Tuesday night provided a stark contrast in the trajectories of Leeds United and Preston North End. As Leeds were made to look hapless at Griffin Park, by all accounts our worst display since the opening day disaster at QPR, Preston were enjoying their best result of the season, putting five against Bristol City. A concerning prelude to Saturday’s action at Elland Road, to be sure.
It’s possible to view the current situation in different ways:
On a positive note, Fulham also lost on Tuesday, leaving the table remaining a pretty picture, a five point gap over seventh that any Leeds fan would’ve grabbed with two hands at the start of the season. Liam Cooper is the only unavailable player, and his absence forces Monk’s hand into starting our best defender in a back four that has a generally stellar record.
To put a further good spin on things, if there is a time for a wobble, it’s better now than in May. The run-in offers an opportunity - ample time to recalibrate and rekindle a winning formula.
For Saturday too, there are signs in our favour. Leeds have been far better at home - the two consecutive gut-punches of defeats have come on the road - only losing once since the Newcastle defeat in November. Our last home match was the superb display over Brighton, the biggest statement thus far from Monk’s Leeds.
On the inverse, while Preston have been formidable at Deepdale, they haven’t won on the road in their last seven attempts.
Simon Grayson has a poor record against the Whites - he’s yet to win, losing three and drawing one of his four meetings since departing Elland Road. Preston haven’t registered a win against Leeds since Grayson himself was in charge in 2010.
There is, of course, a more fatalistic spin we can put on things. There’s an argument that Leeds have been seriously poor for quite some time, goals by Chris Wood and undeserved points masking deficiencies that run deep. It could be said that the Reading and Brentford results are the natural conclusion of a team that hasn’t performed well - Brighton aside, and that was a game we still might have lost - since February.
As for Preston and Grayson’s poor record in recent encounters, it’s fair to say that they’ve never been in a better position to test us. He has a fully fit squad at his disposal. As they showed midweek, they’re peaking at the right time, and - five points from sixth place, six points from us - will rightly believe a play-off position is up for grabs.
They played some fantastic stuff to carve open Bristol City time and again, and in such form, will prove a tough test for a United defence that has looked uncharacteristically shaky of late. Such a performance wasn’t an anomaly, either - Preston have only lost one of their last ten.
Kop hero Jermaine Beckford - who appears to have concentrated more on applauding Leeds fans than scoring against us, since leaving - unfortunately doesn’t look likely to feature, limited to late cameos recently. In his place, Leeds will have to worry about Tom Barkhuizen who has six goals in six appearances to his name since joining from Morecambe in January, Everton loanee Aiden McGeady, and striker Callum Robinson who has two goals and an assist to his name from Tuesday night.
As ever, the reasonable position lies between the two. No doubt about it, Leeds have been poor of late, but two defeats does not negate the good work we’ve put in all season. Preston are a good team, full of confidence, but are coming to one of the hardest grounds to visit in The Championship with a poor away record.
This Saturday fixture is important because a result - and perhaps more importantly, performance - one way or the other would represent a real lurch away from that middle ground. A bad loss and this is really would be a crisis. A convincing win and we’re back on track.
The most intriguing aspect of this encounter for Leeds - and the five that follow - are who makes the starting XI, and who can establish themselves for potential play-offs. The qualities of this Leeds side are obvious, and over the course of a long and gruelling season, the majority of a best side picks itself. No question over Green, the Jansson and Bartley partnership, with Ayling and Taylor as full-backs. Bridcutt is undoubtedly the best shield ahead of the back four, Chris Wood’s goal tally speaks for itself, and while he can be frustrating, especially away, Pablo Hernandez has a level of class above anyone else.
That leaves three places to be fought for in - Vieira, Roofe, Doukara, Sacko, Dallas, Pedraza, O’Kane and Phillips have all had their moments this season, but none have established themselves as automatic picks for Monk. Barrow, albeit in his limited playing time, has shown little to justify any playing time during this crucial stage. Leeds need these players to alleviate the goalscoring workload of Chris Wood, create more chances for him as he’s been feeding on scraps of late, and wrestle control in the middle of a pitch.
Whoever Monk opts for on Saturday, it’s imperative they step up. There couldn’t be a better time.
Liam Cooper serves the second of his six game ban for Leeds.
Simon Grayson has the full squad at his disposal for Preston. No suspensions or injuries.
Other Notable Fixtures
Fulham (7th) vs. Ipswich (17th)
Sheffield Wednesday (6th) vs. Newcastle United (1st)
(We can no longer look above us, or even at the other sides in the play-offs. All that matters now are the sides that can pip us in the top six. A home loss to Preston would put them back in that category, too.)
Leeds have won three of the last four competitive fixtures against Preston, drawing the other. Preston’s last win over Leeds was the aforementioned, unforgettable 4-6 game in 2010, Jon Parkin scoring a hat-trick to overturn a 4-1 lead.
Leeds come into the game on back-to-back losses, with only one win in the last five. The worst run of form since the start of the season.
Preston are fresh from their midweek 5-0 victory over Bristol City, their best win and display of the season. They have only lost one of their last ten and sit fifth in the form table.
Leeds United vs. Preston North End
EFL Championship Fixture
Elland Road, Leeds
LUTV, BBC Radio Leeds (no international broadcasts)
Saturday, April 8th, 2017
07:00AM PT / 10:00AM ET / 3:00PM BT
Leeds United’s predicted starting XI
Green, Ayling, Bartley, Jansson, Berardi, Bridcutt, O’Kane, Hernandez, Pedraza, Doukara, Wood
Preston’s predicted starting XI
Maxwell, Baptiste, Clarke, Huntington, Cunningham, McGeady, Pearson, Gallagher, Barkhuizen, Hugill, Robinson
The intangibles of football - momentum, confidence - are in stark contrast between these two sides, and it’s important that Leeds have them play as little part in Saturday’s meeting as possible. 30,000+ at Elland Road should help with that, but it can be difficult to just switch things back on again after demoralising defeats. If Leeds can control the tempo, Hernandez should be able to produce some moments of quality as he often does, and create opportunities for Wood. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t bet against Preston scoring after their exploits during the week. 1-1.