As Sheffield Wednesday quietly build on the work Garry Monk is doing at Hillsborough, Leeds United are searching for something different. Despite their poor performance at the weekend, they may just have found it.
While the Owls came away the happier after dominating the first goalless game between the local rivals for half a century, Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa might be able to reflect in time that it was the game where he found a solution to his club’s biggest and most frustrating problem of late.
Playing well and not winning has been a frustration for the Whites, but Monk seemed reasonably content to do so against his old club. For Leeds, there was something to be said for not playing well and not losing. At least it changed the record.
Both sides hit the woodwork, both goalkeepers pulled off outstanding saves, it was just that Kieren Westwood’s from Patrick Bamford only needed to be a one-off, whereas Kiko Casilla was called upon a number of times.
It was hard to argue with Monk’s post-match assessment. “If any team was going to win the game I think we deserved it,” he argued. “Especially in the second half, we were so dominant.” Bielsa’s view was that: “They had more chances, but maybe less clear than us.”
It is credit to a manager who has only been in position for a couple of months that Wednesday look as though they know exactly what they are doing, and seem well capable of it.
Just looking at the respective sizes of the two sets of players during the pre-match handshakes, or the rain lashing down during them, it was not hard to work out how the hosts should approach the game, and they were not afraid to do it.
Massimo Luongo’s knee injury only clarified the situation, although Monk had already decided to play Atdhe Nuhiu as the second of two powerful centre-forwards alongside Steven Fletcher. What he had not banked on was Julian Borner being injured in the warm-up, forcing Sam Hutchinson to drop into central defence.
They shrugged it off to start the brighter.
The opening 44 minutes were largely uneventful, apart from Casilla’s good low save from Liam Palmer, and while both goalkeepers were called into action at the end of the half, it was the Leeds goalkeeper who was the busier after it.
The visitors struggled to cope with Wednesday’s blend of physique and occasional finesse, and Fletcher had three good chances to score.
The first, after a one-two with Nuhiu, forced a stretching fingertip save Westwood had to match a minute later.
Early in the second half an excellent Morgan Fox run ended with Fletcher crashing a shot off the crossbar, then Casilla’s back to safety. When Barry Bannan put a brilliant ball in after 66 minutes, Fletcher’s stretch could only touch the ball inside, to nobody.
If it had been Leeds, if it had been Bamford, there would have been much gnashing of teeth, but Wednesday’s glass is half-full at the moment.
Bamford’s has been spilled all over the carpet after nine games without a goal.
He did well to head an outside-of-the-boot cross by Jack Harrison back inside the near post at the end of the half, but Westwood did even better to keep it out of his goal.
That would be Bamford’s last major involvement of the game and afterwards Bielsa admitted that in future “Patrick may be used less.”
It was less a reflection on a player the Argentinian is fond of, more of one he has been sceptical about.
While Bamford looks in desperate need of a lucky break, fortune is smiling on his replacement, Eddie Nketiah, who scored a crucial equaliser at Preston North End in midweek.
The on-loan Arsenal forward can count himself lucky a flailing elbow on Joey Pelupessy was not spotted by the officials after an hour, but the fact it was not allowed him to showcase the qualities Bielsa has doubted.
Once past Pelupessy, Borner’s last-minute replacement, Nketiah wriggled past Dominic Iorfa and laid on a chance Harrison had blocked. When another run down the inside-left channel ended in the same result, Kalvin Phillips played the ball back in for Ezgjan Alioski to head against the upright.
Nketiah also had a 73rd-minute shot beaten away by Westwood after twisting into space.
“Eddie showed he also can dribble in the one-v-one that Patrick used less,” Bielsa reflected. “I saw a lot of good things in Eddie and I didn’t see that in previous performances.”
More of the same will not do for Leeds, who took a grip of the game in the second quarter of the match but were outplayed thereafter. Another performance like this from Nketiah, though, is just what they need to get out of the frustrating phase their season is in. For Wednesday, though, it was another sign of the rapid progress being made under Monk. They will take confidence from causing so many problems to such a good side, rather than dwelling on the missed opportunity to beat them.
Both sides may have dropped a place in the table as a result of the draw, but both had reasons to be cheerful if they can just replicate the positives that were on show at Hillsborough.
Each has been out of the top-flight far too long for clubs of their stature. Both know only too well not to take anything for granted, but there were signs at the weekend that both can find a way to try to put that right in May.