In midweek I wrote that looking at Wolves, from Leeds, was like staring into the sun; they dazzled and burned our eyes, but their presence in the firmament was an affirmation of life, a hope-giver.
Then here, in Barnsley, was Felix Wiedwald, the no-hoper, staring into solar glare, his lime shirt bleaching in the unforgiving sun, while the black shapes ahead of him absorbed all the light and became invisible. Couldn’t some charitable soul give this hapless man a hat?
They could, and it was neat to find out that the kind gentleman who came from the Leeds end to hand his baseball cap to Felix had, last week, been tweeting about whether Wiedwald might be a better keeper if he was jabbed in the eye with a plastic flagpole. But nobody likes to see someone suffer, especially a goalkeeper, and sympathy overcame that lack of faith. You’ve got to help one of your own. The fan was pictured later, with the shirt Wiedwald had given him as a thank you, adding that although he still didn’t really rate Felix he thought he had a good game against Barnsley.
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Which is true. Lots of people don’t really rate Felix, but he had a good game against Barnsley, and it was somehow reassuring to have his scruffy, uninspiring presence back in goal, squinting like a cat, emitting whatever radiowaves keep the dirt from his sheets. Yet again, apart from two solid punches and a very decent save, he didn’t do anything to make you think he’s a very good goalkeeper, or even a very well prepared one, given the hat lack. And yet again, he didn’t concede a goal, immediately giving Leeds United a better chance in the game.
What else he does is hard to say. Is he really as influential to our passing game as is often claimed? He played only a couple of short passes against Barnsley, far fewer than Lonergan in midweek. But then, Leeds spent much less time near their own goal than they had against Wolves, so the keeper’s feet — and hands — weren’t much needed. Everything was going on up the other end.
In attack, there’s no question about Samu Saiz’s influence on our game. It’s not a case of if he plays well, Leeds play well, because he always plays well. What’s crucial to Leeds playing well is that the players around him become locked by his gravity, travel the orbits he dictates, and make his talent a bright star, rather than a black hole.
The opening goal was all him. Kalvin Phillips and Eunan O’Kane hadn’t won the upper hand in midfield yet, but the land between the centre circle and the goal all belonged to Samu. O’Kane won the ball and Ezgjan Alioski played a sharp pass between three defenders from the right wing, giving Saiz the ball seven yards inside the Barnsley half. He ran straight at the Barnsley centrebacks but he didn’t bother running past them. He just shimmied to his left and shot from the edge of the box, low, between two defenders, then between the keeper and his post. This was with his left foot, too, and heaven help his opponents if he starts using that as well, with anything like the danger of his right.
Barnsley became transfixed. Their half was his territory and he could stand, foot on the ball, playing one-twos with Alioski and Pablo Hernadez all day if he liked; Barnsley’s Joe Williams was trying to mark him, in the sense that they were on the same pitch. In place of Kemar Roofe, Saiz now had Caleb Ekuban ahead, rewarded with a start after his positive appearances as substitute, combining a love of one-twos and pitch-width passes with boundless energy and strength. He tackles and moves, winning the ball and making space, like a patrol clearing the way for Saiz’s approaching parade. A taste for scoring would make him complete, but already he looks an excellent additional cog in the Samu machine.
Pressure brought a second goal in the last minute of the first half. Alioski attacked down one side, then Saiz down the other, then Ekuban through the middle; Saiz won a corner by dribbling into the box, and that was cleared, but Leeds kept putting the ball back where Barnsley didn’t want it. Gaetano Berardi’s cross from the left was cleared, and Phillip’s up and under was not from the Saiz skillbook, but between them, Luke Ayling and Alioski took charge of the right, the former leaving the ball to the latter on the edge of the box, from where he rolled the ball infield and curled a low shot inside the far post.
Barnsley’s manager Paul Heckingbottom wasn’t happy with the way United’s bench celebrated that goal, although there was nothing over the top. He was offering half the Leeds staff outside anyway, and his half-time substitutions reflected his frustration, as Gary Gardner was sent on and booked within two minutes for kicking Saiz. That wasn’t stopping him. Barnsley could only kick him when he had the ball, and he was just as dangerous without, running without pause and without a hope for Barnsley of stopping him.
For a long time the nearest Barnsley’s forwards came to our defenders was in the first half, when Harvey Barnes accused Ayling of diving and tried scrapping with him under the referee’s nose; Berardi was soon on the scene, tossing bodies left and right like a farmer throwing hay with his pitchfork. Barnsley’s attempts to fight their way back into the game meant an increasingly tetchy match, but Leeds, who have looked brittle and lacking in fight at times this season, seemed more than happy to play that way. Even Pablo Hernandez, turned pacifist by Vietnam, was back in his Hanoi mood. As Adam Hammill moaned, caught out by Ayling’s signature foul-drawing move, Ayling just sat on the floor laughing, as if he was having the time of his life. Pontus Jansson, too, was revelling in the anger around him, giggling in the face of Barnsley’s complaining.
Barnsley were poor, although with Ronaldo Vieira suspended, losing O’Kane to injury for the last half hour meant Leeds couldn’t walk away with this game in Saiz’s pocket. Conor Shaughnessy came into midfield and was busy alongside Phillips, the two withstanding rather than creating. There had been sniffs of a reprise of the Burton Albion scoreline, but this was more useful than a repeat of that. Such thrills are not for us, these days; stern competence en route to victory is more valuable, in the search for form and consistency, then swashbuckling.
There was still some of that. Saiz ran around the outside of Hernandez, but Pablo sent his through ball to Ekuban, who turned and shot just wide. It was his best chance to score, and he stayed on his knees, knowing it; Saiz, who had curved his run behind him, kept on running to lift Ekuban back to his feet. Hernandez was playing in huge spaces on the left, and if his crosses weren’t on target, Saiz was always on hand to collect the ball and try something else. He volleyed a cross with his back to goal that Alioski tried to scissor kick in from six yards, and both looked as if they were just down the park, doing this for fun.
These flashes illuminated a second half of hard work and good game management that got Leeds to a valuable second win of the week. Leeds won two games and scored five goals in the last seven days, and conceded five, and if only four of those hadn’t been scored by Wolves at once, this week could have been fantastic, rather than good. There’s no longer a points gap between Leeds and the end of season target, the play-offs, and it’s fair to say there’s no longer the creep of panic around what has been happening on the pitch.
The defeat at Wolves showed what a gap there is between us and the very top of the table, but the other signs are that we’re not as far from where we need to be as we were fearing. Middlesbrough and Barnsley have both been well beaten. Aston Villa are ahead, in good form, but nothing to fear. Perhaps Wiedwald is the difference, or Ekuban, or taking time to improve and work rather than admitting defeat when times are hard. Saiz is definitely the difference, and with him in the team, we can look brightly forward, at the league’s brightest forward, and start imagining again the great places he might take us. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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