Wet Blankets

It’s okay to get carried away, but don’t forget: we are Leeds
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Tom Jennings

Only Peter Lorimer and John Charles scored more league goals for Leeds than Tom Jennings
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The World is Watching

A manager with global status is helping to remind the world that Leeds United is a global club
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Sick Vurn

How Vurnon Anita fluffed his lines at Leeds
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The Last Word: Kalvin & Kindness

Bielsa has shown enough of what he thinks about Phillips for one substitution not to matter
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The Square Ball Week: Forthcoming Attractions

Leeds United at home to Middlesbrough, in the early weeks of a Second Division promotion campaign, evokes memories of 1989/90, our last promotion season.

And you can call it a campaign right from the start, until you know for certain that it is a promotion season, or not. As Marcelo Bielsa said this week, if we read anything into league positions at this stage we make a mistake, because “the goals are definitive ones, not partial ones.” In other words, you only get promoted at the end of the season, and that’s the only goal.

But to do that it helps if you start winning promotion from the earliest stage, and that is an advantage Bielsa has already taken over United’s last Second Division promotion winning manager, Howard Wilkinson. In 1989 he had the euphoria, and he had the definitive goal, but when Leeds played Middlesbrough, he didn’t yet have the promotion winning start.

What he had was a bit of a shambles. Wilkinson saw enough of 1988/89 — in person, not on video, as he was already manager — to know that his play-off near-missers were not good enough; he extracted a couple of million from Leslie Silver, and sent Bill Fotherby out shopping. It’s often assumed that was enough; meticulous Wilkinson drilled the new players in his methods, put them on the pitch, and promotion was won: the end. History often records the destination, not the journey.

But that misses much. Pre-season veered between average and poor; Doncaster Rovers were beaten, but a draw with Rotherham United and defeat to Halifax Town were thin fare, and a 5-1 defeat to Anderlecht at Elland Road was a disaster. The season itself opened at Newcastle United, and what happened there is often remembered; the big-spending optimists of Leeds were beaten 5-2.

It didn’t dull enthusiasm for the first home game, on a Wednesday evening, against Middlesbrough, but Elland Road didn’t feel like a place that had a grip on itself. With capacity cut due to the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report, the Kop was filled in eighteen minutes, and as the club had done a poor job of advertising that entry to the South Stand terraces would require a membership card, chaos developed on Elland Road; fans with cards couldn’t get past fans without cards, who were trying to argue or force their way through the turnstiles. Kick-off was delayed for half an hour; despite room available for 6,000 more fans inside, 3,000 were locked out, and either clambered up Beeston Hill for a view, or wandered off to smash some windows. Vinnie Jones concentrated on the fans he saw on the hill. “I just could not believe it,” he said. “If you cannot put in great performances for supporters like that, who can you do it for?”

But first you have to be playing, and Vinnie Jones wasn’t. The price of pre-season wasn’t just a couple of embarrassing results. Headline signing Jones picked up an injury, as did reliable centre-half Chris Fairclough; unreliable centre-half Noel Blake picked up a red card against Anderlecht and was suspended for the start of the season. John McClelland, a free transfer expected to provide experienced cover, started in central defence at Newcastle; longer-serving Peter Haddock, expected to provide back-up to new left-back Jim Beglin, played alongside him. Then Beglin was injured in that game, ruled out until February, so Mike Whitlow came in. At least summer signings Mel Sterland and John Hendrie were fit.

But Vinnie’s absence was the real story, and left the new-look Leeds looking decidedly old hat, especially given who his stand-in was. Wilkinson had sold John Sheridan in the summer, the mercurial, some would say mystical heart of United’s midfield since 1982; plenty said that Vinnie Jones was not so much a replacement as an insult, but alongside David Batty for the first three games of 1989/90 was an even more confounding signing. Mickey Thomas might have had 51 caps for Wales, but he also had hair like an ageing witch, was 35 years old, and had cost £10,000. He had caught Wilkinson’s eye as the fulcrum of Shrewsbury’s midfield the season before, when they were relegated. Now he was at Elland Road, as the man to get Leeds promoted.

