It was an important victory on Tuesday night. The 3-0 win over Southampton has seen Leeds climb back into the top half of the table, but also far away from the relegation zone – but even before the victory, Nigel Martyn told LeedsUnited.News that he thinks the Whites have already done enough to avoid the drop. The Leeds icon has also praised Jamie Shackleton and discussed playing out from the back, a tactic that does his “head in”.
Raphinha scored the pick of the goals from a free-kick – the best part of 25 yards from goal – while Patrick Bamford netted his 13th of the season in what was his 25th Premier League appearance of the campaign. Stuart Dallas scored in between, sparking debate over whether his left-footed effort was a toe poke, or a delicate flick with the outside of his foot.
Either way, the win has taken Leeds from the danger of being pulled into a relegation scrap – after two successive defeats to Arsenal and Wolves, and having lost three of their last four before Southampton. The win takes them on to 35 from 25, a tally that in itself could be enough even if Leeds did not add to it over the next 13 league games. Instead, they should be looking up.
Martyn agrees. The Leeds legend believes relegation – even before the win over Southampton – was already avoided: “Leeds could lose the next three and still not have to worry about relegation, I think we’re fine in that respect – even though Fulham are doing well. If performances were poor, and we were getting done three or four, then that’s alarming. It’s not like that at all. They will win as many games as they lose, and they will be fine.”
Not only have Leeds surpassed the expectation of many, they have done it with as bad a defensive crisis as Liverpool’s – with Robin Koch, Diego Llorente and Liam Cooper all injured at times. Luke Ayling – a right-back, has been combined with rookie Pascal Struijk – on occasion. It has been like that when Kalvin Phillips has been sidelined, too.
The England midfielder has now been missing since the 2-0 win over Palace – and Leeds have stuttered against Arsenal and Wolves in his absence. They got the mix right against Southampton, with Jamie Shackleton being dropped by Marcelo Bielsa and the Argentine adopting a three-man defence with Llorente coming in. However, 21-year-old Shackleton has impressed Martyn – with the ex-goalkeeper confident that the academy product has earned the “trust” of Bielsa.
“I thought he had a good game if I’m completely honest,” Martyn said, about Shackleton’s performance against Arsenal. “Obviously we missed Phillips, he is important. But Shackleton did well, and it puts Ayling at right-back and Struijk at centre-back. I prefer that, as Ayling stays at right-back. His versatility means that if someone gets injured, he is the first one in. It might limit him starting a game if everyone is fit – but throughout the season he will play a good number of games. He’s come in and done well, he’s not the biggest stature but he does put himself about. The manager trusts him, and doesn’t shirk playing him.”
The 4-2 defeat to Arsenal highlighted numerous weaknesses of Leeds – especially in the first half. Illan Meslier was at fault for two of the goals – one of which saw him concede possession and then bring down Bukayo Saka. It was proof that sometimes, playing out from the back can really hamper Leeds – and sometimes it is best to go long.
At least, that is the view of Martyn, who believes that if the chance to play out is not on – then the likes of Meslier, Liam Cooper or whoever else is in defence, need to decide that smacking the ball out to a winger is the wiser option: “There are times, when it is not on – go long. The Arsenal game. It was doing my head in – there is a time and a place.
“If a team are putting a press, just go long for 10 minutes. Hit a winger, if it goes out for a throw-in, fine. If they don’t play a high press, play out. He trusts them, they should have a spare man but at times, you have to realise that teams press high – think, no, it is not on and go a different route. It is recognising when it is 50-50 that you lose the ball. I’m not saying don’t play out from the back – I’m all for that but on occasion, recognise there is risk and go long.”
With the threat of relegation over, Leeds now have the freedom and confidence to play the rest of the 2020-21 campaign without being concerned about the table – but another couple of wins and Europe might come into the picture. A win against Aston Villa on Saturday evening at Elland Road, might just do that.
The Whites are likely to be without Phillips, Ian Poveda and Rodrigo, while Robin Koch, Gaetano Berardi and Adam Forshaw continue their comebacks form long-term issues. Villa, themselves, could be without captain Jack Grealish.