An inconsequential Derby

Lacking the injured, the suspended and the indolent, Town’s task against one of the best 3 sides in the division looked entirely forlorn before kick off with just 9 of the starting eleven reasonably considered to be first team squad members and a bench resembling the front row of a school photo.

The visitors were also disrupted by injury with their driving force, Phillips, unavailable and the late withdrawal of Cooper foiling Bielsa’s original plan to play White in central midfield but their problems were comparatively mundane and eminently manageable as battle hardened Championship players came in to a team brimming with confidence and proven quality.

Having revived the club following a disastrous start to the season with a string of results which dragged the Terriers above the drop zone, a combination of unfortunate circumstances and the reemergence of the toxicity which seems to be the only legacy of 2 top flight seasons has brought a halt to the encouraging momentum the Cowleys developed.

Against this background, the disappointment of a derby defeat was massively tempered by a performance of no little credibility against opponents who seem unlikely to make the same mistakes as last season, though the hope is always there.

A typically feisty first half was hugely encouraging for the home side whose tenacity and aggression largely thwarted Leeds’ flow and the territorial advantage achieved was testament to the Cowleys’ ability to meet big challenges in very difficult circumstances. They know what they want and need to reinvigorate a club with deeply embedded and barely concealed problems which will continue to fester until they are in a position to make the changes in January and the summer.

There will come a time when the opposition worries about us rather than having to adopt containment strategies as the first and only option.

With an unfamiliar starting eleven against an established and confident side, Town rarely allowed Leeds to emphasise their technical superiority and disrupted their normal flow and comfort in possession with an energy and commitment entirely absent in a dreadful, yet revealing, first half at Ashton Gate.

Lead by Hogg, who was actually as culpable as many in that Bristol debacle, the hosts harried Leeds in to errors and disabused them of the perfectly understandable notion that they were in for an easy afternoon. 

However, the first opportunity fell to the visitors and a clever corner by Hernandez found an unmarked Klich whose first time effort struck the outside of the post. There were other openings for them in the area which were wasted by rushed shots but the alarms were generally low key.

Establishing superiority in the middle of the park turned the contest more in the home side’s favour as the half progressed with a Bacuna and Hogg dominating the weakest area of their White Rose rivals.

Mounié, making a rare start in an attempt by the Cowleys to play longer and over the passing ability of the opposition had a good first half slightly tainted by too many examples of his weakness on the ground and he met an excellent Bacuna free kick only to be thwarted by alleged racist Casilla who tipped over.

A brave challenge with Casilla from a long clearance by Grabara saw Mounié’s challenge only partially cleared to Grant who was only foiled by an excellent header preventing the ball reaching the top corner. 
Mounié also met a Grant corner (simultaneously with the back of a colleague’s head) which didn’t really trouble the keeper but illustrated a little improvement in the quality of corners which have thus far been woeful.

If Leeds’ counters were rare in number, they did seem to carry more incisive threat than Town’s less sophisticated approach and in Hernandez, our neighbours possess that extra quality and guile which makes all the difference in a league with few stand out teams. Even though the Spaniard was largely contained, he still managed to pull a few strings and one first time ball to Klich in the first half who was first thwarted by Grabara and then an offside flag highlighted how he only needed to escape the shackles once to orchestrate threat.

For Town, Bacuna continues to show great promise on the ball and one shimmering run caused panic in the Leeds’ defence though their resilience swamped the attempt. Unfortunately, at the other end, the Dutchman’s over abundance of confidence can lead to trouble and he jeopardised Town’s promising first half when an attempt to wriggle out of a bad position ended with a chance, blazed over by the rather disappointing Costa.

For all the positives of a good first half, which could easily be upgraded to excellent given the debilitating circumstances, containing the natural ability of this annoyingly well coached Leeds team (by a remarkably admirable manager who has broken the mould of a string of laughable idiots usually employed at Elland Road) for a full 90 minutes was always a massive ask for a cobbled together team with a bench which Danny Cowley was unlikely to describe as sexy again.

