A strand of Jesse Marsch’s defence against the decision by Leeds United to sack him, on a flat Monday lunchtime after an even flatter Sunday at Nottingham Forest, was that at the time, they held a game in hand. Seventeenth place in the Premier League would have been 13th had Manchester United away, the spare in question, gone the way it needed to.
Simon Jordan, the host of the podcast on which Marsch was protesting, has never been known for swallowing much and was not having that comment. But away from the subject of Leeds ditching Marsch, they were touching on the perennial debate about the true value of matches in hand. For a club in the habit of losing, which Leeds were last season, they usually act as a psychological comfort blanket, until the point where they have to be played. For a team in the habit of winning, which Leeds demonstrably are now, stockpiled fixtures are a hindrance and the poor relation of points on the board; one reason why it suited them to shoehorn in a visit from Norwich City.
Leeds have games ahoy before them, including a grand tour of Britain’s south-west: Bristol City, Swansea City and Plymouth Argyle all away, all in the space of 15 days and the sort of road-trip which, back in the day when petrol stations gave away vouchers in return for fuel sold, would have earned you a free duvet. Any amount of congestion is too much for a manager so when the FA Cup forced Leeds to rearrange Norwich’s arrival, Daniel Farke weighed up the pros and cons. His team were in form. His injury list was fairly light. He will not say it but Leeds are smelling blood, with no incentive to stall or buy time. All in all, this date made sense.
The calculated gamble worked, taking his team’s unbeaten run at home into a 15th match and explaining why Leeds are smelling blood. There are blemishes on their record, the six away defeats the most obvious stick to beat Farke with, but as they edge towards the final third of the fixture list, there is an argument to say that analysis of them has not always appreciated how competitively sound they have been; top for expected goals, bottom for expected goals against, top six for months. Hindsight is helpful and from September onwards, the club had the players to make their results go as they have but the rebuild hoisted on Farke in the summer was not as simple as releasing the handbrake and letting the year take its natural course. The season has been good, and might get better.
Table versus table, and as a consequence of the 1-0 win over Norwich, Leeds are two points better off than they were 29 matches into the season which yielded promotion from the Championship four years ago. Persistence has brought them to a position where they could go second in the league for the first time, in a royal rumble where Leicester City stand to clear 100 points, Ipswich Town could yet go close to that mark and Southampton are on their longest streak without losing since the days when footballs were heavier than bomb shells. Farke’s side are the definition of won’t-go-away, despite the occasional junctures where it looked like they might.
Latterly, they have also changed in structure slightly; not exactly Leeds United 2.0 but their balance altered up front by Patrick Bamford coming into the starting line-up and immediately trampling into the goals. The tactics are the same, the patterns of play are largely as they were before Joel Piroe was dropped, and Farke’s style is no less recognisable, but there is a definite difference with Bamford at nine and Georginio Rutter at 10; clearer demarcation and more of a permanent presence up front, a shift from the interchanges which could make Piroe and Rutter look like they were sharing roles.
Bamford was on hand to win it against Norwich, lurking at the back post in the 16th minute and hanging in the air long enough to head in his fourth goal in five.
Statistically, you could almost book the victory there and then because Leeds so rarely let it slip at home. They can wobble, they can make life difficult, they can be less than brutal with a lead behind them, but Coventry City are the only team who have dug their way out of a deficit at Elland Road this season, and even they by virtue of Dan James fluffing the unfluffable. Norwich had good form with them and came to play but Leeds starved them of possession initially and left Norwich with no sustained flow before half-time. Kenny McLean slicing a spillage from a corner over and Gabriel Sara sticking a sitter wide were their best chances.
That little swing, though, was the precursor to a contrasting second half in which Leeds’ press dropped off badly for 15 long minutes. Farke’s side fell into a low block and let Norwich and McLean conduct proceedings. Turnover ball still threw up sporadic opportunities for Leeds, a big one for Bamford, but it put the evening on edge without Norwich stinging Illan Meslier’s hands. Those are the periods that remind everyone that Leeds can be vulnerable, that under Farke they are not perfectly tactically honed or bulletproof. But they get there more often than not, content to work the results business.
Courtesy of quirks of the fixture list or, more honestly, the interventions of Sky Sports, Leeds now have a psychological opening. The FA Cup occupies the weekend before them and they then play away to Bristol City a week on Friday, a day before Ipswich and Southampton contest their next league games. Win in Bristol and Leeds will occupy an automatic promotion position, for the first time this season and the first time under Farke. It will have taken him 180 days to get there and Leeds might only have the pleasure of it for a matter of hours. But this three-horse race is fast becoming too close to call.
(Top image: Farke enjoys the win against his former club. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)