To Leeds United fans, Bolton is synonymous with tears. Paul Robinson and Alan Smith sobbing on the pitch, and thousands of fans in the stands either crying, or trying not to. It was all illuminated by bright sunshine, and there was nowhere to hide from the mocking Wanderers fans or Sky TV’s cameras.
Any tears in Bolton this weekend were disguised by freezing rain, so nobody had to be embarrassed by shedding a few when Samu Saiz’s absence from the teamsheet made his departure from the club feel real. He’s not gone yet, and if he goes to Getafe on loan, he’ll still be ours for a while longer. And he’d only started one of the previous seven games anyway, so we’d been getting used to getting by without him. But during that time we’d also become used to him coming on as a substitute and inspiring a victory; we forgot our worries when Saiz came on to play, because he played so carefree. It’s with a heavy heart that we’re saying goodbye to the one player who could lighten our load.
It’s unlikely we would have seen the best of Saiz in a game away to Bolton on a bitterly cold and wet afternoon in December, and from his point of view, this match made a great football case for going to La Liga where the grass is green, the referees are sympathetic and the defenders daren’t tackle. Had Saiz played at Bolton, he might have done what he did against QPR, distracting defenders and creating space for others to play. But as a selfish player, in good ways and bad ways, Saiz would much rather be on the ball, dribbling and beating players, than spending his afternoons occupying David Wheater, Middlesbrough’s answer to Rio Ferdinand, much as the River Tees is its answer to the Rio Grande. The Championship just doesn’t bring the best out of some players; in the last eighteen months we saw the flashes of genius Saiz has to offer, but we can’t deny that this league, and these games, were not for him.
Saiz is the past, and Izzy Brown is the future, but a more pressing concern than Samu’s protracted going and Izzy’s prolonged coming is that Lewis Baker was our first signing of the summer and doesn’t seem to have turned up. Against Bolton he so closely repeated his non-performance against Reading that I wondered if somebody had pinched one of Bielsa’s VHS tapes and was projecting his image onto the pitch like a hologram. Where Saiz could dictate a game without touching the ball with his magnetic control of opposition defenders, Baker barely touched the ball, and hardly touched the opposition’s consciousness.
When Baker did make an impression it wasn’t a good one. He emerged from anonymity to take the ball in a deep position, and Pontus Jansson emerged as the hero, shepherding Will Buckley away from goal after Buckley — Will Buckley, this is, who is still just as useless as he was on loan for Leeds — snuck up behind Baker and took the ball off his toes. Later, he turned away from a rolling ball in midfield, assuming Adam Forshaw would take it; Forshaw had no such intention, and Bolton nearly broke. From a corner, Leeds had a chance to break themselves, with Baker on the ball sprinting towards the halfway line; his pass to Shackleton was straight at the back of the young player’s heels, sending the ball bouncing back towards our goal again, the opportunity lost.
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Saiz used to thrill us with his surging counter attacking runs from deep, and Saiz did this, and Saiz did that, and sooner or later we’ll stop comparing everything that Leeds United do to what it would have been like if Saiz was doing it. But it’s fair to compare. Lewis Baker is a highly regarded, two-footed attacking midfielder, raised by Chelsea’s Academy, with considerable loan experience and involvement with England U21s. He should have been revelling in the opportunity to claim Saiz’s place before Izzy Brown is fit. Instead he looked pained and overwhelmed, and it was a mercy that Bielsa took him off.
To be fair to Baker, this was a rubbish game full of bad football. On the touchline Phil Parkinson had selected his shiniest waterproof coat, loving how the rainwater it collected reflected the floodlights as he marched and waved his limbs. He was revelling in the conditions, as if his entire gameplan depended on his players not being paid on time and getting soaked in a cold field. Whether they got a result or not, he was putting hairs on their chests. And he was able to turn Leeds United’s struggle against the conditions into opportunities for Bolton to launch the ball into the penalty area. Bielsa refused to bring Aapo Halme on to help Jansson until stoppage time, perhaps another test of his theory that you don’t really need defenders in the English Second Division.
What you need, and what Leeds have got, are players who can combine that whatever-the-weather grit and commitment with skill and technique. Midway through the second half Jack Clarke, Baker’s replacement, mastered the art of the surging counter attack by sprinting with the ball down the left after Kalvin Phillips executed a calm Maldini on Buckley. Clarke kept his head up and kept his pace controlled, so that while two then four Bolton players converged on him, his teammates caught up and arranged themselves in the spaces they left. Looking to his right, Clarke knew that if he gave the ball to Mateusz Klich he would pass it along to Pablo Hernandez, and that’s what happened; Patrick Bamford, just on as a substitute, knew that if he ran into the gap in front of Bolton’s goal, Hernandez would find him. That’s what happened, although few could have predicted even Hernandez would pass with such finesse, spotting a gap through Jack Hobbs’ legs and rolling the ball into Bamford’s path. Few would have predicted that, just a few months after injuring his knee ligaments in an U23s game, Bamford’s first touch in his comeback match would be such a confident first time finish into the bottom of the net, but that happened too. Even Kemar Roofe, still getting his waterproof sorted as he took his seat on the bench, was smiling.
Good fortune helps and when a lazy pass from Forshaw left Phillips tangling, to put it mildly, with Craig Noone in the Leeds penalty area, Bolton ought to have had a penalty and a chance to equalise. But they didn’t, leaving Hernandez to Bamford and Bamford to the goal as the game’s one bit of magic. Tears? Tears of joy, by the end.
Saiz’s farewell had, and still has, the potential to disrupt Leeds United’s attempt at promotion this season, but you could say the same about a lot of what has happened so far: the injuries, for one thing — or rather as lots of things — have probably been a bigger deal. But Leeds are demonstrating that the post-summer scintillation against Stoke City and Derby County wasn’t all adrenalin. Resilience and desire are abundant, embodied not in Samu Saiz, but in Pablo Hernandez.
Five games, five wins, and only one goal conceded. Of the seven goals Leeds have scored in this run, Hernandez has scored two and assisted three. Losing Saiz is painful; losing Hernandez would be death. We won’t know for a few weeks what Izzy Brown might bring to the team, and we’ve only just seen a glimpse of what Bamford might bring, but the goal that beat Bolton was different enough — a through ball on the floor, rather than some sort of cross — to suggest new footballing dimensions opening up ahead of the second half of the season, new star players ready to make an impact.
If the first half of the season belonged to Phillips, Klich and Roofe, might the second belong to Brown, Bamford and Clarke? As long as Pablo Hernandez is supporting them all, we have good reasons to be at the top of the league and optimistic, a crucial ingredient missing from some of our trips to the summit before. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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