Minutes in to the second half, Town’s plans were upended by a goal of undeniable quality. Mounié cleared a relatively poor Hernandez corner at the near post only for Alioski to volley home first time with an unstoppable strike.

The dynamic of the game changed at that moment. Town had to push further forward and with more risk of play being opened up to try to earn an equaliser against a stingy defence with a goals against record which should secure automatic promotion at the second time of asking if they can avoid Bielsa’s unusual curse of blowing up at the business end of the season.

For a good 15 minutes, Leeds dominated possession and but for good saves by Grabara, slightly off radar passing in the final third and some desperate defending they could have put the game well out of reach before the hour mark.

Then came Town’s big chance. Komora, who played well down the left before giving way towards the end, floated an excellent cross on to the head of Kachunga in the six yard box only for Casilla – who will be a big miss for Leeds if found guilty of the alleged offence – to make a remarkable save at close range to, yet again, leave the hard working Town man to rue his failure to convert.

With just over 10 minutes to go, Leeds sealed the points they deserved with a much improved second half performance built on that early strike as they stretched Town once again with a swift break down the left. This time, the ball in by Harrison was undefendable and Hernandez arrived at the back post to finish.

To their credit, Town made the final stages competitive despite facing pretty inevitable defeat and Grant should have reduced the arrears from yet another promisingly good set piece, heading wide when he should’ve hit the target. A through ball to Mounié could also have delivered a deserved consolation but the big man’s monumental goal drought persisted as his stretch made poor contact.

Most home supporters were philosophical about a defeat which didn’t carry the pain normally associated with this fixture; Leeds are clearly miles ahead of a team still carrying out surgery in the aftermath of significant, if self inflicted, problems of the past two years and despite having to field a substantially disrupted and unfamiliar line up, managed to compete for long stretches of a hugely challenging encounter.

Leeds will be pleased to maintain their form despite only sporadically reaching the standards Bielsa has instilled. In fact, the only residual unpalatable traits of a team which used to have a plethora of them were the antics of the hugely annoying Bamford who was, incredibly, spared a booking despite continually offending by an indulgent referee. That he then contributed to yet another Hogg booking with his prone histrionics simply increased the vilification he rightly received.

Alioski’s assault on Schindler shouldn’t be ignored either but, overall, there is a lot to grudgingly admire in our rivals which will hopefully be assuaged by the schadenfreude accompanying a late season collapse. But it won’t happen this time.

In the bigger scheme of things, Town now go on the road to two struggling teams. Charlton’s injury problems resemble our own and Wigan’s form is woeful. The opportunity for revival before the possibility of a transformative January lay directly ahead. 

Swamped and humiliated

It would be remiss to excoriate a Huddersfield Town team which capitulated so thoroughly in a first half when all the issues which have infested the club since the summer of 2018 came back with a vengeance, without first acknowledging the excellent performance of Bristol City who comprehensively dismantled an admittedly supine opposition.

Attacking with verve, aggression and precision it was only a question of how many they would rack up against feeble resistance who abandoned the midfield battle, left huge spaces for the Robins to ruthlessly exploit and singularly failed to adhere to any semblance of discipline or unity.

On home soil, the mounting problems of injury to three quarters of the defence can be papered over to an extent as away teams are less inclined to exploit obvious weaknesses. The worry was always the impact on the road and the answer was almost immediately provided.

Starting with Hadergjonaj and releasing Bacuna in to the middle to replace the unfit Pritchard, pairing Kongolo with Schindler so that Stankovic provided the defensive cover vacated by the suspended Chalobah seemed rational in the circumstances but the plan was immediately upended when Campbell was injured fouling a Bristol defender in the first minute. 

This brought Diakhaby on to the pitch and the whole left flank was horribly exposed to Bristol raiding. Danny Cowley’s barely contained post match anger was entirely justified but that exposure was not difficult to predict; Diakhaby cannot provide defensive cover and the problem is compounded a few times over when the full back exposed is desperately inexperienced or, in the case of Kongolo, unsuited.

Reshaping an already depleted, unbalanced team after one minute was bound to be a prelude for difficulties, and they came thick and fast in an opening half which saw 5 goals and chances for more.
Despite the disasters unfolding, and this was true of the whole game after the first quarter, Town were actually reasonably good when they had the ball but largely inept without it.

