Articles

Is Adam Good Forshaw?

Composed, cultured midfielder or uninventive purveyor of the back-pass?
This post is only available to members.

No Halme Done

In March 1991 a young trialist, unknown outside his home country, donned the Leeds United number seven shirt for the first and only time, for a meeting with Manchester City reserves. He did little of note and didn’t hang around to change the minds of the coaching staff, who saw nothing to convince them that he had what it took to influence a the team, near the end of its first season back in Division One. He didn’t do much afterwards, either; just five Dutch titles, a UEFA Cup, a Champions League, third place in the 1995 Ballon D’Or and 137 caps for Finland in an international career that stretched from the late 1980s to the early 2010s.

If turning down Jari Litmanen, the greatest player in Finland’s history, sounds like peak Leeds to you, you may be interested to know that we also turned our noses up at the second greatest. Sami Hyypiä, another future winner of Europe’s two premier cup competitions, played once against Bolton reserves and was deemed not good enough to challenge John Pemberton. Three Finns who fared marginally better were Seb Sorsa, Mika Väyrynen and an anaemic Mikael Forssell, who was released after fifteen colourless and goalless displays for the first team. Which is a roundabout way of saying that our record with Finnish players is the equivalent of tripping over a solid gold log and faceplanting into an open septic tank.

And then, two and a half decades later, whispers began among the lakes and forests of the frozen north — a new Hyypiä was on the march. Victor Orta, with an urgency sadly not shared by his predecessors, snapped up the youngster. It’s fair to say the spotty, hunched figure that turned up at Elland Road wasn’t what we expected. Sami Hyypiä was a square-jawed colossus hewn from the rock of Mount Halti. Aapo Halme looked like an Easter Island statue modelled out of Play-Doh.

He’s twice the player Jari Litmanen was

One thing he certainly didn’t look like was a typical footballer. On the day he signed for Leeds he wore a sensible black pullover and a Moomin-esque expression of otherworldly serenity. His hair was curly and lacking any discernible style. He looked less like the kind of guy who sprays champagne around a nightclub and more like the kind who sprays Lynx Africa into his boxers before going out. Some sceptics began to speculate that he might be a Simon Brodkin-style comedy imposter, or worse, an unfortunate intern from the social media team too polite or too embarrassed to say anything when Angus Kinnear sat him down in a chair and pushed a contract in front of him; meanwhile, stranded in a Helsinki airport, the real Aapo Halme watched the unveiling on a screen, disenchantment etched upon his square-jawed features.

Anyway, we resolved to judge him on his performances on the pitch. Except we couldn’t, because his name wasn’t on the next U23s teamsheet, nor the one after that. No official announcement came from the club, so his absence remained a mystery. By this point the infamous ‘salute’ badge had been unveiled and the club’s PR department was presiding over disaster after disaster, so the idea that Leeds had signed a Finnish Ali Dia wasn’t entirely without merit. It later transpired that Halme had injured a foot so badly that his season ended before it could begin.

Pre-season came and went; no Aapo Halme. Questions about his very existence persisted until November, when Marcelo Bielsa quelled them in typical Marcelo Bielsa style. “Aapo Halme is another possibility,” he said. “He’s ready.”

I see him peering over a wall at Derby, disguised as a tree

And there he was, suddenly, starting against Bristol City, running around on the pitch like one of those comedy giant players that you used to be able to create on the Pro Evo editor. And it was apparent that he was every inch a footballer — an awkward, gawky-looking footballer, but one possessing the composure and intelligence in possession to be trusted in a Bielsa side. There were a couple of slips, nothing out of the ordinary for a 20 year old debutant, but there was also aerial presence, and the right kind of aggression, and the promise of better things to come.

Of course, this doesn’t entirely debunk the ‘intern’ theory. Maybe Halme’s extended absence was down to Victor Orta packing him off onto an intensive nine-month crash course where Gaetano Berardi spends 23 hours a day smacking a ball at your head until you either learn to head it or expire miserably. What is more probable is that his emergence has been timely, and that centre-back is no longer the weakest position in our squad. Halme has, to date, featured in four Championship games and we are yet to concede a league goal with him on the pitch. A less composed performance against QPR in the cup ended with him subbed at half time, but not before he had scrambled in a close range rebound, becoming the first Finn to score a goal for Leeds and conclusively proving that he’s twice the player Jari Litmanen was.

