Battling Leeds hold high-flying Derby

leeds celebrateA late equalizer from Derby substitute Tom Ince earned the Rams a 2-2 draw at Leeds on Tuesday night, in an evenly-fought game. Derby deserved their point for the two moments of magic they produced, but for them to get all three points would have been unfair on Leeds. The West Yorkshire hosts put in an industrious display and, for long spells, they made arguably the most technically gifted team in the Championship look ordinary.

Derby and Leeds share a rivalry that goes back to the 1970s, the Clough and Revie era, derby games which saw plenty of feistiness from Don Revie’s ‘Dirty Leeds’. Over four decades gone, Steve Evans looked to rekindle that battling spirit at Elland Road, his game plan being to trump Derby’s more skilled players with superior power and aggression. Sol Bamba and Tom Adeyemi might not quite be Norman Hunter and Billy Bremner, but they were brought in for Giuseppe Belluschi and Lewis Cook respectively to provide physicality.

Evans’ plan worked well early on, as Leeds competed strongly and pressed Derby into their own half. Right-back Scott Wootton went on a forward run four minutes in and crossed the ball from deep, but Chris Wood was unable to get a touch. A couple of minutes later, Sam Byram showed some intent by shooting from distance but he lost his footing and the ball flew harmlessly over the bar.

Derby did not threaten early on but a lot of their probing play came down the right side of the pitch, with attacking full-back Cyrus Christie seeing a lot of the ball. Christie, however, looked a touch hesitant when it came to moving past the industrious Charlie Taylor. The visitors were struggling to break Leeds down, but that was until Jeff Hendrick came up with a piece of magic on 12 minutes to break the deadlock. Hendrick jinked past Liam Bridcutt and Bamba, before knocking the ball beyond Marco Silvestri with a delicate finish.

Although the visitors had put themselves in front, the still gave Leeds too much space to attack down the right via Wootton and Byram. A decent interchange of passing from the hosts allowed the latter to cross from the right, but Adeyemi headed over. The former Birmingham man, who netted in the reverse fixture, was one of the few Leeds midfielders who showed a willingness to break into the box and he put in a committed display.

Prior to the match, Steve Evans bemoaned the Football League’s fixture arrangements, which had seen Leeds play Forest just two days before this match. Given that most other Championship teams had to play on Saturday and Monday, the same time difference, this blog would argue that Evans’ comments were not entirely sincere. He is cleverer than he might appear and may be trying to take some of the attention away from his players whilst creating an ‘us against the world’ culture that Leeds fans relish.

There is no doubt, however, that fatigue played a part in both teams’ lack of energy in the final third. Jacob Butterfield, one of Derby’s classier performers on the day, had his shot blocked in a rare moment of attacking intent from the East Midlanders. They were unusually slow in possession as forward Andreas Weimann, widely known for his pace, never tested Leeds’ defensive rearguard. The hosts, on the other hand, were getting the ball in good areas but they needed to increase the intensity in their attacking play. Chris Wood was struggling on his own up front as midfielders such as Luke Murphy and Liam Bridcutt rarely made forward runs.

The referee had booked the latter two, plus Byram and home fans were unhappy that the referee had allegedly favoured Derby in some of his decisions. The fact that three Leeds midfielders were all on yellow cards meant the midfielders were not able to exert their pressing game with as much vigour as they did at the beginning of the match.

Hendryck went on an audacious run, hoping to build on his impressive opener. The Rams academy graduate curled a shot straight at the keeper, after playing a one-two with Darren Bent, who wanted the ball further in front of him.

Neither side were playing particularly well just before half-time, but Leeds scored an equalizer. The hosts had a free-kick from the left and, in a moment of madness, Derby goalkeeper Lee Grant ran to the edge of the 18-yard-box. The ball was only half-cleared and when Stuart Dallas returned it into the box, Sol Bamba rammed the ball home, atoning for his error in Derby’s opener. Following that goal, the game livened up. Johnny Russell curled the ball over the bar for the Rams while Wood’s shot was blocked. On the evidence of the first 42 minutes, however, both teams needed more creativity if they were going to win the game.

Hendrick caused problems again just after half time when he cut inside from the right flank. The 23-year-old’s tight-angled effort was parried and Bradley Johnson’s resultant shot was blocked. In that situation, too many Derby players were darting towards a congested six yard box, when a couple of them should have peeled off and looked to get a clear strike.

On the whole, both teams looked disciplined early in the second half, neither of them wanting to vacate space in behind. There was a sense that, with Derby anchor man George Thorne dropped to the bench, their midfielders were playing with the shackles on – even though Jason Shackell had been taken off in the first half. They conjured things up in flashes of quality but none of them had the freedom to consistently burst forward, move the ball quickly and interchange with one another, because they did not know who would be behind them. In previous games this season, the presence of Thorne has given Derby’s more attacking players the insurance they need to play with more freedom and the team lacked that on Tuesday night.

Stuart Dallas’ strong strike was held by Grant, but clear cut chances were at a premium, so both managers decided on a change to freshen things up. Clement put on key striker Chris Martin in place of Darren Bent, who had been on the periphery of the game. According to WhoScored, the former Aston Villa man had just 17 touches of the ball and did not threaten when he did received it. Martin linked play with the midfield a lot better than Bent did and found space more willingly, making Derby’s attacks less predictable.

Chris Wood had suffered from a lack of support for much of the game but he put Leeds in front late on. Sam Byram beat Stephen Warnock to produce a gem of a cross for the unmarked New Zealander, who headed the ball into the net at the near post. Sadly for Wood, he picked up an injury after his goal and was taken off for Souleymane Doukara. The French replacement had a mixed fifteen minutes on the pitch. He worked hard and showed some nice touches but equally, he was not in the box often enough when Leeds got the ball in a decent area.

Derby were chasing the game and Paul Clement’s decision was to put on the in-form Thomas Ince. That substitution paid dividends as the former Blackpool man scored the Rams leveller 2 minutes after coming off the bench. Johnson played a simple pass into Russell’s feet, and the Scotsman flicked the ball behind the Leeds defence for Ince, who finished with composure.

Derby were on top after that goal. A free-kick from the left fell to Johnson at the back post, but despite his reputation for his aerial ability, the former Norwich man’s header lacked power. Derby were pilling on the pressure as Hendryck picked up the ball in the box after a smartly-constructed move, but fired over.

Leeds were misplacing a few passes and with 10 minutes to go, they looked to be tiring. It was surprising, therefore, and perhaps indicative of the battling mentality Evans has instilled at Elland Road, that they finished the match on top. The West Yorkshire side won a number of free-kicks, one of which saw Luke Murphy force a good save from goalkeeper Lee Grant.

Despite Leeds’ late pressure, they had to settle for a draw which, all in all, is not a bad result. Steve Evans’ side matched a team with serious promotion credentials for 90 minutes and are now unbeaten in six games. For all the criticism Evans gets, he has got his players working hard and fighting for the shirt, which is more than can be said for previous managers.

For Derby, a draw is by no means disastrous. The Rams are still four points clear of third place Hull and have only lost twice this season, one of the defeats coming against Leeds in August. However, Paul Clement’s side do begin 2016 with a tough run of fixtures and notably face a tough examination at Middlesbrough the day after New Years’ Day. On balance, a draw will do for both teams.