First it was Burnley beating Everton in midweek. Then it was Anthony Gordon’s shot deflecting in off Harry Maguire at lunchtime yesterday, the start of a pitiful attempt by Manchester United to slap Everton down again. The first rule of relegation fight club is that nothing out there is going to help unless you first help yourself.
Leeds United have spent the past month in a spin of manic emotion, reassured, re-embattled, relieved, reprieved.
The form shows 10 points from four matches, culminating in this 3-0 win away to second-bottom Watford, but still, the stress was hot in their veins, too persistent to flush out. Wednesday at Turf Moor was the result they didn’t want. Manchester United losing at Goodison Park just before their own kick-off was a second turn for the worse. And so to Vicarage Road, where the weekend was conspiring to drop Leeds right in it again.
What transpired was Leeds’ biggest win of the season, and a first clean sheet since November’s 1-0 at home to Crystal Palace.
But it just didn’t feel so routine or cathartic until Jack Harrison put his left boot through the ball and found the corner of Watford’s net, the third goal of the afternoon, with five minutes to go. Even then, as the away end bounced and made the most of the relatively rich pickings, what was left was the feeling that this club needs a holiday; rest, recuperation, a little life without peril.
It might be they are already there with 33 points on the board but they have two full weeks until their next game at Palace on April 25, with four fixtures for Burnley in the meantime and a season which seems determined to take its pound of flesh.
“By the time we play Palace, the table will be tight again,” said Jesse Marsch, the son of a Wisconsin tractor-builder counting no chickens.
Did he think Leeds are still in a relegation battle after this win? “Oh yeah. Everyone’s getting results around us.”
In the dressing room post-match, Marsch asked Liam Cooper to address his squad because, in a game of extraordinarily low quality, Leeds’ skipper was the player who more than any other kept his head. “I haven’t had a better captain in my entire time as a coach,” Marsch said, and while the sample size for that accolade is not vast, Leeds would go back many years to find a captain with a better knack for maintaining standards , either in the way he plays or in the way he acts.
On the day and in the heat of a long, tiring run to the finish line, little brushes of skill combined with someone nailing the basics at the back were what it took to bury Watford. “I do want us to play better and be more confident,” Marsch, said but results are buying himself time to start satisfying the style council.
In comparison, opposite number Roy Hodgson looked more ghostly, not quite ready to phone relegation in but far too long in this game to deny that Watford will soon be needing snookers.
When a season gets to April, the name of the game is not to outrun the bear. It is to outrun enough of the others the bear is about to maul, and Hodgson is one of them.
There were periods yesterday where Leeds were as loose as Watford, periods where neither team seemed to schooled in the art of ball retention, but the visitors had a couple of ace cards to play: Raphinha’s 25-yard peach in the first half to open the scoring and Harrison’s clean hit to wrap everything up. The last five minutes after the latter were wonderfully danger-free.
In between, there was some help of sorts from their hosts, a stray ball from Samir which Rodrigo stole before running around Ben Foster and sliding into an empty net. No question that it killed the impetus Watford were chaotically building, with Leeds putting very little together as the game went into the last 20 minutes still at 1-0.
But the difference in these teams’ respective league positions is there because of the difference in levels; not vast or overwhelming but there when it came to put up or shut up. The clean sheet was Leeds’ first for 18 matches, an indicator about which of these teams might be staying up and which is going down.
Stress has been on Marsch’s mind since he replaced Marcelo Bielsa at the end of February, specifically the job of easing it and quelling it. He has taken to making Thursdays, or match day minus-two as football likes to call it, a gentler day and trying to avoid over-stating the importance of individual games, even if the table speaks for itself.
Last week was managed in that way and Leeds’ board are getting from him what they wanted when they sacked Bielsa: results, plain and simple, which keep the club away from the rocks.
There is a culture war brewing in the longer term, the battle to entertain a public who want to be entertained, but for the past month, Leeds have been better than anyone else in the bottom five at digging out points. Hodgson sounded like a coach who no longer expects to find a spade.
Saturday’s result was nicely influenced by a short cameo from Sam Greenwood, the less feted half of a pairing with Joe Gelhardt which is almost inseparable away from the pitch.
It was Greenwood’s pass that sent Watford backwards and drew that mistake from Samir on 73 minutes. It was Greenwood dropping off and then sending the ball forward which gave Harrison the sight of Foster’s far corner, a goal which intensified the banging of empty seats in the home stands that had begun when Ismael Sarr slashed at Watford’s best chance when only a goal down .
Few noises of dissent speak so loudly.
“I said to Sam two days ago that of the entire player pool, he’s the one who’s adapting best in terms of understanding what we want,” Marsch said. “I’ve got to find ways of using him more.” Leeds’ head coach, no doubt, would like some freedom to experiment before this season lets everyone off the hook.
“But I’m really excited that we were able, in a tough moment and in a really tough game, to emerge,” he said. “A clean sheet, three goals on the day and a massive result is important for us.”
Priorities, in other words, and survival is the biggest of them.
Longer term, Leeds will not thrive without more quality. Longer term, pressure will come for an identity that pleases the eye.
But in stepping out of a car crash, the last thing anyone thinks about is the fate of the car.
(Top photo: Alex Morton/Getty Images)