How are your hearts?
That was the question to the Sheffield Wednesday players before kick-off on Saturday, and Leeds United’s at full-time.
Manager Garry Monk questioned the moral fibre of his Owls on New Year’s Day after a lacklustre performance against Hull City brought a third defeat in the week. Since, they have responded with victories over Brighton and Hove Albion and Leeds.
Monk spoke constantly post-match about “heart” and “courage”, the two characteristics he enjoyed most about his team’s 2-0 win, but there was more to it than just that. Without his tactical plan, or sharp finishing by Jacob Murphy and Atdhe Nuhiu, the game would not have been won.
Had the Whites been as incisive in front of goal, they would have triumphed. It was true at Arsenal on Monday, where their deficiencies were drowned out by the clamour to praise their brilliant football, and has been a theme of this season’s rare disappointments.
Defeat to Arsenal could easily be written off – in some people’s eyes, ducking out of the FA Cup early was a good thing – but it made Saturday the sixth time in seven games Leeds have failed to win. Given how last season panned out, that is more than enough to cause palpitations. “We have seen this situation before,” said coach Marcelo Bielsa, far from reassuringly. “We have to learn, if we have some weak points in our performance, to still get a result.
If we don’t get what we’re looking for, it’s like a sense of doubt around the team. When things go well, everyone is positive, but when they don’t, everyone is afraid.Leeds United’s Marcelo Bielsa
“If we don’t get what we’re looking for, it’s like a sense of doubt around the team. When things go well, everyone is positive, but when they don’t, everyone is afraid.”
The key for Leeds is not to get jittery, but it is easier said than done. Like the Owls, they have been out of the top-flight far too long for a club of their stature. With one of the world’s most respected coaches masterminding them, they have an excellent opportunity to finally end their 16-year Football League incarceration, but it is something of a last chance. It is very hard to envisage Bielsa having a third Championship season, and if he goes, surely the team will break up.
Having managed at Elland Road himself, Monk understands Leeds United.
“While you can’t ever quieten that crowd, you can keep them frustrated,” he told his pre-match press conference, and Wednesday’s game-plan was designed around that.
The idea was to keep it tight for the first half, prey on those frustrations, then go for the jugular. Hull City came unstuck trying something similar in December, picked off on the counter-attack, but this time a rare period of Leeds second-half strength led to two sucker-punches.
“We had a couple of game-plans depending how it was going,” revealed Monk.
“We planned to work in that middle area and try to be strong in that, then a couple of plans to step on if that was working, depending what we felt like. It was a decision at half-time, ‘We planned for this and now can we do this?’
“It’s great when that comes off but the key is a player must give everything. When everyone gives everything that’s the reason the game-plans work.”
At the start, it was Cameron Dawson who looked nervy in Wednesday’s goal. He fluffed a clearance after 12 seconds, and his kicking never really improved. His shot-stopping was rarely tested, though.
Jack Harrison was the star of the first half, but when a deep free-kick picked him out in the 19th minute, he touched it wide. His shot approaching the half-hour was much better, but Dawson met it with a low stretching save.
When Harrison picked out Helder Costa at the end of the first half, his fellow winger did not get his head over the ball.
The best skill Harrison produced, followed by a lovely pass to Mateusz Klich, was rendered irrelevant because the linesman’s flag was up when Patrick Bamford headed into the net. The striker had a shot blocked when brilliantly played through by Ben White at the end of the first half, and started the second by shooting over after great work by Costa and Luke Ayling.
Wednesday were very different after the interval, led by 19-year-old Osaze Urhoghide. In the first half, the right-back stuck to his job description trying to keep Harrison quiet, but in the second he careered forward to leave his opponent in the shadows.
Preferred to Jordan Rhodes and Nuhiu as the injured Steven Fletcher’s stand-in, Sam Winnall could not make the gear change count on the scoreboard, unable to stretch to Murphy’s cross, then burying his head in his hands after putting a great chance over at a corner. He soon made way for Nuhiu.
Leeds, though, were getting frustrated, and the crowd joined Kiko Casilla in howling their disappointment when Ezgjan Alioski headed a ball the goalkeeper was ready to catch comfortably.
Ironically, they had chances in the last 10 minutes – Harrison reminded us he was still there by heading Ayling’s cross so wide it went back to him, Alioski had a shot blocked and Bamford headed over at a corner where he complained the defenders were a bit too touchy-feely.
It only left gaps for Wednesday to run into, Murphy galloping on to Nuhiu’s 87th-minute pass and beating Casilla too easily at the near post, then Adam Reach was left in peace to get to the byline and pull back a cross for Nuhiu to dot the is and cross the ts.
The game-plan had worked a treat. Now it is Leeds who must show heart and courage.