Nottingham Forest 1 (Johnson 14)
Leeds United 0
5th February 2023, Premier League.
I honestly am at a loss in how to sum this one up. For the umpteenth time this season we dominated a game (well, certainly in the first half, less so in the second) and yet came away with nothing to show for it. The first half saw a handful of decent enough half-chances wasted while Forest, with their first and pretty much only attack of note in that period, grabbed a priceless goal. The second half then ebbed away, with Leeds simply unable to turn possession into further chances, mostly due to a succession of wasted passes and a full set of substitutions that changed absolutely nothing. It is a worrying time.
Leeds went into this game in a positive mood and with most fans’ expectations riding high. We’d lost only one game in seven, albeit including games against a poor Championship side and Accrington Stanley (Who are they?) in the FA Cup. Nevertheless, we’d also drawn at high-flying Newcastle and against a respected Brentford side and most considered we were just plain unlucky not to win at Villa Park. We’ve been scoring some fabulous goals along the way, eight special goals of various varieties in those recent cup victories. We knew we’d have Willy Gnonto back today and he’d been on fire and our one-time talisman Patrick Bamford seemed finally to be not only fit but firing on all cylinders again. Luis Sinisterra was back as was Crysencio Summerville. We were fresh from spending almost £50 million in the January transfer market and everyone had already seen the difference Max Wober had made to our flaky defence. The reports about Weston McKennie and Georginio Rutter were also very positive. Surely, we reckoned, all logic suggested it would now all come together in a rip-roaring annihilation of fellow strugglers Forest.
For 14 minutes it did too, Leeds looked good, bright, sharp even. Inside two minutes Sinisterra tested debutant Forest keeper Keylor Navas, cleverly heading the ball over a defender and then placing his shot to the right of the diving keeper who just got down in time to turn it away. Luke Ayling had a shot blocked minutes later after more good work from Willy Gnonto. Then, in an instant the complexion of the game was changed.
Forest won a dubious free kick on their right and about thirty yards from the byline at the far end of the ground. It was swung into the Leeds box by Morgan Gibbs-White, who’d been declared unfit to play earlier in the week. Nothing wrong with him now though and his cross was decent into the heart of the Leeds area. Pascal Struijk stooped to head it but made a complete Horlicks of it and merely sent it straight to Brennan Johnson on the edge of the area and he volleyed the ball low into the left corner of the net. It was yet another example of how Premier League teams are lethal when presented with a loose ball in front of goal; another weak piece of Leeds defending resulting in an opposition goal. Good finish yes, but that ball should have been launched out of harms’ way. Pascal, for whatever reason has become a shadow of the young player we raved about last season.
At the other end Leeds had a glorious chance to make amends as Luke Ayling sent the ball deep into the Forest box. It was met perfectly by Willy Gnonto beyond the back post and he sent it first time across the face of goal. Sadly, our finishing continues to haunt us now and again and this time Luis Sinisterra, leaning back, scooped the ball over the bar when it looked easier to score. Minutes later and WIlly was there again, this time sending the ball across to Patrick Bamford in acres of space. I thought Paddy was back to his best until I saw him today, now I’m not sure anymore. Bamford swung his trusty left peg at the ball and merely scuffed it three or four yards to his right in an embarrassing miss more reminiscent of the bad old Bamford, not our talismanic good one. Still we should have scored though as the ball rolled to Luke Ayling but Luke could only find the keeper with his left foot scoop and not the three yards either side of him. Having witnessed this piece of shoddy finishing I started to think it wasn’t going to be our day. I then knew it wasn’t as Willy Gnonto again worked space on the left, this time for himself, but his shot lacked the punch speed and accuracy of the one he despatched against Cardiff and again Navas saved and then Willy reprised the Bamford air shot as the rebound came back to him. I thought we’d put the ‘missing chances’ thing behind us but no, it was back today with a vengeance.
So, a goal down at halftime, but we really ought to have been a couple of goals up. How many times have we said that this season? The second half saw a much-improved performance from Forest and, with that priceless goal to defend they never looked like offering us any more chances and, for whatever reason, we failed to create any for ourselves. It was the sort of display from Leeds we saw often earlier in the season; lack-lustre, directionless, and with too many passes going astray at critical moments. Forest merely did what they had to do to see the game out. Jesse Marsch tried to affect the game with his five substitutes but, truth to tell none of Rutter, McKennie, Firpo, Summerville or Sam Greenwood left any mark on this game.
So, what now? I was distraught at the end, having been so convinced that all was looking good and even at half time still believing we were showing far more in all departments than Forest, that second-half display just threw all the doubts back into the mix. We had so much to gain from a win today and yet that second-half display showed no sense of the importance of the game. There were the inevitable calls of “Marsch Out!” again towards the end and, on this second-half showing, it is a hard call to resist.
For what its worth, I’m not in that camp yet though. I have to believe that we’ve not wasted £50 million quid. I have to believe that Paddy Bamford just had one of his off days today. I have to believe that the brilliance of Willy Gnonto – that much was still evident, at least in the first half – will usually be enough to unlock all but the sternest of Premier League defences. I have to believe that a combination of Robin Koch and Max Wober (please God let them both stay fit) will fortify our defence for the rest of the season. I have to believe that, once match-fit, Crysencio Summerville and Luis Sinisterra will be back to their best and I have to believe McKennie and Rutter can take us up a level once they settle in. With all that potential still to be fully unlocked, on balance I think we have to continue to give Jesse Marsch the chance to do it.
This time last year I was in no doubt that we had to jettison Bielsa and at least try to change what was happening on the pitch even though we were in a very similar position to the one we find ourselves in now. But, the one difference is that we knew Bielsa wouldn’t change what he was doing and we had no “new weapons” to unleash. This time we do. But we have to see them firing in the next few games, even against them from over the hills. Time is running out for Jesse and he has to now play with the hand we have put together. By the time We play our 5th round tie, we have to have added at least 6 points or I will concede we might as well gamble on someone new for the final third of the season.
Nottingham F Leeds U
Possession 31% 69%
Shots 6 10
On Target 2 4
Corners 0 2
Fouls 15 14