I’m getting a definite whiff of cult hero potential from Aapo Halme. It’s early days in his Leeds career and I simply can’t judge if he’ll make it, because this weird mystical aura around him hasn’t quite dissipated yet. I don’t know what goes on behind those unnaturally calm eyes and Shaolin monk’s smile, and I don’t really want to; he’s different, and that makes him interesting.

I look forward to seeing him becoming the Yin to Pontus Jansson’s Yang at the heart of our defence; two Nordic titans of contrasting temperament, working in perfect equilibrium to repel all attackers. Or maybe peering over a wall at Derby’s training ground, disguised as a tree.

Let’s face it, he’s exceeded our expectations already. Anything’s possible for Aapo Halme now, in this most magical of seasons. ◉

(artwork by Dan Marsham)

[x_recent_posts type=”post” count=”3″ orientation=”horizontal”]

Mike Whitlow

Mike Whitlow would have been the perfect Bielsa project, but he was all Howard Wilkinson's.
This post is only available to members.

TSB Podcast: #117: Throwing Salt

The season enters its final third and there’s a lot at stake: the Daniel James Shield, points against Swansea and a place in the Premier League. But do we actually want it? Shaun Harvey can’t make up his mind either, but Kalvin keeps us smiling.

Find us in your favourite podcast app, or listen in the player below:

(artwork by Lee Shackleton)

[x_recent_posts type=”post” count=”3″ orientation=”horizontal”]

Middlesbrough 1-1 Leeds United: This Time

What could better sum this season up than a 101st minute equaliser away from home, scored by our transformed homegrown midfielder while our most exciting and most valuable young player is being rushed to hospital mysteriously ill?

Jack Clarke’s illness was an interruption but not a derailment. It’s hard to imagine what would derail Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa this season; perhaps we’ll be unlucky enough to find out before May. Instead, after Clarke was taken so sick that the game had to be stopped, paramedics called and oxygen given, Bielsa watched his young charge wheeled down the tunnel on a stretcher. Then he turned back to the game. Bueno. Now, score from this corner.

Leeds didn’t score from that corner, but they did score eventually, ignoring the disruption and sticking serenely to the style and the plan, believing until the end it would get results. Even after Kalvin Phillips equalised, eleven minutes into twelve added on, there were Leeds players grabbing the ball and racing to restart. They could still win this.

(Prefer this as a podcast? Click here to support Moscowhite on Patreon.)

Phillips felt like he’d lost it, blaming himself for Middlesbrough’s goal, setting his mistake against Bielsa’s expectations. “The manager is always speaking about as soon you lose the ball getting back into your position, and I feel like at that moment in time I just didn’t do that quick enough,” he said after the game. “Maybe it’s a bit harsh but no one else is to blame really but me.”

That wasn’t strictly true; Phillips lost the ball in midfield, but when the ball was passed George to George, Saville to Friend, Luke Ayling was caught out and Pablo Hernandez was thinking about other things. Phillips should have chased Lewis Wing, and Ezgjan Alioski tried to, but Wing had space to choose how to shoot past Kiko Casilla.

Ayling was off his mark all game, but Hernandez had only just been brought on, at half-time, for “his calm and his serenity,” as Bielsa put it afterwards. That was required after a first half spent wincing every time Middlesbrough crossed, which was too often; Aden Flint missed two close range headers and Ryan Shotton couldn’t make it in time to score at the back post; a shot from Saville was saved by Casilla and one from Wing went just wide. It wasn’t much, but it was more than Middlesbrough’s style deserved; they tried 23 long ‘passes’ in the first half, and only four reached their target; one of those, according to the stats, was a forty yarder from the halfway line to near their own corner flag.

It was more than Leeds had managed. Apart from a couple of half-chances for Patrick Bamford, making his first start, and a couple of long shots from Alioski and Mateusz Klich, Leeds didn’t threaten much. Kemar Roofe was playing behind Bamford as enganche, with a different style to Hernandez and his predecessor Samu Saiz. Saiz used to like the ball with his back to goal so he could turn and face it; Hernandez likes to approach the penalty area like an artist approaching a canvas, palette in hand, brush raised; Roofe likes a through ball between the lines, so he can chase on to it and run diagonally into a channel, dragging defenders so he can pass into the space. Middlesbrough, with five defenders and two defensive midfielders, didn’t leave much space.

