Leeds United are headed for purgatory – and the fault is at the top

Marcelo Bielsa’s first port of call on the morning after losing at Goodison Park last season was the church in Wetherby and an hour or so in the presence of the Almighty, the time for solitude, reflection and what is known as a fit of self-flagellation found.

If God is a Leeds United fan then he had a funny way of showing it to Bielsa and it’s doubtful divine help is more likely to intervene at Elland Road now. Leeds were in trouble this time 12 months ago, list, sink, fail and it is extraordinary that they have conspired to sail even closer to the rocks a year later.

Everton’s away game worried people in 2022. In 2023, Everton’s away game and a 1-0 defeat propelled Leeds further down the road to purgatory.

This might have been a guide to relegation, but there were two things to pray for when the final whistle blew. First, that no one of Leed’s persuasion would need to watch the game again, or endure another game of such low quality that parts of it resemble a hoax. The second was that help or enlightenment came from somewhere, because at the end of a brutal weekend no other club in the Premier League are more desperate to find the right path.

Michael Skubala has the reins in his hands, but what part of the blame does he really have? In the story of how Leeds played with fire, their caretaker’s name hardly deserves a cut.

It is not Skubala’s fault that the club sit 19th in the table and bear all the hallmarks of a side in ultimate decline, but the Leeds Under-21 manager is on the touchline for a game as important as Saturday’s, a game in which Leeds barely made a beeper, was symptomatic of failings in governance at Elland Road.

Viewers used their voice to dig up the board and their director of football, Victor Orta, and there’s nowhere else to point the finger. Jesse Marsch was fired later than he should have been. Leeds’ big plans to replace him consisted of dead ends, an online shutdown of Alfred Schreuder and 11 days later the appointment of Skubala and a caretaker’s staff for the foreseeable future, an admission that big plans had lost their way and run over a Cliff.

Victor Orta looks dejected alongside Angus Kinnear at Goodison Park (Photo: Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Ideally, the club would like Skubala to see them through to the end of the season; To limit the damage, keep the roster up and let the board — whatever the situation at this point — attack the managerial market at a more mature time of year. The odds of landing a preferred candidate would be better in the summer, minus the two-pronged issue of Leeds’ own lack of control and the reluctance of other clubs like Rayo Vallecano to ruin their own season by ditching the coach who inspires them.

But Skubala’s tenure can only get legs if this weekend’s game against Southampton gets a breath of fresh air through Elland Road, provided the board doesn’t blink before then. Anything else and Leeds without a permanent manager would look like they were flying the white flag. Football can never quite decide if ‘wanting more’ is a thing, but Everton looked like they were at Goodison Park, a team meddling in a game they knew they had to win.

They earned that result with a second-half goal from Seamus Coleman which, like too much Leeds, had everyone scratching their heads. The ball over the top seemed almost too heavy for Coleman to catch. The angle at which he achieved it seemed infinitely too narrow for him to score. However, Illan Meslier was six yards from his line and the whip on Coleman’s shot circled him to the other side of the net, a millisecond of silence revealing the stadium’s surprise.

Some would say Everton promised the whole game, but in the 63 minutes before and after there was nothing to suggest a goal would come anywhere other than at Meslier’s end of the field. Results like these cut deep. Performances like this cut even deeper.

Leeds over time emphasize the difference between a well-intentioned plan and one that actually works. It is becoming more and more apparent that as the journey continued from Bielsa, it was not clear how this bridge would be successfully crossed. The club and Orta have piled up Marsch chips but he goes down as a mistaken appointment and Leeds may regret sticking it out for so long.

They knew who they wanted to replace von Marsch, but it wasn’t their gift to just yank a manager like Andoni Iraola from his current job. Good players have arrived but without forming a good team or none that inspires confidence in their ability to break through the wall in front of them. Saturday was a day for big performances. Individually produced Leeds none.

“We just have to keep pushing forward,” said Skubala. “I have every confidence that we can get out of this.” What else could he have said? Skubala struggled to get a tune out of Leeds at Goodison Park, far less so than against Manchester United last week, but traits seen in the Everton defeat hampered results well before it came, not least the fact that Leeds look ill trained to finish from the better areas they are getting into.


Seamus Coleman scores the winning goal for Everton (Photo: Emma Simpson – Everton FC/Everton FC via Getty Images)

Everton didn’t have a masters class up their sleeves, but Sean Dyche is smart enough to realize that masters classes are never needed in apparatus this pressurized. Win battles, dig in, take a chance when it counts; the mantra of survival in England since the dawn of time.

Bielsa left Goodison Park almost the same weekend last season with 23 points from 23 games and concern mounted as results faltered. Leeds left 19 of 23 on Saturday and fishing for evidence of progress is finding nothing compelling in terms of tangibles. Leeds struck gold with Bielsa. Since then they have run on steam and succumbed to the repercussions of their own decisions, too many of them overpromising or underdelivering, benefiting from neither foresight nor hindsight.

Skubala’s task is thankless and only the players below him can bring the club back to the surface for the second time in two campaigns. But more than ever in the last six years, the Elland Road buck stops at the top.

(Photo above: Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

https://theathletic.com/4224999/2023/02/19/leeds-everton-premier-league-analysis/ Leeds United are headed for purgatory – and the fault is at the top

Russell Falcon

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