In the buildup to their visit to Elland Road, it was no secret that Brighton & Hove Albion are a solid defensive unit that excel in their passing movements compared to the teams around them in the Premier League table.
Often playing three sturdy defenders at the back, Graham Potter’s men can prove to be a tough nut to crack, while going forward they are capable of piecing together effective passing moves.
Leeds 0-1 Brighton FT:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) January 16, 2021
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Leeds United had to focus and ensure no one lost their man at the back, while also avoiding sloppiness going forward. Unfortunately, they did neither of those things when it mattered most, with Luke Ayling’s poor marking allowing Neal Maupay to score his fourth career goal against Leeds, who never responded.
Kalvin Phillips was desperately missed in holding-midfield, while Mateusz Klich and Rodrigo are not providing many answers in advanced-midfield. With little in the way of accuracy from crosses out wide, Patrick Bamford was isolated for much of the game and the only clear-cut chance fell to Rodrigo in the first half.
The reaction on social media may be overly reactionary, but there are significant things to be taken away from today’s result. Here is what we learned from Leeds United 0-1 Brighton & Hove Albion.
Harrison impresses on 100th league appearance
There are few positives to take away from today’s defeat, but a bright spark came in the form of Jack Harrison, making his 100th start on loan from Manchester City.
The 24-year-old tends to struggle in matches against solid defensive outlets, instead enjoying more success against attacking sides who leave space to be exploited at the back. But today saw a welcome change in fortunes, at least on an individual basis, for the winger.
Leeds only looked to threaten down the flanks when Harrison was involved, as he linked up well with Stuart Dallas and offered the teasing crosses that Ezgjan Alioski and Raphinha struggled to provide on the opposite side.
Jack talks to the media after the clash at Elland Road pic.twitter.com/rcHlzTQN5D— Leeds United (@LUFC) January 16, 2021
His first touch was as good as ever, leaving him as the only Leeds man able to make use of the consistent long balls from Leeds defenders. Aerially, Harrison also put in a shift, while his physical display saw him win the ball back on a handful of occasions.
It was telling that Marcelo Bielsa did not switch his wingers around as he so often does, particularly as the hosts did not look to be getting the best out of Raphinha on the left flank, but Harrison’s performance on the right ultimately dissuaded the manager from making the change.
Leeds would not have scored had the match lasted 10 hours, but Harrison’s performance was promising and he will hope that his teammates can match it in their next fixture against a Newcastle United side who are in dire straits.
Struijk struggling to replicate Phillips influence
On face value, Bielsa’s Leeds should have what it takes to survive with their current squad. Their form has been inconsistent at best, but they are exceeding expectations as a newly promoted side.
The Whites are unlikely to bring in any reinforcements this month, but if the club wants to take advantage of the foundations they have laid so far this season, summer transfer business will be vital.
Phillips has once again shown that he is arguably the club’s most important player, and their lack of a real backup for the England international - who was suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season against Tottenham Hotspur - was highlighted earlier as defender Pascal Struijk once again stood in.
Assessments of the 21-year-old should not be too harsh; it took time for Phillips himself to fully adapt to the role, and Struijk faces a more rugged path to becoming an accomplished holding-midfielder given that he is naturally a centre-back and is not a regular feature in the starting 11 when Leeds are at full strength.
However, it is not getting any less obvious that the Dutch defender is playing out of position when filling in for Phillips. Unlike the Yorkshire Pirlo, Struijk looks out of his depth in congested areas, and simply kicked the ball out of play or into the feet of opponents where Phillips might have used his technical ability to retain possession.
Defensively, Struijk was sound, completing the joint-second most tackles (4) on the pitch. While his 80 percent passing accuracy is decent enough, it is his range of passing that lacks alongside his technical ability on the ball. In the long term, importing a more suitable midfield backup would massively benefit Leeds.
Bielsa substitute decisions questioned again
With the scores level at half-time, Leeds had not enjoyed the ideal first half against League Two Crawley Town in last weekend’s FA Cup third round tie. Five questionable substitutes later and the Whites were headed towards a humiliating 3-0 defeat.
It was all the more surprising when, after an awful first half, Bielsa made no substitutes at the interval against Brighton. The passing was sloppy and Bamford only had four touches of the ball across 45 minutes. Something needed to change.
Leeds’ second half performance was an improvement, but by the time the hosts had gotten into their stride and were camping in Brighton’s half, it was too little too late - and some could not help but wonder whether a more proactive approach from the management would have given the Whites a better chance at scoring an equaliser.
Klich is a player who looks like he is running on fumes, and today was one of those days when Rodrigo had little to offer. The energetic Jamie Shackleton and creative Pablo Hernandez would have been welcome additions in the second half, but only the latter came on, and not before Tyler Roberts replaced Rodrigo.
In fairness to Roberts, there was more about him today than there has been in his previous cameo appearances, but there was little reward for replacing a natural striker in central-midfield with another natural striker.
Meanwhile, Ian Poveda’s technical ability can add some extra swagger to the flanks, but what Leeds truly needed was someone who could apply the final finish, something which the youngster is yet to perfect. Raphinha, the player he replaced, showed against Everton last year that he is capable of scoring from nothing and providing a threat from distance.
Few have any idea what goes through Bielsa’s mind during a match and how he perceives it, but supporters may have hoped for some more decisive action after a woeful opening 45 minutes against the Seagulls.
So this was not the result Leeds fans will have hoped for - quite the opposite, in fact. Yes, Leeds have lost three in a row without scoring, but they recovered from back-to-back 4-1 defeats last November, and they shall recover from this dip in form too.
Captain Liam Cooper was welcomed back today, and with any luck Diego Lllorente will be available for first team selection against a Newcastle that was defeated 5-2 by the Whites not long ago. With Phillips back from his suspension, a victory on Tyneside is very much on the cards.
With 20 games of the campaign remaining, Leeds sit 11 points above 18th-placed Fulham. Avoid the reactionary criticisms that have followed nearly every defeat so far this season; the goals will come! Of course, your thoughts are welcome over on Twitter.