Enter Hernandez, who didn’t let the early concession and his initial looseness in possession dissuade him from his task. Middlesbrough’s failure with the long ball was partly due to Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson’s command in the air, and they had Jordan Hugill under control; Middlesbrough’s chances were falling to their defenders and wing-backs and once, crucially, to an attacking midfielder. Phillips says if he had tracked him he wouldn’t have scored, and his homecoming in front of the defence gave Leeds security at the back and steadiness when starting attacks. All the game needed was someone to take it to Middlesbrough.

Whether Middlesbrough tired after their midweek travelling shenanigans — their plane back from losing to Newport in the FA Cup failed, so they took the coach and got home after breakfast — whether they were content to defend their lead, or whether Pablo Hernandez simply forced their knuckles backwards so hard they had to to submit, Leeds increased the pressure, becoming stronger as their opponents became weaker.

Phillips controlled the centre and Hernandez dictated from the right, passing one to the other fifteen times. Pablo’s finest moment was splitting the defence with a through ball from the halfway line to the penalty area that Bamford was unlucky not to be allowed to finish; Phillips made a chance for Roofe with a long chipped pass from the same place, curving just beyond Roofe’s boot. Roofe had two more chances at once when Leeds recycled the ball from a corner and he had two point blank shots, both saved by Darren Randolph. The best chance of all was set up by a cross field pass from Hernandez to Jack Harrison, whose cross was headed onto the far post by Jansson; with Randolph on the floor and the goal empty, the ball bounced in front of Bamford, who shot sharply and widely and turned and fell to the floor. Bamford said in midweek, “I owe the Leeds fans three goals,” referring to his hat-trick against us last season. Make it four, Pat.

The only things that could stop Leeds from scoring were the fact that they really struggle with scoring, and the worrying sight of paramedics in the dugout attending to their stricken teammate. It was Tony Pulis who called for the game to be stopped, a testament to his humanity, and manna for anyone who enjoys portraying Marcelo Bielsa as a heartless football fanatic who works his players to the brink of collapse then crouches in his technical area, engrossed in a corner kick, as they’re taken to hospital. Bielsa did show his compassion by going straight to visit Jack Clarke in hospital — but that was after the game.

First, the football, and United’s powers of concentration do them credit. Middlesbrough fans have complained about Leeds gaining an unfair advantage from the twelve minutes of added time, but I’m sure a number of United’s players would instinctively have preferred to call the game off and go with their teammate. An advantage was gained because Leeds have been coached by Marcelo Bielsa to act against the instincts we’ve seen from most of these players over the last few seasons and, instead, to play very well; and because the training that many people think will be the burnout of our season has been worth its bodymass in points for the league table. Leeds have now scored fifteen goals after the 80th minute of matches, more than any other team in the Championship, and the latest was the latest of all.

Alioski’s corner went to the back of the penalty area, was headed to the front by Cooper, and the only movement in the eighteen yard box after that was from Kalvin Phillips’ neck muscles, as he headed the ball past Randolph, then his face muscles, for that match-winning grin.

Match-winning? Not quite. That’s why Bamford wanted to get on with the game. But if it feels like a win, only the classified results can contradict us. Sometimes feelings beat facts, and late goals beat any other feeling. ◉

(Are you reading the BUFF? A daily email newsletter by Moscowhite for twenty pence a week. Decent writing needs support: Click here to get your daily BUFF.)

(photo by Paul Kent)

[x_recent_posts type=”post” count=”3″ orientation=”horizontal”]

The Square Ball Week: Making It Count

On this weekend in 1990, Leeds United’s attempt to win promotion from the Second Division was stumbling. With twelve minutes left at Elland Road Hull City led 3-2, about to inflict United’s second defeat in seven days.

The team was crumbling around Howard Wilkinson. Leeds had started the game without Mel Sterland, their vital right-back, who was replaced by debutant midfielder Chris Kamara; centre-half Chris O’Donnell had to be brought on for his only appearance of the season to replace left-back Jim Beglin; Imre Varadi was making his first appearance for Leeds in attack; Lee Chapman, making his fourth, was about to be taken off to give Vince Hilaire a rare appearance, which meant pushing long-absent winger John Hendrie through the middle. The stadium was packed; there were still seventeen games left after this one, but nobody felt like Leeds United could afford to lose.

Least of all Gordon Strachan. With eight minutes left Hendrie chested a high ball from David Batty down to Strachan, who beat one defender and threatened two more as he scampered to the byline. He cut the ball back for Varadi, and although Marcelo Bielsa would tell you that cutting back is almost a guarantee to score, Varadi’s shot was blocked. Strachan wasn’t done, though; he was first to the rebound, keeping the ball in play and flicking it so Varadi could try again; this time he didn’t miss.