However, Bacuna and Hogg lost possession and position at least five times in a torrid opening twenty minutes, our old friend Jack Hunt was rampaging down the right and exposing O’Brien and the central defensive partnership of Kongolo and Schindler (who had a very poor afternoon) looked hopelessly vulnerable.

There was an element of good fortune about some of the Bristol goals – a wicked deflection off Brownhill for the first, for example – but when you force the pace as impressively and consistently as the home side did, the breaks are going to go your way.

Orchestrated by the excellent Massengo, City were irresistible going forward and had a second ruled out for offside, for which Grabara should be extremely grateful, though he did make a very good save later in the half as a cricket score threatened.

The inevitable doubling of the lead arrived when Eliasson received the ball from a corner on the edge of the area, skipped round Grant and floated a cross to the far post which Kongolo bundled in to his own net under pressure.

Such was Bristol’s potency, the only surprise was that they had taken so long to punish the bedraggled visitors and their failure to do so could have been costly. Grant missed a very presentable headed chance provided by Hadergjonaj and had an excellent effort on the turn from distance very well saved and despite the omnishambles at the back, there was some flickering hope at times.

That hope burned a little more brightly when an excellent Bacuna through ball found Grant in the area. The leading scorer turned Ashley Williams with some ease before finding the far corner with a slightly deflected shot.

With just ten minutes to go before half time, this was the visitors’ chance to consolidate, apply some pressure on a clearly superior home side disappointed not to be out of sight already and hope for a turn around in the second half.

One minute later, Brownhill and Hunt eased their way past a combination of Diakhaby and Kongolo (O’Brien having been relieved of left back duties after the second goal), Hogg was beaten ridiculously easily as he tried to cover and a deep cross was headed in by Eliasson. Revival over before it started.

4 minutes later, the scorer turned provider with a cross which found an unmarked Williams who headed powerfully past Grabara. Naturally, the goal originated down our left; Hunt and Brownhill combined to embarrass Kongolo and Diakhaby, the latter fouled Hunt, a free kick was cleared for a corner and that lead to the cross which hammered in the final nail of a first half of epic incompetence.

Diakhaby had the well deserved ignominy of becoming a substitute substituted, though saved from being replaced as the game was in progress. His replacement, Koroma, proved significantly more effective though Cowley could possibly have picked someone from the travelling support and achieved the same result.

It wasn’t long, however, before the home side went nap. An attempted through ball deflected off Schindler, who had partially caused the problem in the first place with a poor clearing header and was aided and abetted by a weak challenge by Bacuna in the middle, allowing Weimann to round Grabara and slot home from a quite difficult angle.

To their credit, Town didn’t capitulate further, and added a decent Bacuna goal to slightly assuage their embarrassment but City rarely had to get out of second or third gear for their guaranteed three points.

Drawing the second half cannot be used as a positive, though they continued to be reasonably good in possession and Koroma added some energy down the left totally absent in the first half.

The circumstances surrounding this heavy, potentially debilitating defeat perhaps lessen the worry for the future a little and it should be one which focuses the Cowleys’ minds if they weren’t already made up. Bar Grant, who will surely be the subject of intense scrutiny once the transfer window opens, none of the players can absolve themselves of blame for such an abject defeat; this includes Hogg and Schindler, senior players who contributed to the first half disaster as well as those clearly wanting to leave.

Cowley’s decisions on formation and personnel where obviously profoundly influenced by events both recent and historic but he may reflect that he also got things wrong, particularly the introduction of Diakhaby, though Campbell’s early departure proved to be far too damaging to the shape of the team and whatever game plan was to be implemented. 

After the very real and encouraging progress of the past couple of months, a painful setback isn’t a harbinger of future despair but the potential solutions don’t look particularly numerous as we await a hopefully extensive shake up of the squad in January. 
However, the characters of the new men in the dug out will surely relish the challenge of a local derby against an ascendant Leeds United; hopefully, the players chosen will understand what it means.