Leeds United were in a bad spot going into the international break after a loss to West Brom where Leeds looked a shell of the team that ran riot in August. However, since coming back from the break, Leeds have looked pretty good and got two clean sheets and two victories. Here’s some things we learned from those two matches against Reading FC and Bristol City.
1. Stuart Dallas is alright. Who knew?
Stuart Dallas has been played almost exclusively as a fullback this season after spending much of the season last year as an emergency option by Paul Heckingbottom. Dallas, a natural winger, came in and did a job last year when everything was going wrong, and he’s had to fill in again.
Of course, trying to replace Barry Douglas and Luke Ayling, who might be the best fullback pairing in the Championship, would always be a big task, and Dallas has looked bad in recent weeks, leading to a lot of questions about his inclusion in the side. However, against Bristol City, and especially against Reading FC, Dallas played much, much better. He even scored a goal poaching at the back post in the six-yard box.
While Dallas isn’t going to be able to replace either Douglas or Ayling in skill level or defensively, he’s okay in short stretches. Sometimes it’s nice to have a utility man on the roster.
2. The team can bounce back and keep clean sheets.
The loss to West Bromwich Albion was pretty ugly, and every Leeds fan heard in the back of their mind a small voice saying “is this how it ends?” Every time Leeds has come close to looking as if they have been ready to take the next step and at least get to the promotion playoffs, everything has gone wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
Only this time, instead of going into a tailspin like the team did last year after the loss to Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall, Leeds bounced back and got two clean sheets and two wins at home and got right back to second in the table. And while Bristol City and Reading aren’t as good as some of the other teams in the Championship, it was still good to get a pair of wins.
3. Kalvin Phillips can play at CB, and he’s pretty good at it.
Many people were surprised when Marcelo Bielsa said during preseason that he didn’t feel he needed to bring in more central defenders to the club because of the depth at the club was adequate, and Phillips could play in defence, if needed.
Kalvin Phillips vs. Reading:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) November 27, 2018
107 touches (most on pitch)
84% pass accuracy
18 long ball passes
8 headers won (most on pitch)
5 interceptions (most on pitch)
2 tackles won
Huge performance tonight. Shone throughout. #LUFC #MOT pic.twitter.com/aY7qkWsXA3
At first, when Phillips was pressed into a role in a back three, he looked unsure and was taken off, and then when playing against Birmingham City, he was again taken off as a precaution.
However, with the absence of Pontus Jansson, Gaetano Berardi, and Luke Ayling, all players who had been ahead of Phillips in the CB pecking order, Phillips was drafted into playing with Aapo Halme and Liam Cooper the past two games in a CDM and then CB role. Against Reading he played the whole match at CB, and to be honest, pretty good. A far cry from the player that sometimes looked out of control and trying to do too much for large stretches of last season.
4. There will be no “easy” points this year.
A quick glance at the table will tell you that not only is the top extremely tight, but that even teams at the wrong end of the table, such as Reading, will still put up a fight and make it difficult to win.
Leeds ran riot in the first month of the season, putting Stoke City, Derby County and Norwich City to shame. However, since then Norwich has been the best team in the Championship, Derby is in the playoff spots, and Stoke has been midtable, while Leeds have struggled to put away teams like Reading, and were only spared two dropped points by a penalty save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
In years past, teams seemed to give up at some point and were easily beaten, but this year, everyone seems to be pretty close, with teams in the bottom three close enough for a run to get them out of the relegation spots. Ipswich Town might be sunk, but everyone else is just a win or two to being mid-table, and conversely, a losing streak of a few games can see a team go from safely top six to mid-table as well.
5. The Academy has players that can come in and fill a role, at least for a brief time.
The concerns about the depth at central defender have turned out to be a valid criticism of Bielsa’s time at Leeds, but besides Kalvin Phillips stepping in, so did Aapo Halme agaisnt Bristol City.
Halme was brought into the club last January from HJK Helsinki, but an injury to the Finland U21 international kept him off the pitch until this autumn. He was an unknown quanity in the Academy, and with Leeds sending Liam Kitching and Paudie O’Connor out on loan for experience, many thought Leeds would be exposed with a lack of depth once Jansson got injured against West Brom. However, Halme stepped in and did just fine, and while it’s not ideal and possibly not even a long-term solution to have him as a backup, he did well enough for a match. Still, central defence might need to be addressed in the January transfer window, but if Leeds can’t or won’t be able to address it, at least we know that Halme can play a match or two without much trouble.