Scant consolation when all was said and done, but Daniel Farke did succeed in calling it right. The worst possible time to play Southampton, he said, and how else could it look when the ball was sliding in off Illan Meslier’s far post after 105 seconds, the surest sign that everything that can go wrong probably will?
There are ways and means of tapping into the psyche of a team who are rumoured to be short-circuiting, as many thought Southampton were, but Leeds at St Mary’s was a blueprint for blunting the pitchforks on behalf of an old colleague. One-nil in the second minute was two-nil by the 31st, and three-nil before the 35th was out. “When not if,” Farke said in answer to a question about whether Southampton and Russell Martin, a man he once jettisoned from Norwich City, would rejoin the straight and narrow and here Southampton were, mowing Leeds down and showing why Farke did not think they were there for the taking.
When, at the start of the second half, Farke’s players began re-emerging from the tunnel, they appeared in piecemeal fashion, almost as if individual bollockings had been dished out and the team released one by one. Farke was in hairdryer mode after Leeds conceded late and softly in the first half away to Ipswich Town in August and that was a minor transgression by comparison. But his tone at St Mary’s was softer. “In 99 per cent of all cases as a manager, when you’re on such a good run, four clean sheets in a row, and you go back at half-time 3-0 down, I would have thrown bottles and killed someone,” he said. “Today it was more like ‘no, let’s talk about how we turn the game.’ I spoke quite calmly.”
Thirteen minutes after half-time, as Pascal Struijk hooked in a consolation on the turn from a corner, who of a Leeds persuasion was not thinking of 2005 when the club were smoked in the same way at St Mary’s before the interval, completely out of the game, but summoned four goals in the dying embers of a seemingly lost cause, the last of them half-volleyed in by the late Liam Miller? That is how it was; the vain hope of lightning striking twice and delivering a 4-3 win. But not this time.
A fightback like that would have dug Leeds out of a pit which, for all that Southampton did a job on them and regrouped after four losses in a row, was more than partly of their own making. Farke made a point with his team selection but was denied a performance which would have justified that call. Leeds watered down the self-doubt swimming around St Mary’s by conceding on the first occasion Southampton came forward with any menace. Martin’s 4-3-3, against Farke’s 4-2-3-1, took the honours in midfield when it mattered. There were errors, there was lethargy and a personality change from Leeds’ battering of Watford. The contrast will encourage Farke to think that he can file away Saturday as a messy one-off.
The chief question for him was how a side who had registered four clean sheets in succession before Southampton, a side with only one league defeat on their record, lost their mojo defensively to the extent that they were 3-0 behind inside 40 minutes. Because for several weeks now, Leeds have looked encouraging; organised, inventive, full of running and sharp enough. It would be stretching it to say that Leeds or Southampton saw Saturday coming or expected the game to be done so quickly.
Farke’s key decision was to leave out Joe Rodon on his return from a one-game ban and press ahead with a centre-back pairing of Liam Cooper and Struijk which, in the fairest terms possible, felt their way around in the middle of a patchy back four. Southampton’s opener was indicative of the day: insufficient pressure on a Kyle Walker-Peters pass and Leeds’ defence doglegging as Cooper stepped out, the others around him remained stationary and Adam Armstrong ran in with no offside flag against him. The finish was sweet, a chip over Meslier inside the far post, but Southampton’s build-up was like a training-ground run-through.
What difference Rodon would have made in that instant was moot but the fact remains that the Tottenham loanee has been United’s best centre-back this season, part of a decent axis with Struijk. All in, he has been one of their best players, albeit with the blemish of a red card away to Hull City. Farke is managing another midweek schedule, with Queens Park Rangers at home on Wednesday night, but his choice of defence was not about that. While Cooper and Struijk held the fort comfortably against Watford, Southampton have more class in their squad than Watford and however bad they were through four losses back-to-back, Saturday promised to be a more difficult fixture. To the naked eye, there is a sense of Rodon’s passing increasing the speed and precision of Leeds’ build-up from deep; of that more searching distribution going missing at St Mary’s.
SOUTHAMPTON LEAD IN THE OPENING TWO MINUTES 🔥😮 pic.twitter.com/MMzmmP45HH
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) September 30, 2023
“The last game, I got the feeling that we were there with our best performance of the season,” Farke said. “It was quite impressive — a 3-0 win over Watford which felt a bit more like seven or eight-nil. If you have the chance and you use your chance, it’s not right that you’re moved out (of the line-up). It’s not healthy after a really good performance to have many changes. That’s why we started with the same side.”
Off the ball, the levels felt more tepid too. There was no pressure on Will Smallbone as he feathered a second Southampton goal in off the other post. There was no pressure on Kamaldeen Sulemana when his pass from the centre circle invited Armstrong to tie Sam Byram in knots and thud in a third. Farke made no changes at half-time, his system the same as it was, and after Struijk converted a corner on the turn, Joel Piroe’s failure to stop a cutting pass from Georginio Rutter slipping off his toe — the best opportunity to bring the score back to 3-2 and reprise 2005 properly — told Farke that no chaos was coming.
“When you haven’t won in a while, you hang on a bit rather than being relentless,” Martin said, touching on the slightly fragile confidence which Leeds had allowed to repair itself. Not long ago, Southampton boasted 10 points from four games and sat exactly where they wanted to be. Martin has tried hard since then to convince everyone that a good team do not become a bad team with the flick of a switch. It is the same mantra for Farke to follow after an old-fashioned, Championship reminder: that Leeds have played better, can play better and must.
(Photo: George Tewkesbury/PA Images via Getty Images)