No one expected City to be 23 days into 2024 and still unbeaten. Especially not when the Championship fixture list read, Southampton (h), Hull (a), and West Brom (h).
Even those of a positive disposition were apprehensive. All three teams were above us in the table and the type against whom we have struggled. But, literally, against all the odds, seven points out of nine have ensued.
However, as the saying goes, you’re only as good as your next game, and the fine win over West Brom will soon be forgotten if they are unable to follow it up with a good performance at Elland Road.
The flip side is that to return home from Yorkshire with a good performance and some points will set us up nicely for a playoff push that one month ago looked well and truly out of the question.
The task is a massive one though. Leeds have been irresistible all season at home.
And, as part of that uber-impressive record, they have hopped aboard the Farke train and have developed that priceless ability to snatch late, last-gasp winners in the style of Teemu Pukki/Onel Hernandez.
They were at it again at the weekend, when it ticked onto minute 93 before Joel Piroe tucked away a penalty to clinch a vital 2-1 win.
For what it’s worth, this is how they lined up against PNE:
On paper, for me, that team looks on a par with Leicester and Southampton, so it’s no surprise to see they are unbeaten at Elland Road.
Their strengths are numerous but the attacking quartet of James, Rutter, Summerville, and Bamford has ‘Premier League’ written all over it, and will offer Messrs Giannoulis, Gibson, Duffy, and Stacey their biggest test of the season … without question.
How they handle them will determine the outcome … one that the pundits and bookies have already decided will be a Leeds win, with the self-proclaimed Los Blancos as short as 2/5 with some bookies and City as long as 6/1.
Worth us even turning up? 😊
For City’s part, the balance that Wagner strikes between defensive solidity and attacking intent will be vital.
Go as ultra-defensive as he did against Southampton on New Year’s Day and it’s still hard to imagine them being watertight enough to keep Bamford and co at bay, but, equally, go as gung-ho as they did with abandon in the opening weeks of the season, and it’s hard not to see Leeds exploiting the gaps left down the channels.
A similar mix to that deployed against West Brom is desperately called for but is a hard balance to strike when the pressure is on, as it will be.
It’s hard to imagine Wagner veering too wildly away from the starting XI against West Brom, given that – minus Grant Hanley – it looked very much like his strongest available line-up from this current squad, but that team needs to perform from 1 to 11, just as those who join the fray from the bench will also need to do.
The scope to carry even a single passenger on Wednesday night is zero, and it will likely take a complete performance with minimal individual errors in order to take Farke’s men all the way.
It will also take a defensive performance unlike that offered up in October when we blew a 2-0 halftime lead against them courtesy of some of the aforementioned kamikaze defending.
What they will also have to contend with is a lively Elland Road.
Cast your mind back to 2018-19 and that brilliant 3-1 win, and they did their very best to scare the heebie-jeebies out of us with a ‘Welcome to Hell’ type of greeting for the City team bus and that terrifying twirly-scarf thing they do (or did) before kick-off.
Beware of flailing polyester, lads.
But to Elland Road we go with confidence – not something I expected to be typing – and if we are somehow able to emerge with a point (or even three), then the angst and ire of November and December will have to be shelved in readiness for an 18-game promotion charge.
Either way … an interesting one awaits.
To gauge opinion from the perspective of a scarf-twirler, it’s to an old friend I’ve turned … one Mr Matt Goldspink, a Leeds aficionado if ever there was one.
Q: So… we meet again! Are your lot doing the flares and twirly scarf thing this Wednesday? Or are we not worthy of that treatment anymore? 🙂
Matt: Ha! So interestingly, the atmosphere (along with the football) is more measured nowadays. It has been noted that at times the atmosphere has been a bit flat at ER this year, but that is more reflective of the way (for the most part) we have controlled games and the crowd have been waiting for the (hopeful) inevitable result, which for the most part has been home wins. That said we have a wee habit of giving early goals away which does spark the crowd into life. We do like ER under the lights but I doubt Farke would be too keen on flares and too many twirly scarves as we take it one game at a time!
Q: Hope you’re looking after Daniel. How highly-rated (or otherwise) is he among the Leeds fanbase?
Matt: I think Daniel has found a mutually respectable new home. Typically, we can be quite quick to moan (despite knowing better) but I think everyone has been impressed with how he managed to salvage things from disastrous squad/contract situations he inherited. He definitely has the side-before-self mantra down to a tee (just ask Willy Gnonto and Djed Spence). I for one think he’s doing a great job and just wish he could’ve come in after Bielsa.
Q: Has he got you guys playing that lovely, easy-on-the-eye football that he did here?
Matt: The football we are playing does have moments that are fantastically worked team goals. However, on the downside, we play out from the back in a much more measured and patient fashion and won’t force openings like we used to under Bielsa. This does (as mentioned above) result in us dominating possession but can leave the crowd a little flat whilst we pass it across the back line. On the flip side, we are more measured than we were under Bielsa, which means we are less likely to be caught on the break! 😬
Q: I’m assuming automatic promotion is still the aim? Two-way fight between you and Southampton for that second automatic place?
Matt: Ha! Ruling out Ipswich on principle if nothing else I see. I’m always optimistic (even when I know better) but I am still hoping for second place, but realistically expecting the playoffs. It would be very Leedsy to get within touching distance and then throw it away at the eleventh hour! It’s a very strange season in so much as we’ve beaten Ipswich twice (the first game was far more comfortable than the score suggested) and we’ve beaten Leicester but lost to Southampton despite dominating most of the game but struggled to finish our chances!
Q, Summerville has been grabbing most of the headlines… has he been the star? If not, who should we be scared of?
Matt: I think it sums up Summerville’s season when the post-match view against Cardiff was the has not had a very good game (missed a penalty) and only got two assists! He has been great, but the goals have been spread around the front players with Summerville on 12, James on 10 and Piroe on 11 (I think). So focusing on Summerville specifically won’t necessarily stop us. I haven’t even mentioned Rutter, who is such a joy to watch. His shooting can be very frustrating but he has a great touch, strength, and vision and is excelling in a deeper role! In the last few games Bamford has played (scored 3 in 4) and he has given us a focal point we were perhaps missing when Rutter was leading the line (and would often be found deep or running the channels as opposed to occupying the centre-backs in and around the area). Also special mention for Archie Gray who has done brilliantly for a 17-year-old midfielder playing at right back (and who has seen off Ayling and Spence this season).
Q: Final one … standard question … a prediction for Wednesday night.
Matt: Always the optimist, so I’ll go for a Leeds win. If we get things together I would not be surprised for a 3-0 or 3-1 and if you come to play, that could happen. However, I have a feeling you will be more pragmatic and make us work for a hard-fought 2-1.
Cheers mate. Don’t expect us to be too expansive 🙂