Vinnie Jones wasn’t done either. With ninety minutes up, he won a tackle in midfield and the loose ball found Strachan, who held off Hull’s Ken de Mange and gave it to Jones again. He went around de Mange and looked again for Strachan, now running towards the penalty area. For a hod-carrier Jones was having a heck of a season with his feet; his pass with the outside of his boot was perfectly weighted for Strachan to control with one touch then hammer into the net with another, sending it looping into the top corner, and sending him looping loopily in circles around the penalty area until he slid feet first towards the Kop, ending up flat on his back, his arms behind his head, flattened.

(Prefer this as a podcast? Click here to support Moscowhite on Patreon.)

Strachan had just turned 33, and when he left Manchester United, he might have been thinking he was too old for all this; Alex Ferguson certainly was. But Howard Wilkinson thought differently, tapping into an impossible reserve of strength that Strachan used to keep driving Leeds forward when all looked lost. His more famous goal against Leicester City, the goal everyone thought had sent Leeds up, came six minutes from the end of the last home game of the season.

“If you look at the television pictures of the players lifting me up on the touchline you will see one tired man,” Strachan wrote in his column for the Yorkshire Evening Post after the game. “I look almost skeletal, and I think I was feeling even worse than I looked. I seemed to be in agony and, to be honest, I was mentally as well as physically drained at the end.”

There was still one more match to play. Newcastle United’s win over West Ham United meant the last away game of the season, at Bournemouth, would decide the season.

Burn out has been on everybody’s minds since the moment Marcelo Bielsa took over at Leeds, when people started looking for reasons why it was a terrible idea. It’s February now, and people want to talk about it even more. Pontus Jansson’s comments on a podcast in Sweden were taken very seriously in translation, although he seems to have been speaking with a light heart — albeit heavy legs — when saying that he’d thought Bielsa would learn about the toughness of the Championship and start going easy on the players, but there’s been no such luck. Instead, said Pontus, there have been late goals aplenty, and late wins over Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers, that might not have happened without Bielsa’s punishing regime.

We’ve also had the testimony of Rob Price, the club’s head of medicine, who acknowledges that he’s been dealing with an exceptional number of injuries this season, and that the workload in training might be a contributing factor; but he puts forward the counter argument that a squad without injuries is often a squad that isn’t being worked hard enough, and it’s hard work that has got Leeds to the top of the Championship.

A third factor is the recent performances of Pablo Hernandez. He was substituted at half-time in the match against Norwich City, and his attempts to replace Samu Saiz as playmaker have been hampered by a lack of vim; Tyler Roberts has impressed there because his energy has allowed him to do more, more quickly than Hernandez. He’s been in excellent form at times this season, like Strachan in his determination to make goals from lost causes and push the team forward to victory, but in one recent match a counter-attack ended painfully when the ball reached Hernandez; he couldn’t run fast enough into the empty pitch ahead of him before he was overtaken and smothered by defenders.

Pablo’s struggles reminded me of Strachan in 1990. Not so much the bizarre reserves of energy that Strachan had but Hernandez can’t find, but the way Strachan talked about it: tired, skeletal, in agony, drained. Howard Wilkinson said something similar about the toll promotion took when he was at Sheffield Wednesday; he said that in photos of the final match he, “Looked as if I’d just come out of a prison camp,” and swore never to let football affect him that much again.

Wilkinson learned to relax, but Strachan had no such luxury. As Leeds closed in on the First Division title in 1992, back pain meant Strachan couldn’t repeat his Second Division heroics. In the decisive last match at Sheffield United, Strachan’s free-kick caused the chaos that ended in Rod Wallace’s equaliser just before half-time, but at the break he judged that he was doing more harm than good by trying to play. Carl Shutt took over on the right wing, and David Batty was captain for the most important 45 minutes of football Leeds had played in 25 years.

Gary McAllister came off too, protesting to Wilkinson, but soon celebrating as Eric Cantona helped Rod Wallace cause more chaos, as if Brian Gayle wasn’t capable of creating enough of that on his own. Relieving the tired McAllister, Cantona was making his fourteenth appearance; Jon Newsome, who had earlier put Leeds ahead, was making his ninth since injury to Mel Sterland put him out of the run-in.

