If you decided to give this one a miss and are wondering how it went, well, Friday turned out not much different to Tuesday, which was not much different to Saturday, and that’s probably all you need to know.
In some ways it was better, in some ways worse. Pablo Hernandez has a lot of influence on this team, and at Villa Park he had his boots on the wrong way round, and was a long way from providing the inspiration Leeds have been relying on to give them some hope in a game. Breaking through midfield, with Kemar Roofe, Caleb Ekuban and Ezgjan Alioski running in three tempting directions ahead of him, Pablo passed the ball straight to the nearest Aston Villa player, and that was the end of that.
Without his magic, Leeds fell back on work, and there were the usual efforts from the usual suspects. Alioski worked as hard as ever, but put so much effort into his feet that he neglected to engage his brain. He also had a break from midfield and willing runners to choose from; his choice was to lash the ball forty yards over the bar from forty yards out. Ekuban’s goal against Bolton has changed his fortunes, but not the way we hoped: he’s gone from a player who gets some things wrong, to a player who can’t get anything right, no matter how he tries. Roofe ran around.
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In midfield Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips were steady enough, but Aston Villa seemed to be leaving them alone anyway, working on the wings at United’s Kryptonite: the full-backs. A reshuffle at the back meant Paudie O’Connor switched sides to buddy up with Stuart Dallas, while Matthew Pennington’s return meant he, at 23, provided some experience to look after left-back Tom Pearce, aged 20. Dallas was made to look foolish once or twice when Villa’s wingers reminded him that he’s not a right-back, but Pearce coped well on the left; Villa kept targeting him, but when they had success in his area, it was generally by avoiding Pearce and beating Hernandez or Phillips instead.
Pennington soon looked like an unfit player being forced to play because there was no other option, and for Villa’s goal, he looked like an idiot. Aston Villa missed their target with a corner, but then passed the ball around from side to side as Leeds turned and turned again, penned in their penalty area like kittens in a basket, their heads following a dangling piece of string. Jack Grealish chipped into the six yard box, and Pennington ducked when Lewis Grabban jumped to direct an easy header past Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Pennington did save a goal with a superbly timed sliding tackle late on, but whether through fitness or ability, he didn’t look up to the match. Fortunately, Paudie O’Connor did, playing his third consecutive game of powerful clearances and low level bastardry. I compared him the other day to Alan Smith’s early clashes with Tony Adams and Martin Keown, which were always sort of hilarious because Smith gave away about a foot in height. O’Connor doesn’t have that problem, so when he was bumping chests and glaring eyeball to eyeball with Jonathan Kodjia, it looked a serious battle of equals. There are signs that the defensive crisis will ease by the Barnsley game, with Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper both due back, but O’Connor is doing enough to keep his place ahead of them. Tom Pearce, while less obviously assured, improved enough from his debut against Sheffield Wednesday to stay in at left-back, too, preferably wearing his own shorts rather than Conor Shaughnessy’s. Pearce’s own were too tight, apparently.
Behind them, Bailey Peacock-Farrell continued his claim to the goalkeeper jersey not just for the rest of this season but possibly into the next. Again, he conceded a goal he could do nothing about; but everything he could do something about was done with calm aplomb: saves made, from long range and from dangerously close; crosses and corners caught or punched. Peacock-Farrell’s metamorphosis from struggling non-league caterpillar to Championship butterfly seems to have even surprised people who have been watching his progress, or lack of it, through the youth systems of Middlesbrough and Leeds; he’s never played so well, until the games became so difficult. But it doesn’t seem to have surprised Peacock-Farrell, who combines the stoic, stern nature of John Lukic with the massive square bonce of David Seaman, and while it’s too soon to suggest he’ll follow them to First Division titles and World Cups, his emergence reflects the best of the trajectories of both. Lukic came in during a keeper crisis at Leeds then played 146 consecutive games. Seaman was deemed not good enough at the same age and let go for £5,000, working his way back to the top later.
