Leeds United 0-0 Middlesbrough Six Things: top two tied

Berardi tussles with Clayton – @SkyFootball

The early incumbents of the Championship’s automatic promotion places, Leeds United and Middlesbrough, played out a goalless draw at Elland Road on Friday night. Here’s Six Things from a tight game.

Leeds lower lofty standards

Under Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds United often play with great intensity and sustain pressure through their swift yet precise use of the ball; those qualities weren’t quite in evidence here. Kemar Roofe, Samuel Saiz and Jack Harrison closed down willingly, but when their work gave midfielders like Kalvin Phillips or defenders such as Liam Cooper a chance to emphatically win an individual duel and peg Boro on the back-foot, they didn’t quite take it. Because their first touch was often a timid one, The Whites couldn’t then generate the momentum to instigate the sharp, incisive interplay we have come to expect from them.

Boro’s organization

Part of the reason Leeds were unable to implement their usual game plan was because Middlesbrough were well-organized. There was very little space in behind their midfield for Saiz to do his usual damage; the fact the enigmatic enganche was forced into two wayward shots from well outside the area on 10 minutes was an early sign that Plan A wasn’t in motion. Barry Douglas only completed 35 forward passes in comparison with 53 at Norwich the week before while Luke Ayling’s influence was negated, although the two full-backs combined for the game’s best chance; Douglas’ 32nd-minute corner found Ayling, but his header was cleared off-the-line by the excellent Adam Clayton. The midfielder’s shrewd defensive positioning all game was vital for the visitors, who managed the rare spells of pressure they did face with expertise.

Fry’s fine Friday

In a game with plenty of perspiration but not quite as much inspiration, Boro were reluctant to commit men forward in open play while Leeds had difficulty finding space. Following a rare scramble in Boro’s box, winger Jack Harrison’s curler from just outside the 18-yard-area missed the target. The fact that shot was Leeds’ best effort of the second half was testament to Boro’s back-line; most notably, Dael Fry. The 21-year-old not only made some excellent decisions defensively, he also touched the ball in the opposing half on 10 occasions, highlighting his ability to dribble forward and relieve pressure.

Peacock-Farrell’s impact

In the first five games, there was so much emphasis on how Leeds have improved going forward that the improvement in the goalkeeping department went under the radar. This match though captured the importance of Bailey Peacock-Farrell; Muhamed Besic produced a mean set piece while Ryan Shotton came up with some awkward long throws, both of which the 21-year-old handled with some assurance. Boro didn’t force the stopper into too many Hollywood saves, but his best stop came following an 87th minute corner, denying Daniel Ayala from a tight-angle. Thomas Christensen and Paul Heckingbottom had to choose between the erratic Felix Wiedwald and veteran Andy Lonergan until Peacock-Farrell’s emergence at the end of last season; now, they have a goalkeeper who can preserve points when the high-octane football doesn’t click into gear.

Will Bielsa rotate?

‘El Loco’ has used just 17 players in the Championship so far this season – the second-fewest. The Argentine has enjoyed a wonderful start at Elland Road; his side have embraced his methods very quickly, they are yet to be defeated and rightly among the promotion favourites. The factor that might define whether they reach the Premier League though could be Bielsa’s willingness to utilize his whole squad to reduce the risk of the speculated possible burn-out. The fact he didn’t make a single-change until the 88th minute suggests that while the first eleven have earned his trust, those in reserve must work to do the same.

Fifth straight Smoggies shut-out

Tony Pulis deserves credit for drilling this Middlesbrough unit into shape. Had one told travelling fans at half-time on day one, when their team had just conceded two amateurish first half goals at Millwall, that they would not let in another for the rest of September, few would have believed it. Not only have the Teessiders recorded five consecutive clean sheets, two of them in their last two games have come against the top scorers in the division – West Brom and Leeds. No Championship side has conceded fewer than Aitor Karanka’s Boro side’s 31 back in 2015-16; on this evidence, solidity will be king once again.