Jesse Marsch has spoken effusively of his use of motivational quotes from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi to inspire his Leeds players but at the rate his side’s fortunes are spiralling, he would perhaps be wise to draw inspiration from Harry Houdini instead.
Rudyard Kipling’s legendary poem, If, discusses the importance of keeping your head when all around you are losing theirs but as the door on Leeds United’s Premier League status inches shut, the last four days show they are playing with an inverse mindset. Defeats to Arsenal and Chelsea should not ordinarily define a team’s Premier League survival chances but it is the nature of them which are concerning.
Conceding early is disastrous enough, as Leeds did on Sunday and again here when Mason Mount struck past Illan Meslier after four minutes. But to receive red cards in the first half of both games for tackles which are entirely avoidable is the very definition of deepening your own mire. After Luke Ayling’s dismissal at Arsenal three days earlier, Dan James followed suit here with a terrible tackle on Mateo Kovacic that left Anthony Taylor with little choice but to dismiss him.
James looked stunned. Marsch looked flustered on the touchline. But the reality is from that moment this game was a formality, with further goals from Christian Pulisic and Romelu Lukaku compounding Leeds’s misery and moving Chelsea eight points clear of fifth-placed Tottenham. Leeds now know that with their inferior goal difference, even wins against Brighton and Brentford in their final two games may not be enough to keep them up.
“The guys are gutted because we’re not giving ourselves the chances we want coming into the match, and that part hurts,” Marsch said. “We have six points left, and we have to do everything we can to recover and stay mentally strong. We’re not perfect but we’re together. We have to be aggressive against the ball and try to win balls, and sometimes we’ve been too aggressive in certain situations and it’s cost us.”
With the FA Cup final three days away, this was a welcome return to form for Chelsea. Yes, they were aided by James’s red card but they were much the stronger of the two sides, underlined by Mount’s strike after just four minutes. It always felt an inevitability they would extend that lead when Leeds were reduced to 10 men, and shortly after the restart they did that when Pulisic fired low past Meslier.
“We played very well from the first minute,” Tuchel said. “I was happy with the level of focus and determination. You need to be disciplined because Leeds never stop running.”
However, there were ramifications from this polished Chelsea display, with Kovacic forced off injured after that tackle from James and now “very unlikely” to play at Wembley on Saturday. “We will see, we’ll need to wait and pray for a miracle,” Tuchel said.
Mount’s opener certainly stifled the pre-match atmosphere inside Elland Road, with the tension all too palpable as the games begin to run out. Leeds could, and perhaps should, have been more than one goal behind by half-time but the result was decided by James’s shocking tackle. He certainly got the ball but the Welshman was also high, reckless and dangerous in doing so, and despite protestation from the home supporters, the replays left James with little supporting evidence.
So when Pulisic scored past Meslier 10 minutes after the restart, any notion Leeds could scramble at least a point from such a desperate situation was swept aside. There was endeavour in response but not a single shot on target, underlining another of Leeds’s key problems. But Chelsea deserve credit for the manner in which they handled a rumbustious home crowd and a potentially tricky evening’s work.
The third goal always felt inevitable but after a slew of missed chances it took until the final seven minutes to arrive. Diego Llorente dallied in possession in midfield, Chelsea sprung on the counter and Lukaku eventually rifled into the top corner to seal a victory which takes Tuchel’s side a step closer to securing a top-four finish which, at one stage, seemed like an inevitability. This result will have certainly built confidence before the final on Saturday evening, if nothing else.
But as Chelsea cantered to victory and the momentum from Marsch’s arrival dissipated further into a mere flutter, it was hard not to think of the last days of Marcelo Bielsa and wonder if, really, Leeds are any better off than the day they decided to part company with the Argentinian. Only the next two fixtures, their biggest in living memory, will tell us the answer decisively.