That’s the flipside to the strength of Strachan in 1990, that escaped him in 1992, that Pablo Hernandez might not have in 2019. The Hull game was littered with lesser-spotted players: Varadi, O’Donnell, Kamara, Hilaire. Gary Speed, whose goals in the run-in would secure vital draws against Bradford City and Brighton, had not yet made a league start; in the previous match Wilkinson had preferred Dylan Kerr. When Sterland returned at right-back Chris Kamara moved into midfield, replacing the youthful Batty for the crucial final weeks.

Kamara only played eleven times in the promotion season, and 24 times for Leeds overall, but his contribution was enough to write his name down in Leeds United history. At Bournemouth, he crossed for Chapman, and Chapman knew what to do about that; Leeds were Second Division champions. That season Kamara arrived late, played little, but gave everything, and earned his place in folklore.

“I’m really excited,” Patrick Bamford said this week, about coming into the first team after missing the season so far through injury. “Without blowing my own trumpet too much, I’ve seen the fans made a bit of a fuss that no-one was really brought in in the January window. But we’ve got me and Izzy Brown who have been injured for a long time, and we all have our part to play in the coming games.

“There’s a lot of boys that are going to come back in, and it’s when the lads are looking for something, they need that kind of lift. It can just be a player coming back like myself or Izzy, or any of the others.”

Leeds United still have sixteen games to go. Pablo Hernandez might not be decisive in any of them, but that might not be a problem. This season he has already scored seven goals and made eleven assists; a season’s worth of work for many players. He still might find the Strachanesque strength to be an inspiration on the pitch in the tense games ahead, or his influence might be restricted to setting an example in training and adding what he can in first halves or from the bench.

The point is, he has contributed. In a 46 match season, it’s not only about who plays at the end. Jon Newsome scored two vital goals as United’s title-winning right-back at the end of 1991/92; but although Mel Sterland was lost to the team after 29 starts, he’ll always wear number two in Sergeant Wilko’s team. Eric Cantona made his mark on the closing months of the title, but he never had a shirt in the first eleven. That was the story of Steve Hodge’s entire season. Luck and injuries have a lot to do with when a player can play, but not with how much they can contribute.

Even without new signings, Leeds United’s team might look very different by the 5th May. But what it achieves will be down to everything that has happened since the 1st July. ◉

(Are you reading the BUFF? A daily email newsletter by Moscowhite for twenty pence a week. Decent writing needs support: Click here to get your daily BUFF.)

(photo by Lee Brown)

[x_recent_posts type=”post” count=”3″ orientation=”horizontal”]

TSB Podcast #116: Strings For Patrick

After the Norwich defeat and missing out on Dan James, it’s been a tough week, but at least Pat Bamford is back and ready to add another string to our bow. Nobility is the order of the day, though, as the first of many cups is now in Marcelo’s hands.

Find us in your favourite podcast app, or listen in the player below:

(photo by Lee Brown)

[x_recent_posts type=”post” count=”3″ orientation=”horizontal”]

Leeds United 1-3 Norwich City: The Problems With Everything

After the game Marcelo Bielsa said, “It’s hard for us to score goals,” about Leeds United’s attack, “We have lost our defensive strength,” about the defence, and about the midfield he said, “In an important segment of this season we recovered the ball well and could play out well, too. And we have lost this feature.”

That if it wasn’t for the defence, the midfield and the attack Leeds might have beaten Norwich City is a typically accurate summary. There was half an hour in the first half, between Norwich’s goals, when Leeds United were themselves; Elland Road recovered most of its pre-match volume after the early shock of going behind, and the players were forceful and intense, getting the ball, attacking, getting the ball, attacking. Ezgjan Alioski was inches away from a daisy-cutting Van Basten volley, and Kemar Roofe was inches away from diverting the same shot into the net. Roofe was blocked off in the penalty area without winning a foul; Tim Krul dashed outside the penalty area and, after Tyler Roberts had rolled Pablo Hernandez’s chipped pass wide, clattered the forward with enough Harald Schumacher force to be sent off for dangerous play rather than for stopping a goalscoring opportunity. He was charged with the latter, found not guilty — Roberts had missed — and given a yellow card. Roofe, frustrated before half-time, lashed a shot that was blocked at close range, then lashed another that was blocked at close range, then looked up at the Beeston sky, as if he was learning enough from the first half to dread the second.