Well, I doubt even Howard Wilkinson saw him that way, but we weren’t as familiar then with Wilko’s fondness for having dedicated old pros around the place, to be relied upon in case of emergencies; you could call them Pembertons, because otherwise you’d call them Beesleys. Signing Paul Beesley allowed Wilkinson to ‘sleep better at night’, he said, but his ilk made fans want to sleep through games. Imagine turning up to the first home match of the biggest promotion attempt in years, and seeing Vinnie Jones is sitting on the bench, and Mickey Thomas is starting. Maybe that’s the real reason fans were smashing windows.

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To be fair to Wilkinson, it worked, to a point. Bobby Davison gave Leeds an early lead, running aggressively from midfield, shooting aggressively inside the near post, celebrating aggressively in front of the Kop. But Middlesbrough equalised early in the second half, and Wilkinson decided it was time to take Thomas off; so Carl Shutt could come on. Vinnie Jones stayed sat down. There were times, it has to be said, when Howard Wilkinson was infuriating.

But he had an infuriating habit of being right. Jones eventually came on for Baird with three minutes to go, with instructions to just go out, and ‘Go for it.’ He lifted an already intense atmosphere, then lifted it some more with his first tackle. A through ball towards Davison followed; Middlesbrough’s Gary Parkinson got there first, but his chipped back pass bounced in front of the goalkeeper, changed direction, and went in. 2-1 to Leeds. The season’s turning point?

No. It allowed Howard Wilkinson to appear relaxed in front of the press after the game; rarely for those days, his post-match conference was filmed, allowing us a glimpse of him leaning with one arm amid the half-drunk pints on the press lounge bar, with what looks like a glass of white wine in his own hand, telling the press he was glad of the delayed kick-off as it calmed his players down. It could have been water in his glass, but like Bielsa described his bucket, let’s allow some wine into the ‘folklore of football’; we won’t go as far as claiming Mick Hennigan was there to translate for him. Then he named the same starting eleven for Blackburn Rovers’ visit the following Saturday, with Thomas again in midfield ahead of Jones, and drew 1-1.

It took Mickey Thomas’ sore knee to get Jones into the starting line-up away to Stoke City, another 1-1 draw; in the next game Jones scored his first goal, against Ipswich Town at Elland Road, another 1-1 draw. In the first five games Leeds had won once, thanks to a very late fluke own goal. Wilkinson had spent £2m that summer; Leeds were 12th. Elland Road’s restricted capacity no longer felt like a problem. The draw with Ipswich ended amid angry booing.

There is a point to these meandering memories. Promotion, and the Second Division title, were eventually sealed in May 1990 when Chris Kamara crossed and Lee Chapman headed the winner against Bournemouth. Neither of them joined until January. Imre Varadi signed even later, but was a vital part of the run-in; Gary Speed, always associated with the promotion season for his goal against Sheffield United, didn’t break into the team properly until mid-March.

The Second Division season was 46 games then and it is 46 games now, and our sixth game — against Middlesbrough on Friday night — is only one of them. It’s an important one, and it’s a big one, and for all sorts of reasons I can’t wait; who ever thought we’d see Tony Pulis taking on Marcelo Bielsa in the Championship? But the final score in the game will not be the final word on the season. Samu Saiz is my darling, but Izzy Brown may yet have something to say. Kalvin Phillips is Bielsa’s wild-haired choice in midfield, but Adam Forshaw might yet be this season’s Vinnie Jones.

There’s a lot still yet to happen, and right now, that’s one of the best things about where we are. Why else do we look forward to watching? ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)

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Leeds United 0-2 Preston North End: Nothing Changes

Things have changed so much at Leeds United this season, and getting knocked out of the Carabao Cup didn’t change anything back, or none of the important things, anyway.

