Positives outweigh the negatives for Leeds United in stalemate at Newcastle United

There were plenty of holes you could pick in Leeds United's last performance of 2022.

Rodrigo was once more isolated up front, the curling shot which forced a Nick Pope save in the second half his team's only effort on target. The team lacked width and at times gave the ball back too easily, allowing pressure to mount. The more Jack Harrison plays in positions other than the left wing – he was in the hole of a 4-2-3-1 at St James' Park – the more he looks like a left-winger.

But the good things were so much more important than the nitpicking in a valiant 0-0 draw.

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If you were expecting perfection on an afternoon when the rain hammered down on a ground where Newcastle United have only been beaten under Eddie Howe's management by Manchester City, Liverpool and Cambridge United, your New Year's resolution really needs to be to take a more realistic view of the world.

Willy Gnonto and Kieran Trippier battle for the ball. Picture: Bruce RollinsonWilly Gnonto and Kieran Trippier battle for the ball. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Willy Gnonto and Kieran Trippier battle for the ball. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

The Magpies have returned from the World Cup in ominous form, and had extended their run of Premier League wins to six before kick-off. Whilst some of their fans are daring to dream about winning the title, Leeds are locked in another relegation battle.

So depressing as it may be for a club with such a big history to think so small, to not only take two points off Newcastle, but to keep a clean sheet in the process was huge for Leeds.

Whatever their shortcomings, a lack of character is not one of them.

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This season they have thrashed Chelsea, won at Liverpool, given Tottenham Hotspur an almighty fright on their own ground and they really ought to have beaten Arsenal too.

Brenden Aaronson holds back Joelinton. Picture: Bruce RollinsonBrenden Aaronson holds back Joelinton. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Brenden Aaronson holds back Joelinton. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Illan Meslier rose the occasion with two big second-half saves, to deny former Leeds striker Chris Wood with his chest, and Fabian Schar with his feet. The 22-year-old even showed the gamesmanship of a cynical veteran in a bit of stoppage-time pantomime which sucked the last momentum out of a frustrated home side.

But the Frenchman's work was about quality, not quantity, because although the Whites in their tie-dyed away shirts spent an awful lot of the second half pinned into their own half, they did a good job in limiting the calibre of opportunities Newcastle's players were presented with.

On a miserable day made for centre-halves like him, Liam Cooper dug deep.

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But actually, singling out individuals was a bit unfair because this was the sort of backs-to-the-wall effort which only works if everyone is pulling in the right direction.

Luke Ayling came into the side to provide a more conservative interpretation of the right-back role but when Rasmus Kristensen's fresh legs replaced him, he contributed defensively too, heading a 90th-minute free-kick away after Robin Koch fouled Callum Wilson out wide.

Tyler Adams brought energy and intelligence to the midfield and alongside him, Adam Forshaw might not have given any tears but certainly plenty of sweat and a bit of blood from his nose making his second Premier League start in three days on the back of none since April 2.

What was really important was that Leeds, the team of the 4-3s, showed themselves they can keep a clean sheet.

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Tightening up defensively was a big focus during the World Cup and rightly so with just four clean sheets from 28 Premier League matches at that stage.

"I think the point is valuable but even more valuable is the clean sheet for us," commented Marsch.

It was important for the belief of the players that the work brought a quick reward, and against a pretty potent team at that. Not only did they defend well in open play, they also did at set-pieces, which has been a big part of the focus.

Newcastle might have the money to buy the flair to cit teams open, but they take a mean dead ball too, especially when Kieran Trippier is stood over it. "Look at the size of some of their players," stressed Marsch.

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Luckily for Leeds, when they could not get them away, the best of those chances fell to centre-back Schar, who was not at his sharpest.

Plucky 0-0s are all well and good against the elite, but more will be needed on Wednesday. Five straight Premier League defeats with a League Cup exit on penalties thrown in for good measure make the Hammers there for the taking.

But for Leeds to be only two points above David Moyes' men, three above the relegation zone, after some of the scalps they have claimed this season tells you they have done a fair bit of gazing at the mouths of gift horses.

First thing, first, though, on a day which took a lot of drying out from, the priority was for Leeds to stop taking water on board. The rest has to follow, but at least they have made a good start.

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Newcastle United: Pope; Trippier, Schar, Botman, Burn; S Longstaff, Guimaraes, Willock (Saint-Maximin 64); Almiron (Murphy 84), Wood (Wilson 64), Joelinton. Unused substitutes Lascelles, Ritchie, Lewis, Manquillo, Darlow, Anderson.

Leeds United: Meslier; Ayling (Kristensen 70), Cooper, Koch, Struijk; Forshaw (Roca 46), Adams; Aaronson, Harrison (Klich 64), Gnonto (Summerville 70); Rodrigo (Gelhardt 82). Unused substitutes: Robles, Firpo, Llorente, Greenwood.

Referee: S Hooper (Swindon).


Man of the match: Illan Meslier is not faultless as a goalkeeper but at 22 he really should not be. What he has shown this season, though, is a temperament for the big occasion, starring at Anfield and now St James' Park with two big saves.

Balancing act: Holding back Jack Harrison on Boxing Day, only getting 20 minutes out of Crysencio Summerville over Christmas and dropping Marc Roca to the bench on New Year's Eve, Jesse Marsch is juggling his resources at the moment in an unusually busy part of Leeds' stop-start season.

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Left-wing dilemma: There are far worse problems to have, but Willy Gnonto's bright start to the game points to another bit of juggling to come. The Italian looks best from the left but so does Harrison, a big player for Leeds for some time now, as does Luis Sinisterra, who is close to returning from injury. If one of them could be effective on the right, it would be a big help.