Everton need a new number nine but they have a plan and some determination. Leeds United look very much as though they don’t even have a plan at the moment.
It was already tight at the bottom, it’s continuing to contract, and at Goodison Park, at the end of a match during which Everton and Leeds United really put their neuroses on display for the world to see, things are looking especially bad for Leeds. It wasn’t just that they lost, though they did. It wasn’t just that they lost while playing badly, though they did. It wasn’t just that teams clustered around them at the foot of the table all picked up to a lesser or greater extent unexpected points, though they did. It was that all of this happened, and there still seems to be no coherent plan at Elland Road on how to get out of a position that is starting to look a little bit like a tailspin, and with time starting to run out.
If we are to assume that Sean Dyche’s Everton are at the ‘traditional’ end of the scale, then considering the history of this club is does feel as though they really need a number nine. Everton are the club of Dixie Dean, Joe Royle, Gary Lineker and Duncan Ferguson, and although such memories are becoming increasingly distant, it still feels wrong to see a team in these blue shirts that looks so toothless when attacking.
They found the one moment they needed against Arsenal, but in the Merseyside derby they seemed to revert to some of the bad habits of the late Lampard era, while seemingly forgetting how they’d achieved their previous win. When you’re labouring at the wrong end of the table, confidence can be brittle. But they regained their shape against Leeds, a performance which suggested that perhaps the Liverpool performance had been the aberration rather than the Arsenal one. They are deficient. That much is confirmed by the evidence of all of our own eyes. But they have fight, and they have something approaching a plan.
Neither can be said for Leeds. Whether it was or wasn’t the right decision to sack Jesse Marsch, the apparent failure of the club to have much of a succession plan remains something of a surprise. Away to Manchester United, their Not That Manager Any More bounce had propelled them to a 2-2 draw and they might even have regretted slightly not winning, having led 2-0 for a spell. But at home in the return they seemed to withdraw back into their shell somewhat, and their performance against Everton was as weak as anything delivered by the Marsch, which does make you wonder a little whether it was even worth sacking him when they did.
Utterly unsurprisingly, it was a scrappy, messy, mis-shapen first half, which is best summarised by its most enlivening moment being a bout of pushing and shoving which resulted in four yellow cards, five minutes from half-time. Where there was some reasonable movement in midfield it came from Everton, and they also created the better chances. Doucoure shot over. McNeill dragged a shot wide. Meslier dropped a cross and the ball was blocked twice.
This pressure slowly started to build at through the first half and into the early stages of the second, until it could be withstood no more. Nineteen minutes in, Seamus Coleman shot from a narrow angle with Meslier expecting a cross. The ball squeezed in, Everton had the lead, and Goodison Park exploded.
Leeds United’s afternoon seemed to be going to pieces from every angle. Bournemouth had taken the lead at Wolves. Southampton had taken the lead at Chelsea. While it should be perfectly obvious that this relegation race has got a very, very long way to run, it did feel a little as though everything was falling in around their ears. No new manager. A weak performance against mediocre opposition. Those immediately around them picking up unlikely-looking leads. With six minutes to play came another tremor, a Nottingham Forest equaliser against Manchester City.
By this point, the scent of desperation hung heavy in their air. Every attempt to break forward was greeted with a wall of noise, every tackle with howling, directionless anger. The addition of a relatively slim four minutes of stoppage-time at the end of the match suited Everton more than Leeds, even though they’d spent more of the previous ten minutes looking, if anything, more like the team chasing the game than their opponents had. Even with three minutes and fifty seconds of that stoppage-time having been played, Tom Davies and Idrissa Gueye had shots that were cleared.
And Everton did enough. The biggest problem that they have is that not only have they not got that number nine, but they have no way now of getting one before the end of this season. But there were also positive points. The midfield absoutely dominated the Leeds midfield, they created the majority of chances, and even looked more likely to score in the closing minutes. In no way whatsoever were they hanging on for dear life in this match, and Sean Dyche can take plaeasure at a job well done to maintain a 100% start to his home record at Goodison Park.
But Leeds played like a team without a manager, a predicament which feels far worse than not having a number nine. Leeds were without leadership on the pitch, without a player who seemed able to grab it by the scruff of the neck and bend it to their will. Perhaps it’s understandable that they should look this rudderless. Michael Skubala is the under-21s coach at Leeds. The players might have been able to lift themselves for their first match after Jesse Marsch’s not entirely unexpected departure, but they’re now three games in, there’s little sign that they’re much closer to having found a new manager, and the team is starting to play in exactly the way you’d expect under such circumstances – both leaderless and rudderless.
And this feels like a dereliction of duty on the part of those running the club. If you feel as though you have to sack the manager, then go ahead and sack the manager. You do you, boo. But if you’re going to take this extremely disruptive action, then at least have the basic common sense to already have figured out who you’re going to get in to replace him. If you think that they might turn you down, then have a list, in order, that you may consider approaching in order in the event of finding yourselves in this position. Because as things stand Leeds are tumbling towards the Championship, and something substantial has to change, for that to be avoided. That there is no apparent plan for this feels both worrying and damning.