Leeds hand advantage to Leicester and Ipswich in the table Farke isn’t checking (yet)

Good Friday in 2019 found Daniel Farke on the verge of serenity.

Norwich City were on the verge of promotion and Farke had strayed into that limbo period where journalists were asking him to cut to the chase because, let’s be real, his team were going up. And so they did a week or so later, with the Championship title to boot.

But elsewhere, scoreboard pressure was kicking in. Four successive draws made Norwich wait, but scoreboard pressure was not really their problem because for several months, they were the side creating it: winning away at Leeds United, holding off Sheffield United, roadblocking the two clubs who mattered most and forcing them to fight to the death.

Leeds, on that same Good Friday, experienced weirdness which, in the Marcelo Bielsa era, would only be matched by what happened to them against Derby County in the play-offs a month later. Earlier in the day, Sheffield United had beaten Nottingham Forest to move into the league’s second automatic promotion position on goal difference. All eyes turned to Elland Road, where Leeds were hosting Wigan Athletic and were supposed to respond.

To say Leeds were set up to beat Wigan was an understatement. Bielsa, to Wigan’s bemusement, sent six scouts to watch their previous match, spreading them out across the DW Stadium to provide analysis from every conceivable angle. Wigan were 40 points behind Leeds in the table and blundered into the game at Elland Road by losing Cedric Kipre to a red card after 14 minutes and conceding to Patrick Bamford after 17. But then, something happened. Gavin Massey scored twice and Leeds began playing like footballers with their feet tied together. The game was lost and so, before long, was automatic promotion.

As an example of pressure doing funny things, and demonstrably unfunny things, too, there are few as stark and even now, there is no more credible explanation than to say Leeds simply froze. The finish line was there, but Sheffield United were in their eye-line and in West Yorkshire, they dropped the ball. Bielsa knew it. “I have no explanation that could justify a loss like today’s,” he said. “Any explanation I give would be meaningless.”

That heightened stage of a season, Farke thinks, is when results matter, or when results that aren’t yours really matter; when staying in your lane and ignoring changing league standings is hard to the point of being impossible because the season is no longer a marathon. Right now, in late November, Leeds’ manager sees it differently, a juncture in the calendar where tracking the progress of teams around you, like Leicester City and Ipswich Town, who were eight points clear, wastes time and energy. Two other broad targets are concerning him more, according to remarks he made on Wednesday: 20 wins to make the play-offs, 26 wins to make the top two. And in aiming to hit the first of those, a win at Rotherham United last night would have taken Leeds halfway there.

None of this is exact, of course, in the way that Farke aiming for a minimum of 75 goals this season was only one strand of the rope needed to lift Leeds back into the Premier League, but it is all fairly rational. Football thrives on irrationality, though, so maybe the idea of scoreboard pressure is not so irrelevant. Farke was unhappy about the timing of yesterday’s visit to Rotherham, a Friday evening at the end of an international break which meant some of his players went there without completing a full training session. On the upside, victory would have meant next move Leicester and Ipswich later today, an early start to the contest of cat-and-mouse.

Better still, it could have been done with sparse amounts of fuss had Leeds turned the screw when it was asking to be turned. Seven minutes in, Daniel Ayala was made to look 33 years old by Georginio Rutter’s blind pass around a corner. Lee Peltier was made to look 36 by waving a hand for an offside flag as Summerville nipped in behind him, with Ayala playing him on. Rutter knows where the man is, Summerville knows where the goal is, and the winger’s shot into the far corner was clean and unerring.

Summerville and Rutter celebrate Leeds’ opening goal (George Wood/Getty Images)

There was the cue to finish Rotherham, whose crowd niggled at backwards passing, but no second goal came and, in first-half stoppage-time, ineptitude infected half of Farke’s team at precisely the same moment, coughing up a mess of an equaliser. Hakeem Odoffin appeared at the end of a sequence of errors and banged the ball in on the turn. “Had Leeds been too casual or too sure of themselves?” Farke was asked. “My feeling is we enjoyed our dominance too much,” Farke said. “I wouldn’t label it sloppy or complacency. It was just like we went a bit for the easy solutions. We have to learn to be more on it and bury the game.”

From there, the game was never the same. Rotherham got a taste for it and tactically, Leeds and Farke could not reassert themselves. There was a temptation to think that the reality of the night was getting into the heads of Farke’s players: that here was a fixture they ought to be winning and from nowhere, the balance of it was ropey. Rotherham looked as likely as Leeds to nick it. Jaidon Anthony thought he had with a tap-in on 90 minutes, derailed by an offside flag against Bamford. Peltier got away with a studs-up crunch on Dan James in the box. A 1-1 draw pleased others elsewhere, certainly at the right end of the league.

Until the dying seconds of the first half, Leicester and Ipswich’s joint lead was dropping to five points, for a while at least. As it is, the weekend could end with their head-start back up to 10. Perhaps Farke is right and, here and now, the table does not truly matter. But momentum always does.

(Top photo: George Wood/Getty Images)

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