Leeds started the second half two-nil down because before all that attacking Pontus Jansson had tried some of his own, charging out of defence with the ball at his feet until he met the feet of Mario Vrancic and, trying to recover his mistake, tripped Onel Hernandez on the edge of the box. Vrancic took the free-kick and, with a deflection that altered the trajectory if not the destination, shot past Kiko Casilla.

And because after Luke Ayling was knocked off the ball upfield, then was rescued by Liam Cooper’s sliding tackle on Teemu Pukki as he threatened the penalty area, Adam Forshaw adopted the body shape of a composed player but not the ball control. He lurched forward as if he was toppling off a Segway, letting Emiliano Buendía and Marco Stiepermann hustle the splintered defence; Jansson blocked Vrancic’s shot but the ball rebounded between Pukki and an empty net. Elland Road was confused and silent; Norwich were in control.

Bielsa made half-time changes on the wings, but it took almost ten minutes for Jack Clarke to get the ball for dribbling, and further chances were few. Alioski and Barry Douglas were busier down the left, but most of the time they were chasing possession. What Bielsa’s changes didn’t address was that Leeds were too soft and too easy through the middle, where they couldn’t even win the ball, let alone keep it. United’s tackling was so feeble that Norwich’s players either kept the ball, or let a teammate collect it loose. They then ran through the middle past Forshaw, intent on dribbling straight at the feet of Jansson and Cooper and forcing them into mistakes. When Leeds did have possession, Norwich had to just watch and wait for Forshaw, Ayling or Mateusz Klich to give it away.

(Prefer this as a podcast? Click here to support Moscowhite on Patreon.)

The failings of that three are of different kinds. Klich has a responsibility to be creative, and with Norwich secure and happy to defend their lead, he took wrong decisions when trying to force opportunities. Ayling had a goal disallowed, volleying in at a corner, but it was a rare appearance in the opposition box compared to his confident marauding earlier in the season; he has played lately as if his man-bun is tethered by elastic to the corner flag behind him, falling to the ground upfield and flailing as the ball goes out of his reach.

Forshaw, playing positionally at the heart of the team, is the most malevolent influence. Bielsa described him in summer as the squad’s best player, and he was a revelation last season; a player who could pass and keep the ball. But his attributes make him look better suited if not to some other position then to some other team. He looks like a wiry ball-player from the 1970s, tapping and terse, swinging this way and that in search of elegance. It was entirely in character for him to lose possession before Norwich’s second goal by trying to pause the game with his foot on the ball. Forshaw might have thought he needed time to consider his options, but he’s easy to read anyway; his search for elegance usually ends with one last swivel and a pass back to his goalkeeper.

Forshaw is there to link defence to attack and dictate tempo, and his downbeat lazing infects the players around him. Jansson, so intense when blocking attackers, never needs inviting to relax in possession; with five minutes left, he attempted one of the laziest passes I’ve ever seen out of defence, chipping the ball ten yards short of Alioski and giving Norwich another opportunity to attack. That could have made it 4-0 — an attack down the left had just given Vrancic a chance in the penalty area, that he shot slowly through Douglas and Casilla’s legs to make it three — and I might have thought Jansson had just given up, if he hadn’t started the game the same way.

Patrick Bamford, on as substitute, headed in a corner to make the score 3-1 and prevent this match going down as this generation’s Jeremy Goss mauling. The corner was given after Krul tipped Bamford’s close range shot on to the bar, the conclusion to a long spell of possession that Leeds were, finally, allowed. It was already stoppage time but Leeds suddenly came alive, a different team with a goal to their name and the pressure of a close match taken off them. They can feel free to play at 3-1 down with three minutes of time left, but that’s not going to win many promotions.

What will? According to Bielsa, better attacking, better defending, and better midfielding. Better coaching? “We have lost this feature,” he said of how Leeds used to play out well from the back, although he might have been talking about any of the aspects he was discussing, “and I think I am deeply responsible for it.” We know what comes next. The now famous analysis, that examines opponents in such depth, turns inwards. “In everything that happens to the team, the head coach is responsible,” he said on Saturday; “All the negative things that happen to the team are the responsibility of the head coach.” He isn’t just protecting his players from criticism; introspection is such a large part of Bielsa’s character that it lies behind his need to analyse other teams, putting his own mind at ease. This week, planning for the Middlesbrough match, will be a hard working week. We know he won’t change what his team does, but it’s time to change how they do it. There will be solutions.