For example: in the 92nd minute Samu Saiz lost possession on the edge of Preston North End’s penalty area. The player who dispossessed him started taking the ball upfield, initially outpacing Saiz. But Saiz was determined to get the ball back, and sprinted aggressively after him to the halfway line, where he got close enough to make contact. When Saiz first started playing for Leeds last season, I was struck by how much, from a distance, he looked like a young David Batty, but I never thought I’d see him doing this: he scrambled his way between the Preston player and the ball, knocking his opponent over and wrapping his feet around the prize; he’d won it back and was facing Preston’s goal again. He dribbled towards the centre, swerving through two tackles, and was fouled by the third; he sprang to his feet, offered his hand and pulled the player who had fouled him back to his feet, then put the ball down for the free-kick, desperate to play.

Again, we were 2-0 down in stoppage time in the Carabao Cup here, but moments like these allow us to ignore the result and concentrate on how much things have changed. And there were plenty of these moments. All the grimness was in the first half, when Stuart Dallas and Conor Shaughnessy, two of the players who have played least for Marcelo Bielsa, were caught out by Preston’s intense answer to Bielsa’s favoured tactics. I was still making a note of Shaughnessy being pressed and losing the ball in the first ten seconds, when twenty seconds later the same thing happened to Dallas, and Shaughnessy gave away a stupid penalty to Louis Moult, stupidly scored by Daniel Johnson, who did a stupid, big-striding run up. The whole thing was just stupid.

Lots of the first half was stupid, as Jamal Blackman struggled to find a way to distribute through Preston’s four pressing attackers; after he ended up outside his area dribbling through tackles trying to pass to Tom Pearce, Pontus Jansson made a suggestion: just kick it long. That helped, as did Ryan Ledson’s red card, an interesting example of the down side of a high press; if you’re asking your forward players to make more tackles on opposing defenders, you’re risking them committing more fouls, and if your players aren’t very good at it, you’re risking one of them going flying over the ball two-footed for no reason and getting stupidly sent off. That was pretty much the end of Preston’s press, but not the end of the stupidity, as Brandon Barker was allowed to wander around Shaughnessy’s outside and smack the ball past Blackman, just before half-time.

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That should probably have been that, the big change there and then, from an unbeaten team to a beaten one, with all the questions and doubts that raises. But already before the break Saiz had been warming up on his own in front of the West Stand, pausing only to offer tactical advice to Jansson and Dallas, shouting and pointing from the sidelines like an extra coach. He was brought on at half-time, along with Mateusz Klich, giving us the thrill of seeing Kalvin Phillips properly playing centre-half, although that was rarely relevant to the play.

What was relevant was that Saiz was on a one-player mission to save the game for Leeds United and keep our Carabao-flavoured dreams alive. (Does Mr Carabao dream of electric buffalo?) Saiz was electrifying, taking responsibility on halfway, dribbling to the penalty area, and often choosing good passes; Preston couldn’t get near him when he had the ball and retreated, terrified, into their own final third. The problem was that, for all Saiz’s efforts, Leeds couldn’t get the ball into that third properly. Tyler Roberts was ineffective, as he was in his last appearance, and was replaced by Ezgjan Alioski, who matched Saiz for frenetics but not focus; he wasn’t helped by Dallas’ inability to complete short simple passes with any consistency. On the other side Tom Pearce was limping heavily after a kick, and couldn’t support Jack Harrison, who resorted to beating his two markers again and again, trying to find an angle for a cross. He won a lot of corners; Lewis Baker took a lot of bad corners. Patrick Bamford was the target, but the referee took against him, giving free-kicks to Preston for any physical challenge.

