Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Leeds grab fresh momentum in a draw that feels like a win

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It is in the nature of a relegation battle that goals and points are scarce. But the few goals and points that come to mind feel a little more valuable. At least that’s what it seemed at Elland Road as Pascal Struijk’s header saved a 92nd-minute draw for Leeds.

It was just a draw – just a 1-1 draw against an impressive Brighton and Hove Albion side – and no more or less than Leeds really deserved. Jesse Marsch felt a little unfortunate that his side couldn’t get more out of their attack on Robert Sanchez’s goal in the second half. They were cut open so many times in the first that they were lucky not to be further behind.

But when you’re fighting for every inch, as Elland Road and her team are having to do at the moment, an injury-time equalizer can feel like a late winner. A dot can feel like three if three dots don’t come around too often. And a tie like the one Leeds achieved in death feels like more than just a tie when your rivals end the weekend in defeats.

One of the few perks of being at the wrong end of the table is that you can usually count on your rivals to lose. Your own slips and mistakes are not always punished by those around you. Only occasionally, at most. But that wasn’t always the case in this season’s dogfight against the Drop, especially for Leeds.

Marsch appeared to have bailed out his new employer as he picked up 11 points in his first seven competitive games. After last month’s 3-0 win at Watford, Leeds were nine from the dotted line. Third from bottom Burnley had games on their hands but few expected them to win them. Until they did, that is.

Everton also appeared to be in more danger than Leeds at this point, but still collected 11 points from a possible 18 in the weeks that followed. Although Covid postponements created a slightly wrong picture of the relegation battle, swings in momentum have been wild since early April, which says nothing of Newcastle’s transformation before that.

Those swings in swing over the past month and a half have pulled Leeds back into the fray but Marsch will now be hoping the latest pulls them out. While Burnley lost at Tottenham and nine-man Everton went down to Brentford at home, Leeds picked up a point. By helping to break the pattern of the past few weeks, it could prove to be the most important point of their season. It could be the difference maker.

“The point shifts the pressure a bit. It’s a psychological battle we’re in,” Marsch explained afterwards. “Burnley has a match in hand, but if you look at the table, they have to get a result. You have two matches to get it.”

Leeds’ fate is still not in their hands and their -38 goal difference remains an issue. The blow-outs suffered under Marcelo Bielsa – and it has to be said – also under Marsch put them at a considerable disadvantage if you end up siding with Mike Jackson. Had they lost to Brighton back then, apart from a 21-goal swing, Leeds could have been relegated in all but name before they next kicked a ball.

Instead, Struijk’s equalizer means they will start the final day alive, with a fighting chance of survival. They could even have their own destiny in their hands if Aston Villa can do them a favor on Thursday night.

While keeping Leeds on the ball, Marsch also has plenty to prove. Since his appointment, he has picked up 12 points from 11 games. It’s not a season-long form of relegation, but it’s not far off. There have been difficult opponents – most recently against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, for example – but also cheaper games.

The sample size is now large enough to indicate that there is still work to be done. The offensive dexterity of Bielsa’s times was lost slightly, but there was little defensive solidity at the other end. Bad luck with injuries has shown how thin the squad is under a trusted core and that a wise summer investment is necessary. Loud and sustained chants of ‘sack the board’ could be heard in Elland Road before the late equalizer, which could be heard sporadically at a lower volume after the final whistle.

With all that said, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Leeds continue to scrape for points at this end of the table next season. Some points are bigger than others, however, and the release of emotion around Elland Road, which hit Struijk’s equalizer, suggested this could be one that could be huge. In a relegation battle riddled with momentum shifts, Leeds have benefited from that recently and must now hope it lasts.

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