There ought to be a damn good explanation for not beating Burton Albion 5-0 within an hour again, because a 2-1 win makes it look like Leeds United have only got worse since that glorious afternoon.
And Leeds United did get worse, for weeks, looking like the Championship would overwhelm them the way they had overwhelmed Burton.
It didn’t. And although Leeds are still some way from the Beeston Globetrotters of late summer, the squad that is currently forcing itself into promotion contention may end up giving us greater rewards, if not greater pleasure.
There’s a limit to how much pleasure Leeds United can give without Samu Saiz on the pitch, and in the first half hour against Burton his replacement, Pablo Hernandez, was a painter as in decorator rather than a painter as in Picasso. Nobody would call what Hernandez was doing a masterpiece, but he was covering his surfaces with tasteful shades, no drips, and a faultlessly smooth finish. Burton’s packed defence, with midfielders tight in front, was going to be difficult to break down, but Hernandez made that his problem to solve, touring the pitch in search of space, his smooth brushstroke passes intended to pull Burton out of shape and give Pawel Cibicki room to cross, or Kemar Roofe and Ezgjan Alioski room to finish.
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They couldn’t crack it, although Roofe came close, controlling a ball on his chest in the penalty area and, although he ran to a wide angle, spinning faster and clipping a shot closer to the far post than anybody expected. An aerial challenge from Roofe had already given Alioski a chance to volley, that he scuffed wide, while Hernandez didn’t connect properly when Cibicki pulled the ball back low and quick into the area.
And so, Burton scored; Leeds failed to clear a long throw and defended in slow motion, as a low shot across Felix Wiedwald became a low velocity pass to Tom Naylor, alone where Ronaldo Vieira had left him, ready to clip the ball in at the back post.
The psychology was heavy. Leeds had controlled the game and being behind was unfair; Burton wanted to avenge their defeat at Elland Road; Leeds had not won so much as a point after going behind in a game this season; not coming from behind against a team as poor as Burton was too much to contemplate. And yet Leeds played as if they were contemplating it, and many other things besides, as they disappeared inside themselves for the rest of the first half, letting Burton take over in midfield, giving Naylor a chance to score or make another on a rapid break upfield.
Gaetano Berardi halted Burton’s momentum with the last kick of the half. He did kick the ball, not Sean Scannell, but he achieved that by sliding two-footed through the Mitre Delta at some speed. It wasn’t reckless, but it wasn’t tidy, but most of all it was a welcome sign of life while all around him were falling asleep, and woke several of his teammates up to partake in the pushing and shoving that inevitably followed before Berardi was booked.
Tom Naylor pushed the disciplinary limits even further at the start of the second half, and his late, high tackle certainly did make contact with Ronaldo Vieira’s leg, leaving him on the ground for some long, worrying minutes. Naylor also only got a yellow card, but as Leeds tried to play their way back into the game, fouls became the main enemy of their attempts to re-find any control or flow. The game turned ugly, though never violent, until Tom Flanagan brought Roofe down on the edge of Burton’s box, and the game turned beautiful.
Set piece coach Gianno Vio’s architectural free kicks are difficult for opponents to deal with, especially if they don’t keep calm. Goalkeeper and conceptual artist Stephen Bywater is 36 and Burton is his fifteenth club, but he couldn’t cope with United’s simple tactic of placing two groups of players in offside positions between him and his own defensive wall. Once, when Bywater wasn’t getting on with his neighbours, his response was to build an enormous sculpture from odds and ends in his garden, as tall and ugly as he could. His response this time was to pull Eunan O’Kane’s shorts down, taking a yellow card and arguing with the referee about the Leeds’ players positions, while his own defenders stood in vain in front of Hernandez and Alioski, waiting for instructions from their distracted and nervous goalkeeper.
Instructions might not have made any difference. United’s oddly positioned players all ran onside, including Roofe, whose movement created a gap in the wall, and then it was down to Hernandez, kicking the ball powerfully through that gap. Bywater had no idea what was coming, but he’d never have got where the ball was going, as it went swinging far outside then just inside his post.
Drawing level meant the end of the heavy psychology. Three minutes later Leeds were ahead. Vieira had stayed on after his injury, and now won the ball in midfield, scrapping for it with Scannell. Looking forward, Vieira curled a pass from wide on the left, making six Burton defenders irrelevant and leaving Roofe one on one with Bywater. Roofe took a careful touch then shot quickly into the corner of the goal, precision and efficiency from both assister and scorer.
With the lead, the control from the first half-hour returned, without that period’s desperate need for a lead. For long spells Leeds passed the ball calmly at the back, not trying to do too much, throttling the game until all Burton had left were hopeful aerial punts during six minutes of injury time.
Leeds had Matthew Pennington at the back by that time, creating the now usual five-player defence that Thomas Christiansen has been using to prevent the mistakes that were costing Leeds goals during the losing streak. Burton had one big chance, shooting wide after a high ball left Wiedwald on the floor amid a can-can of kicking legs, pushing the ball anywhere he could with his hand, but otherwise Leeds stuck to their task, refusing to let go of another win.
They’ve won four in a row now, and six of the last eight, a habit much preferred to the form that ended around a month ago. Christiansen has said that a change in the players’ mentality has been crucial, and he must be right, because Leeds haven’t rediscovered the sparkle they had last time they played Burton. What they’ve found instead is a way of sticking to their task that overrides any bad luck or bad choices that would have ruined a game two months ago.
Nerves fluctuated in this match: heads were down after Burton scored, optimism leaking away. But the nerves that broke were Burton’s, because Leeds, overall, trusted their plans and their aims and worked hard until they got their rewards. A lack of ruthlessness in the first half an hour was a problem, but Leeds were savage about turning 0-1 into 2-1 in five minutes in the second half. Burton’s fightback was inevitable, but these days Leeds United’s capitulation is not.
At the end Liam Cooper saluted the travelling fans in a lower key than Pontus Jansson, but for as long and as happily as I’ve ever seen him after a game. In the Saiz-driven pomp of earlier this season, scoring spectacular goals and showing special technique was the new glory of Elland Road. Now, they’re taking just as much pleasure in old school glory, by winning games for Leeds United. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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