bamford should add still more cohesion to their attacking play, but their healing process has already started with the return of Raphinha, who was enough to be the difference between these two teams. Perhaps this will be the kick-start that their previous win against Watford did not deliver.