In any case, Peacock-Farrell has made it so that Leeds need to buy one less keeper this summer. That’s the best we’ll get out of these closing fixtures this season. Paul Heckingbottom said this week that, despite the atrocious results, his job is not in danger because he’s doing the second part of the job Andrea Radrizzani asked him to do. The first was not to let the play-off chase die out quickly: “But it did die out quickly,” he said. The second was assessing the squad, and the youngsters, identifying who needs to leave, who can come through from the U23s and below, and what needs to be bought. O’Connor and Peacock-Farrell’s late season insurgence isn’t just a nice to have, but it’s dictating transfer policy, ensuring that a door will be left open for them to play.
We haven’t seen the same opportunities at the other end of the pitch, but with those players established at the back, now we might. It’s time, if only because it’s time to never see Jay-Roy Grot or Pierre-Michel Lasogga again. I’d had enough of both after the defeat at Newport, but Lasogga’s brief renaissance of powerful goals fooled me into thinking he was worth another go. Watching, in the ten minutes he was on the pitch, this strong, muscular player being gently pushed aside and falling to the floor as if falling into his idea of heaven, erased all thoughts of keeping him. That he lost his starting place to the willing and enthusiastic but generally quite useless Ekuban demonstrates what he has not been showing, and what is being valued, and why if we’re only keeping one of them then I say we keep the one that actually fucking tries.
As for Jay-Roy Grot, six-feet-four, who sleeps in the kitchen with his feet out the door, he can now be dragged out of the kitchen by those feet and dumped by the bins, for he was on the pitch for twenty-five minutes, and here’s what he did: nothing. If there was a single thought in his head about affecting the match, he’s probably still waiting for it to reach his feet. There was an argument for subbing him back off again, but he was playing on the far wing from the dugouts, and there simply wasn’t time for him to go back across the field before the groundsman came to lock the gates. Time and youth have been Grot’s shields when compared to Lasogga’s lacks, but he’s a month apart from Tom Pearce in age, and was shown up yet again as being worlds apart in terms of effort.
That ought to be that for both of them, and listening to Heckingbottom after the game, it sounded like he feels the same. Which is good news for us, because the attackers in the U23s and U18s — Jack Clarke, Ryan Edmondson, Sam Dalby — have been getting more good reports than O’Connor, Peacock-Farrell and Pearce, and we haven’t seen them in the first team yet. If we can have young players making an impact in the last three games in attack, they way they’ve been making an impact in defence, there might be reasons to bear with the rest of this season after all.
And then it will be summer. “As a season, as a club, we’re not where we want to be so things have to change,” said Heckingbotton this week, “Summer will be interesting.” He reckons he’ll be dictating it with help from Victor Orta’s recruitment team. “Definitely the club wants direction from the head coach,” he says. “In terms of recruitment, identifying the areas we want to strengthen, and the characteristics of player we want, which is all important for me. That gives the recruitment team the direction they need to go and filter the players.
“Once it comes to summertime, that’s when we’ll be judged. And it’s everyone’s responsibility, not just the recruitment guys finding the players. Us getting them over the line in terms of a financial package, me selling the club to them, do I capture the player’s heart? The role that’s going to be required of him, does he buy into what we’d want to do with his role within the team? Everyone’s responsible for getting the players over the line in the summer.
“That’s how the process works. Whether it worked like that in the past I don’t know.”
Whether it’ll work this summer, I don’t know either. Heckingbottom is saying all the right things about the characteristics he wants: aggressive, hungry, committed, aggressive, tough, aggressive. But he’s doing all the wrong things about putting any of that on the pitch, because Victor Orta did all the wrong things about signing aggressive characters last summer. Whether Orta has learned enough from this season, and Heckingbottom is learning enough from this end to the season, and whether both have what’s required to deliver what’s needed, remains to be seen. If they start by giving Edmondson and Clarke Lasogga and Grot’s place on the bench for the next game, I might find some faith. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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