In a pleasant but fruitless reversal of recent trends, Leeds United set up to play very well against Aston Villa, and did. Instead of turning in a forlorn half and having to change, they dominated and should and could have scored more and won. The flip was that, as United’s hopes grew into a goal, the changes for chasing the game eroded all the good stuff they’d been doing. Leeds didn’t play worse all night than in the last ten minutes, when they were trying to clinch a comeback draw.
It had been chaotic all night, the good kind of chaotic, but by the end, nobody in a Stilton shirt knew where any of their cheesemates were playing, defenders were panicking about nothing at all, Illan Meslier was miles out of goal and slowly clotheslining Philippe Coutinho round his neck. With his thigh. Which was actually quite impressive. With more and more attackers on the pitch in something like a 2-1-7 formation, Leeds lost sight of their one reliable tactic — giving the ball to Wilf Gnonto, as the minutes melted like years through Villa right-back Ashley Young’s centuries old legs — until one time in stoppage time they remembered the idea and he won a free-kick out wide. Sam Greenwood’s delivery was superb, now it was the Villains panicking, and I still don’t know how Max Wöber put the ball over the bar instead of under it. Well, I kind of have an inkling. Maybe I’d rather not know.
The other things to ignore were Villa scoring from a Leeds United corner in the third minute and a Leeds United attack just after the hour. They’re not the first team to do those things, so it’s nothing special, although there were a few perverse new elements to the first one. As Jackie Harrison got ready to take the corner, Pascal Struijk and Liam Cooper lined up on the edge of the area, two of United’s most dangerous headers of set-pieces into nets. When Jackie kicked, they ran — backwards. They ran away from Villa’s goal, Tyler Adams staying in front of them, to cover any breakaway, so it was Marc Roca in the six yard box leering uselessly at a ball Cooper or Struijk might have buried. And this training ground routine didn’t even stop Villa breaking and scoring anyway, so what the hell.
Villa scored again by breaking in the second half, while Tyler Adams was still picking Young up and congratulating him for a goal-stopping tackle at the other end. Both times, it was Leon Bailey mixing up Pascal Struijk for the crucial bit. For the first goal, Bailey cut inside Struijk and curled a shot around Meslier. For the second, he repeated the trick but smacked his shot at the goalie, and Emi Buendia popped the rebound in. There was a lot going on for both goals — the lousy corner routine for the first, Adams caught upfield for the second — but both times it came down to Struijk to stop them and he couldn’t. He has looked miserable since Wöber turned up. He’s a sensitive lad.
So ignore these things, and clear chances for Alex Moreno and Danny Ings that could have got Villa a third. The rest of it? “This, for me, was our most complete performance that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Jesse Marsch afterwards. “The best example of the way that I believe the team can play.” I’ll take the first part of that, but the hyperbole in the second half doesn’t help. Because while this was good, for what it was, I really hope it wasn’t the best.
The high press, instigated by Rodrigo bubbling with leadership in the first thirty seconds, worked. We even got a classic Tyrone Mings slip and collapse that almost let Harrison and Brenden Aaronson in to score. United kept Villa in their own half and if the attacking wasn’t incisive, or didn’t look particularly intelligent, the chaos cleared in moments when Leeds should have made the score 1-1, if not better. The best of this was just before half-time, when Rodrigo was put through by Harrison, went around Emi Martinez, and had his shot cleared from goal by Moreno’s second thigh. Rodrigo got the ball in the net another time, when he chested Gnonto’s cross down to Aaronson, his shot was saved, and Rodrigo did great to jab the ball in from the floor — but he’d been offside, just, on the first ball. In between, a spectacular: Adams chipped across the penalty area, Luke Ayling volleyed across the six yard box, and Harrison hit it at goal, where Martinez was top class to keep it out. Gnonto, following up, had his shot blocked.
Leeds didn’t make any changes at half-time, and kept the game the same, controlling and attacking, but without creating such good chances. And, meanwhile, Villa scored their second. “I would take more losses,” Marsch said after, “and good performances, because it can help, then, really push us forward to be the team we want to be.” I guess the question is how many more losses that’s going to take, and for how much longer Leeds can go on this oblivious way. It’s true that if you blinked and missed Villa’s two goals and didn’t know the score, you would hardly be able to tell Leeds were behind for 102 of the 105 minutes of this match. But that feels sort of eerie.
Persistence did pay off with another eerie sight, Pat Bamford not only on the pitch as a substitute but scoring a goal, his 100th in league football. It was like watching someone in an old home movie and not believing it’s the same person sitting next to you. It might take a while to believe in the flesh and blood of Bamford again, that he’s not just a memory glitching into our reality. His finish was good, but he was a bystander for his record goal, as was everybody else once Gnonto span Young, drove into the penalty area, span again to keep magical possession, and squared.
Gnonto was astonishing all night. He wasn’t all Leeds had in attack — some of those first half chances came from Harrison, Adams, Ayling, Rodrigo getting on the end. But as they ran out of ideas, as Adams grew tired of covering for Aaronson and Roca in midfield, Gnonto became the default option. That’s not a great long-term idea, but with Georginio Rutter hopefully not frightened away by this defeat, Wöber in line to save Struijk from himself, and talk of a stern addition in midfield to help Adams, adding Bamford and Luis Sinisterra to the team on top of what was achieved in the first half feels like it just might be enough.
The big mystery of the night was, as it has been all season, how much is enough? This match seemed to be plenty for Jesse Marsch, applauding his players, happy that the defeat will help them grow, shrugging off boos from an away end where the fans seem to know a lot more about the league table than he does. Will he be able to keep Leeds up this season? Maybe that’s the wrong question, always asked by this coach obsessed world. Perhaps he and me are both deluded, but I can also see enough in the players’ performances to think Leeds will win some games and stay up.
But what involvement Marsch will have in that is another matter. I feel now like I felt about the last few weeks of last season, when I couldn’t identify what Marsch was bringing, specifically, but I could feel the players were making the best of a bad situation and fighting to keep the club up. I’m expecting, at worst, for that to happen again. But that will mean the players saving us from two relegation battles, not Jesse Marsch, in which case, what is he for? And how much more could these players do if they were getting more help from their coach? That brings up a second worry, nagging away about Marsch: that it’s hard to see a good future for Leeds with him in charge, a way for his coaching methods and style of play to bloom into something effective and worth watching. This match, for him, was the best of it so far. If this is the best, is it good enough? ⬢