Saiz wasn’t the only player committed to the cause; as Preston keeper Chris Maxwell took his time-wasting to new extremes, Alioski and Harrison raced each other to retrieve the ball from behind the Kop goal. Maxwell was eventually booked, but only because it looked like an actual brawl was starting, if not with Leeds players then with Leeds fans; but the point of a booking for time-wasting is to stop it at the outset, not to dish out a couple of disciplinary points when it’s too late to affect the game. While Preston delayed, United’s will to win was tangible from the eleven on the pitch to the six or seven or eight or nine coaches in the technical area; I swear Bielsa has some hidden in there just for when Leeds are behind.

But Saiz was the emblem of the effort, because he had the ability, and if you forgot about the result — and, ultimately, not much rides anymore on what used to be the League Cup — it was fascinating to watch him begging for the ball in midfield, looking for ways through at top speed, of thought and foot. Saiz unlocked Preston as often as he could, but his teammates couldn’t go through with him. He never reverted to the Saiz of late last season, though, who seemed so disgusted by his options that he would try for wondergoals every time; that has changed. He has instructions now: pass into the box, or pass wide. The rest is not up to him.

And ultimately Leeds were not up the test, but it was not for want of effort. They were undone in the first half by players, lacking match fitness, failing to adjust to Preston’s intensity, and in the second half by a collective reserve attack that couldn’t respond to Saiz’s inventing. Put Roberts in front of Luke Ayling, or Harrison in front of Barry Douglas — or at least a left-back with two strong legs — and they might look different; it’s a team game, after all.

Or put them back into Bielsa’s lab for more testing, and more training; this is also, this season, a time game. The players who were in Bielsa’s first team group on the first day of pre-season are excelling; those who arrived later need more work. This game was part of that process, and losing didn’t change anything. It’s all so different now. ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)

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Norwich City 0-3 Leeds United: Definitive Gaze

It’s a joy to watch a footballer take control of a game and produce something beautiful, almost architectural, that they designed and planned.

When Leeds United won the ball from Norwich City’s goal kick in the twentieth minute — Leeds always win the ball from your goal kicks, now — Pablo Hernandez and Ezgjan Alioski were roughly side by side, on opposite edges of the centre circle. Something silent, a mental blueprint, passed from Hernandez to Alioski, and from that moment it was just a matter of time, execution and desire. Hernandez took the ball and the game over to his right, creating a space ahead of him to the left. He didn’t have to look up to know that Alioski would be entering that space, and the ball was already on its way before any of Norwich’s players realised the space was there; a pass like a flying buttress, inviting Alioski to become airborne.

Alioski bloody loves these headers, and one day he’ll score one that’s perfect. Last season at Derby County, when he fluffed a one on one chance, Scott Carson’s save gave him another go, and he dived headlong over the goalkeeper to head the ball into the empty net. This time he had a running start and got even more air, zooming like an atomic superhero’s kid sidekick, the aerodynamics of his sculpted hairdo firing him towards the ball. But Tim Krul saved his header, damn him; Mateusz Klich, a studious looking soul, brought the game down to earth and considered carefully how to defeat the defenders. His safe shot into the back of the net gave Leeds the lead.

It hadn’t looked likely ten minutes earlier, but that was before Hernandez had become so decisive. In the early stages Alioski and Barry Douglas struggled with Norwich’s right-side of pink twin pigs, Pukki and Pinto, and needed two strong interventions from Pontus Jansson to keep Norwich away from Bailey Peacock-Farrell. Jansson was making a seamless return, but the game couldn’t go on like this, so Hernandez made regular moves from the right wing, lending his mates a hand. It meant Samu Saiz had to drift out to the right, working hard on the peripheries instead of dictating from the centre, but Pablo’s was a friendly and necessary coup. He’d got this. Within ten minutes, he’d made the first goal.