The solutions, though, don’t need to be difficult. Leeds United are, after all, at the top of the league; Bielsa is trying to regain something, not find something that was never there. Bamford’s cameo and goal offers a solution to the conversion rate that Bielsa ranks worse than the bottom teams; against Bolton Wanderers and now against Norwich, Bamford has needed much less time than Roofe to score. That might be harsh on Roofe, whose work rate, attitude and goals have made him a low-key contender for player of the year. After Norwich’s second goal, he took the initiative, trying to score straight away by dribbling upfield from the restart; Krul’s save was all that stopped a Rod Wallaceesque wondergoal. But Roofe would agree that, lately, something always seems to be stopping him. After Bamford scored, Roofe followed him to the halfway line to give him a high-five of congratulations, game recognising game, and one beleaguered striker recognising the optimism of a player coming back, feeling free.

A comeback from Gaetano Berardi might help too, although he probably won’t be ready to play at Middlesbrough. Playing at centre-half at the start of the season while Jansson recovered from the World Cup, Berardi was among the pick of Bielsa’s reconfiguring projects, applying his fierce dedication against strikers rather than wingers, and recognising his limits when playing out. As Jansson yet again turned under pressure and into more, I longed for Berardi’s simple and decisive straight-line hard kicks to our midfielders. And as Ayling or Klich or Forshaw crumpled in possession, I wished Berardi was there to fight for the loose ball — and win.

The third change is obvious, and this reasoning might not sound scientific, but after all Bielsa is the coach who signed Mauricio Pochettino after looking at the young boy’s legs while he slept. Adam Forshaw doesn’t look like a Bielsa player. He’s pensive and slight, looking for time to think rather than passes to play. But Kalvin Phillips has the wide chest and shoulders, the extroverted hair and the confident gaze of a player born to run Bielsa’s midfield. You could put him into any South American team, add some trivia about how many times he’s been sent off and banned and for what outrages, and use him to frighten children — and delight them — in television coverage of any World Cup since 1962. Kalvinoro Phillipez has an aura that belongs in the heart of Leeds United’s midfield; he is the heart of Leeds United’s midfield. Necessity put him in defence; Forshaw’s fluctuating, flattering form put him on the bench. Now it’s time to put him back in the team. ◉

(Are you reading the BUFF? A daily email newsletter by Moscowhite for twenty pence a week. Decent writing needs support: Click here to get your daily BUFF.)

(photo by Lee Brown)

[x_recent_posts type=”post” count=”3″ orientation=”horizontal”]

The Square Ball Week: Pushing My Love Over

One of my favourite Leeds United photos is of the squad from the 1989/90 Division Two title winning season.

The only one who spoils it is, predictably, David Batty; while all the others on the front row have followed instructions by placing their hands firmly on their knees and smiling into the lens, Batty is resting his wrists loosely on his thighs and looking askance at something off to his left, as if he’s spotted someone breaking into his car. He’s probably just trying to work out how soon he can get off home.

As a group, though, Leeds are resplendent. They’re all wearing the long sleeved version of the home shirt which, after various weights of typeface and colour, bears the best version of sponsors Top Man’s logo on the chest — embossed, bold and navy.

On the back row Batts’ big brother Vinnie Jones is squinting to the right, but it’s less obvious beneath his furrowed brow. Most of the rest are smiling, confident and relaxed. And so they should: they’d won the league already, and this was a photo of the champions.

Most clubs release their squad photos in the summer as a gesture of optimism for the season ahead, although transfer windows and hasty loan deals have eroded the tradition; Leeds never seemed to recover from the season they had to cut and paste Darren Huckerby’s head onto Jimmy Hasselbaink’s body. The photos become mementos of the campaign, but we don’t find out until May if we’ll be putting it in a frame or putting it on a dartboard. A lot can change by then, and not just results.

That’s why the end of season photo from 1989/90 is such a treasure. Lee Chapman, Chris Kamara, Dylan Kerr, Gary Speed and Imre Varadi all made contributions to winning the title; none of them are on the summer squad shot. Kerr and Speed were at the club but not part of the first team squad; the others didn’t arrive until after Christmas. Speed’s place before the camera at the start of the season was taken by Mickey Thomas, who is absent by the end; Ian Baird and Noel Blake have gone too. Gone as well is the plaster on Howard Wilkinson’s forehead; a quiet summer smile is replaced by a toothy grin in May. This guy, and these lads. These are the champions, and it’s good to have a photo to record it.

