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Has beating Manchester United undermined Leeds' season?

Jermaine Beckford (left), Beckford scores at Old Trafford (centre-top), The Old Trafford scoreboard (centre-bottom) and Simon Grayson (right)
Leeds' promotion push has faltered since their Cup victory at Old Trafford

By Phil Dawkes

On Sunday, 3 January 2010, League One side Leeds beat Premier League champions Manchester United 1-0 at Old Trafford in the FA Cup third round.

After a series of false dawns, the shock victory seemed to confirm what the first five months of the season had suggested; that the revival of the fallen Leeds United Football Club was well under way.

Going into the game at Old Trafford, the Yorkshire side had played 23 games in League One and had won 17 of them. They led the table by eight points, with a game in hand on second-placed Charlton.

Since that successful trip across the Pennines, Leeds have recorded only four wins from 18 fixtures and now trail pace-setters Norwich - who they face in a crunch game at Carrow Road on Saturday - by the same eight-point margin they once held themselves.

Simon Grayson's side are in perilous danger of ending up in the play-offs, where they have come unstuck in each of the last two seasons.

Now the momentous win over Manchester United may possibly prove to be the result that undermines their whole campaign.

They have to try and grind out a result, regardless of how they play, and where else is better to do that than at the league leaders

Former Leeds striker Andy Ritchie

Former Leeds striker and BBC Radio Leeds summariser Andy Ritchie believes the win at Old Trafford and the two subsequent fourth-round ties with Tottenham have affected the side.

"Their form since the Cup exploits has been very patchy," admitted Ritchie. "Some of the players are looking jaded. It looks as though the FA Cup run has taken its toll.

"When Leeds were on song early on, whatever teams did to them they had the energy and pep to still go and out-pass them, but this last month they have looked very tired.

"They have had some good performances since January, but it has been in fits and starts.

"You need a lot of energy to play how Leeds are aspiring to do and maybe they are just not getting the rest between games."

The statistics appear to back that theory up. A 42-day stretch from 16 January to 27 February saw Leeds consistently play twice a week.

The Cup win at Old Trafford also appeared to have had an undesirable psychological effect on some of the Leeds players.

Grayson intimated after a 3-0 reverse to Swindon on 26 January - the team's third successive league game without a win since the victory in Manchester - that some of his charges were beginning to "believe their own hype".

There is also another factor to consider. Leeds are a big scalp in League One - a fact enhanced by their presence on the back (and indeed front) pages of national newspapers following their Cup triumph.


"Every time a team plays Leeds, they see it as a cup final and will up their performance levels," says Ritchie. "That is another thing that the players have to take on board."

Teams also appear to have worked out how to neutralise the threat Leeds pose. By flooding midfield and denying players time on the ball, the opposition frustrates and forces them to resort to long-ball tactics, through desperation more than design.

Ironically, Leeds found more time and space to play their desired style of passing football against Manchester United and Tottenham.

But that time and space is not so readily available in League One.

Leeds have not been helped by the tail-off in form of some of their principle performers from the first half of the season.

Midfielder Bradley Johnson - scorer of seven goals pre-Old Trafford but none since - is a shadow of the player he was pre-January, but most alarming of all is the contribution of star striker Jermaine Beckford, who has scored from 5 goals from 12 league matches games since.

There are mitigating circumstances. He has been troubled by a persistent hamstring injury and, more significantly for the team, remains at the centre of a destabilising transfer saga after handing in a transfer request prior to the game at Old Trafford only to withdraw it two weeks later.

Whether Leeds were right to hold on to their 27-goal leading scorer and risk losing him for nothing in the summer when his contract expires remains an open debate, particularly among Whites fans.

But as Ritchie explains: "They are not a one-man team and they must have replacements for Beckford to come in and do the business."

It is a similar situation in defence, where a series of injuries and dip in form have seen the team's goals-conceded-per-game average in all competitions increase from 0.59 to 1.56 either side of the Manchester United game.

Anyone who has watched Leeds over recent months - and certainly anyone who witnessed the display during Monday's 2-0 defeat by promotion-rivals Millwall - will testify to a team bereft of confidence.

Grayson admitted as much after the match, suggesting the belief the side possessed earlier in the season had deserted them.

"They certainly aren't passing the ball as they were at the start of the season," says Ritchie.

"You have got to be brave, which doesn't just mean throwing yourself in to tackles or putting your head where it hurts, it is having the nerve to keep on the ball and want it all the time."

Grayson sought to galvanise his squad with the addition of loanees from higher leagues, but the recruits have struggled, most recently forward Gary McSheffrey, who has failed to live up to the expectation that greeted his arrival from Birmingham in January.

Leeds' struggles on the pitch have led to frustration among an expectant fanbase who are never shy in voicing their frustration, increasing the burden on the players at a time of the season when pressure is already high.

Millwall's Steve Morison celebrates his goal on Monday
Leeds suffered a 2-0 home loss to promotion-rivals Millwall on Monday

"Performing for any big club, you have to have special attributes and be strong in certain situations and not allow things to affect you," explains Ritchie.

"You know you may get the wrath of the fans, but that happens everywhere. If fans aren't happy, they let you know."

Perspective is important: Leeds remain second in League One by three points and with a superior goal difference to those below them. Automatic promotion remains in their own hands.

The trip to Norwich is followed by a home match with promotion rivals Swindon. Six points - or even four - from these matches would leave their situation looking much rosier.

"What they need now is to get a good win under their belts to give them a confidence boost," says Ritchie. "They have to try and grind out a result, regardless of how they play, and where else is better to do that than at the league leaders."

Additional material by BBC Radio Leeds' Adam Pope.

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see also
Leeds United 0-2 Millwall
22 Mar 10 |  League One
Brighton geared for 'tired' Leeds
18 Feb 10 |  Brighton
Leeds snap up forward McSheffrey
29 Jan 10 |  Leeds
Grayson rules out Beckford move
23 Jan 10 |  FA Cup
Leeds' Beckford withdraws request
17 Jan 10 |  Leeds
Manchester Utd 0-1 Leeds United
04 Jan 10 |  FA Cup
Radebe backs Leeds for top flight
11 Nov 09 |  Leeds

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