He only had a supporting role in the second goal, just minutes later, but it came down the newly confident Leeds left — although it started with a defensive throw-in on the right. Hernandez laid the ball back to Luke Ayling, who sent it across the field for Gaetano Berardi, Douglas and Klich to spend some triangular time with. They didn’t dwell for long but moved down the left, until Douglas played a square pass for Kemar Roofe, who laid it off at a right angle into the box for Alioski, who smashed the ball from a narrow angle inside Krul and into the net. Triangle, square, square, acute; Leeds were throwing more shapes at Norwich than a 2am crowd at The Warehouse.

The last time Leeds played at Carrow Road it was like watching Leeds play an absurd game of musical statues against eleven hyperactive kids in yellow; our players just stood still while the Canaries frolicked between them. I have been using this game as the nadir of Paul Heckingbottom’s management, against which Marcelo Bielsa’s sudden invigoration of the same players should be measured, ever since a point during the second half against Stoke City when I pulled up a video clip of that game on my phone, to make sure I was watching the same team.

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The new ability to Barcelona the ball around is drawing the acclaim, but there’s important substance to it, too. Leeds have become ruthless. The start of this match wasn’t great, but once Hernandez took a grip Leeds played into it and over Norwich, and made sure to come out of their first dominant spell with a two goal advantage. When Leeds are on top, Leeds score; a new, clinical style that depressed their opponents.

Norwich started each half like a team that had just been given important instructions by their ailing manager, then played through the rest of the game like a team forgetting those instructions, remembering instead his funny name and brown car coat. Norwich were one long fade-out. Leeds have a coach with a style that has been analysed so deeply over the years that any deviation triggers alarms on a thousand tactics-twitchers’ laptops, but are representing Bielsa’s ideas so totally that there’s barely been a peep.

In the last minute of added time, Kalvin Phillips threw himself at the ball to stop Norwich taking a shot at Peacock-Farrell, and it was a moment when Bielsa’s principles of complete commitment from first to last combined beautifully with Leeds United’s principles of side before self and effort for the cause. It’s as if Bielsa was always meant to do this here, and to do it to Kalvin Phillips, specifically; to help the lad from Wortley finally fulfil his potential as a hero of the next district, down the hill.

Phillips’ return from his early substitution against Swansea City, and Alioski’s from his half-time hook, should be praised in context with the entire team’s failure to recover, until summer, from one setback at Millwall last season. Alioski scored one and could have had the first from Klich, and was always dangerous; Phillips played as if Tuesday had never happened. Perhaps, if he’d been left on the pitch to struggle in Swansea, it would have been harder to recover. That stoppage time block wasn’t the only one; dropping into central defence, in the last moments of the first half he strained to reach a high ball just ahead of Jordan Rhodes, denying him a back post header. With the ball, his passing was intense and cheerful; not just the number that were completed — 41 of 47 tried — but the style of them. A pass map is a beautiful thing when it shows so many vertical arrows, from front to back, long accurate passes into attacking areas.

There’s not yet a visualisation tool for United’s third goal, unless you count the work of its scorer’s namesake, Pablo Picasso. Hernandez collected the ball from a throw-in, and with the same intent vision we began by talking about, turned away from his markers, sidestepped a defender, and shot beyond Krul. It wasn’t top corner or bottom corner but middle corner, if that’s even a thing; nobody ever aims their shot there, probably because the trajectory it requires is along a nice height for the goalkeeper; but when the ball is struck with this much art, there is no nice height for the goalkeeper.

In football, vision is usually invoked to mean seeing the edges of play; the unseen chance for a long pass, or a surprise through ball to a runner from deep. Against Norwich Hernandez played with the purer kind of vision, the sort with which an artist approaches a canvas, seeing the result before they’ve even picked up a brush, knowing they have the skills and training to make the painting match the thought. Hernandez is often caught in photographs with an introspective stare, as if his eyes are darkened by some previous horror visible only to him. But in motion he looks forward, not backward, into the future, with a game-defining gaze.

No wonder Marcelo Bielsa is glad he’s here. So am I. ◉

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(feature image by Lee Brown)

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