Patrick Bamford made all the right noises about the international break coming at the right time for Leeds United.
“It’s been a tough series of games from the last international break,” argued the Whites striker. “I think you could see that legs were a bit tired (against Blackburn Rovers last week) with people misplacing passes and stuff but I think we have earned the break now.”
He made some valid points, but there must have been part of him wishing Leeds could have played again this weekend.
In the last two matches, both at Elland Road, Leeds have shown signs of the most important thing eluding them recently – a cutting edge. Central to that was Bamford’s first goal since August – only a penalty, but an important duck-breaker nevertheless. Winger Jack Harrison scored his first two goals since the opening game of the campaign.
For Leeds to score twice two games running might not seem much of a landmark, but given they had gone seven matches without finding the net more than once, it was significant. If they can continue their defensive excellence, two will do.
With so many matches stuffed in, the end of the year is an important time in any English league and if the break has the reinvigorating effect Bamford hopes, if Leeds’s injury list can ease, and if the momentum building going into it can be picked up afterwards, there is the potential for it to be the month when Leeds break from the pack.
That they went into November’s break only two points behind front-runners West Bromwich Albion is an achievement for a team which has felt like it has had more in the tank than we have seen so far this season. Coach Marcelo Bielsa and his players have spoken often recently about how they think the side is playing better this season than last.
For all their injuries at the back, Leeds have the country’s best goals-conceded-per-game record. It is no fluke. They have allowed fewer shots on their goal than any team in this season’s Championship.
The picture at the other end is more misleading. Bielsa’s side are joint 11th for goal-scoring, yet out on their own when it comes to the number of shots they have had. Creatively speaking, they are making the most of their possession – only Fulham keep the ball more – just not when it comes to the most important part of the game, finishing. A little more ruthlessness could take them a long way.
With so many matches in a short period – Leeds’ New Year’s Day game at West Brom will be their 10th in 39 days – it would be a very good time to find top gear.
Not that it counts for a huge amount in the beautifully illogical Championship, but only four of those fixtures are against current top-half teams.
There is even the possibility of big investment before the January sales, with rumours persisting that Paris Saint-Germain’s owners want to get on board.
Director of football Victor Orta was right to caution fans not to expect too much of a transfer window when he estimates only 25 per cent of signings are a success, but an extra bit of financial muscle never goes amiss.
Of course this is the best-case scenario for Leeds, not a foregone conclusion.
Centre-back Liam Cooper’s withdrawal from the Scotland squad with a minor groin problem has the hallmarks of a cynical international injury, but if not, Leeds must hope it is not a sign of a physical weakness in their captain, who has only just returned from four matches out with another groin problem.
The way they have coped without Cooper, Luke Ayling, Barry Douglas and others for periods of this season is certainly encouraging.
Bielsa favours a tight squad, so the sheer number of injuries Leeds have sustained could have been a real problem. It speaks volumes for the adaptability of those who have been fit that they remain firmly in promotion contention.
It says much for Kiko Casilla’s improvement that a suspension for the Spanish goalkeeper could be more damaging, at least psychologically, to Leeds.
He will now not have to respond to charges of racist language until November 27, and if Leeds can postpone a judgement until as close to January’s transfer window as possible, so much the better.
Leeds being Leeds, there will always be terrace trepidation that what can go wrong will go wrong but the potential is there for a happy new year.