(Prefer this as a podcast? Click here to support Moscowhite on Patreon.)

I started thinking about that photo this week when a shot of this season’s Leeds United squad appeared on Twitter. As part of the ‘Show Racism The Red Card’ campaign, the players are gathered on Elland Road beneath yellow winter sunlight, holding red cards to support the message. It was the first time I’d realised that, unless I’ve missed it, Leeds United didn’t release a summer squad photo. It was the first time we’ve seen them, all the lads, with Marcelo Bielsa on the front row, the corner of a smile just starting work as he gazes straight ahead.

We can date it; Samu Saiz isn’t there, but Lewis Baker and Conor Shaughnessy are; Will Huffer hasn’t yet left for his month with Barnet, because Kiko Casilla hasn’t arrived. Despite the discrepancies, the picture’s release felt well timed, ahead of the game against Norwich City, and the sixteen games that will follow and decide our season. I wondered if, once Daniel James was signed and sealed from Swansea City, it might be good to take the photo again and make it as up to date as possible, as if to say, here they are. Here are the lads. These are the ones who are going to make it or break it.

If we’re waiting for Daniel James, though, we’ll be waiting a long time. I suspect we’ll be hearing much more about the transfer that wasn’t, but once Marcelo Bielsa has dealt with the subject in a press conference, most of the noise will be in Swansea. We know from Bielsa’s track record that he weighs activity in the transfer market as a measure of his employers’ integrity, but after identifying two goalkeepers, Karl Darlow and Kiko Casilla, and getting the one he thought was impossible (Bielsa greeted Casilla by telling him he was “crazy” for coming to the Championship), that Leeds met Swansea’s ever changing demands and overcame their reluctance to sell to the extent that Bielsa’s only other request was sitting in the stadium in a Leeds shirt with his medical done ought to satisfy Bielsa that the club could not have done more to satisfy him.

“If he comes it will be a significant transfer,” Bielsa said on Thursday afternoon. “If he doesn’t come then we will find solutions.” Some fans have complained that there was no backup plan should Daniel James’ transfer fall through, but I’m not sure it would have been possible to sign any second choice option given how late in the evening Swansea pulled out; it would have required a Massimo Cellino standard of medical to get it done in time, and our physios have enough crocks to deal with. But we know from Bielsa’s time at Lille that a player he doesn’t want is worse for him than no player at all, and after rejecting all Victor Orta’s other finds like a diner sending back the wine, it was all or nothing on James.

Nothing is a terrible word, though, and I’m not sure it has a place in Bielsa’s thinking. He always has something. This season’s question of a goalkeeper provides an example; he refused all offers of an emergency loan when Bailey Peacock-Farrell was injured, preferring to use Will Huffer. Will Huffer has since been loaned to the National League, an indication of the stage his development has reached. With the transfer window open, Bielsa asked for and got one of the finest goalkeepers in La Liga. For Bielsa, it’s all about the players he has in the building. If he has a goalkeeper from Real Madrid in the building, he’ll use him and get the best out of him. If he has a teenager without a first team match to his name, he’ll use him and get the best out of him.

It’s a high-wire risk, but then this was a high-wire season from the moment one of the most volatile coaches in world football was signed up, and the trapeze act is only getting naturally more precarious the longer Leeds spend at the top of the table. Failing to land Daniel James won’t make promotion any easier, but nobody ever said it was going to be easy anyway. This is Leeds United AFC. Even in the 1960s and ’70s, when the best players in the world were playing for the best manager, easy was never in it.

A photo of the squad today, before the Norwich City game, wouldn’t include beaming smiles and satisfaction. It also wouldn’t include Samu Saiz, Lewis Baker or Jamal Blackman from the start of the season; and it would be dominated by players wearing medical boots, bearing surgical scars, bruised and bandaged. What wouldn’t be seen in such a photo, though, is fear. With Marcelo Bielsa on the front row, the corner of a smile just starting work as he gazes straight ahead, Leeds United can still look forward to the possibility of taking a smiling and satisfied photograph in May as a celebration of a job well done; and a memento of the lads that did it. They’re all here now; nobody else is coming to save our season. ◉

(Are you reading the BUFF? A daily email newsletter by Moscowhite for twenty pence a week. Decent writing needs support: Click here to get your daily BUFF.)

(photo by Lee Brown)

[x_recent_posts type=”post” count=”3″ orientation=”horizontal”]