Football’s a simple game that will make you look like an idiot. What you can’t do in football is give Neil Warnock the chance to gloat.
Here was a tactical battle between two coaches, one a well-travelled, urbane young manager with a playing record encompassing top flight football in Spain and Germany, one an insufferable egotist with a persecution complex who was more diligent as a chiropodist than he was as Leeds United manager.
Thomas Christiansen, to give him his due, came up with variations on what many of us would have done, save perhaps for him trusting Pablo Hernandez in the number ten position rather than Samuel Saiz. With Eunan O’Kane ill, Mateusz Klich got the debut many of us wanted. Pontus Jansson and Gaetano Berardi came in to toughen up the defence. With Pierre-Michel Lasogga weary and Hernandez moved from the wing, Kemar Roofe and Stuart Dallas were brought in to provide energy and graft.
Neil Warnock, meanwhile, did what he was bound, as a caricature of himself, to do. Sol Bamba, wearing the number fourteen shirt of Johan Cruyff, was planted in front of the back four as a defensive midfielder. Corners and long throw-ins bore evidence of studied and practiced Jansson avoidance techniques. Ezgjan Alioski was singled out for niggling tackles of the kind that Kevin Friend, the referee, had special delight in ignoring. Stick a bunch of big fast lads up front to pressure the fancy-pants sweeper-keeper and lash the ball about as hard as possible, and there’s Cardiff’s game plan in a nutshell.
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There was barely time to comment on how far forward Klich was getting before everything around him started to fall apart, creating a sinkhole into which he and all of Leeds United’s players fell. The signs that all was not well began when United took over Cardiff’s duties and began injuring themselves; Wiedwald clearing out Jansson at head height in the six yard box — ours, just to be clear — Hernandez hurting his ankle trying a slide tackle. I’ll blame Dallas for his own knock trying to get around Lee Peltier, because I refuse to believe Peltier is good enough to kick him.
Doom’s next portent was the referee dragging Liam Cooper in for a lengthy captain’s chinwag about Ezgjan Alioski, and why he kept complaining about being kicked. It turned into a stand up row, Alioski standing to one side like a child between two warring parents. Friend had begun the conversation pissed off with Alioski, and ended it furious with Cooper, and you never want Kevin Friend for your enemy.
We only got the two portents. Doom itself was Mateusz Klich falling over while attempting something mysterious on the halfway line, losing the ball. Junior Hoilett broke down Leeds’ right, leaving Luke Ayling in the dust and megging Jansson, and crossing to Kenneth Zahore for an easy finish, and everyone watching on a fuzzy internet stream turned their fury on Kalvin Phillips, for donning a cunning Klich disguise and giving away the ball. More irritating than the mistaken identity was the automated email Leeds United managed to send while the ball was nestling in the back of the net: ‘Leeds United Mugs & Bottles’. Does it indeed.
When all the cyberdust had settled Leeds were a goal down, the last place they needed to be. Stuart Dallas unveiled a Hernandezesque long pass that Alioski controlled, Alioskesque, then ran into trouble. Some Hernandezesque vision from Hernandez himself sent Leeds off on an intriguing move of passing that ended with referee Friend gleefully awarding offside.
All of which was a prelude to Cardiff scoring again. Hoilett got the ball again, this time on the edge of United’s box, and he shot in a straight line and scored, and I don’t want to talk about it in any more detail than that.
I always associate Sol Bamba in midfield, whether he’s supposed to be or not, with Leeds losing 4-0 at Brighton under Steve Evans, and this first half was much closer to that night than our afternoon of fun against Burton. Liam Cooper, trying to get Leeds into the game, launched himself at a Cardiff forward, but copped a lucky yellow from a lenient Friend for kicking Nathaniel Mendez-Laing instead of Junior Hoilett. That might have been too little too late, but we still had plenty to fear. Moments later Zahore shot into the side netting and I wondered if it was possible for Cooper to just kick everybody.
Instead Cooper went for Mendez-Laing again and got sent off. ‘Went for’ might even be too kind; Cooper seemed to think he could see the ball out of play down the wing, then noticed Mendez-Laing at the last moment, and clattered him, and then nobody could really look at him, because to look at him was to want to slap his stupid face. When you’ve been booked twice by Kevin Friend and can’t complain about either decision, you need to seriously look at yourself.
From the free-kick Cardiff put the ball in the net again, but it was ruled out for offside. Retrospectively I would love to take that goal back through history and add it to the first half total at Brighton, a night when I was willing Brighton to bury us, because it would bury Steve Evans too.
There was no such feeling this time; I wanted to smash the world, but so that we could rebuild it as a much nicer place, start the game again, and give Christiansen, Alioski, Klich and, yes, Saiz and Lasogga, the chance to have the game they deserved — and that Neil Warnock deserved.
We nearly had a new world within ten minutes of the second half, or at least the apocalyptic destruction of this one, when Dallas’ deft touch put Berardi onto the edge of the penalty area, and his own deft touch took him past two Cardiff defenders and one on one with Etheridge, the goalkeeper. Berardi shot straight at him, and there was no longer any doubt about which planet we were on. Rather than a new world, for the second half we were only getting a new centre-half, Matthew Pennington replacing Hernandez.
Berardi getting into the box and doing shots is a fair indication of how Leeds began the second half, once the panic of seeing Hoilett toying with Ayling had subsided. It was, of course, a rouse. Hoilett sprinted away from Ayling and went sideways across the pitch, playing one-twos with absolutely everybody, until instead of giving him the ball back Morrison crossed to Zahore, who scored. He looked offside, but let’s not bother.
Jay-Roy Grot replaced Alioski, and my imagination could hear Neil Warnock’s and Kevin Blackwell’s admiring bench commentary on the big lad’s physique. “They must have got him from a circus, Blackie!” “Yes boss.” And then: “Bloody hell Blackie, they’ve scored.”
Cardiff had swapped their wingers over, and now Ayling was struggling with Mendez-Laing instead of Hoilett. Sick of the whole situation, Ayling got up the pitch and received a pass from Roofe; he fed Grot and now Roofe, running his arse off, was on the edge of the box, where he took Grot’s flick and shot, with a deflection, into the net.
Ronaldo Vieira relieved Klich of what had looked like a very heavy burden, and Leeds began playing with more lightness than they’d managed in the game so far. Klich had hardly been able to look at the ball since his mistake for the first goal; Vieira looked forward, and to both wings, never getting near enough to Bamba to risk being tackled, pitching the ball to Roofe and Dallas first, or towards an energetic run from Grot.
Leeds had the energy to make the best of a bad situation as the game dwindled, but not the wit to create chances. The player who does have the wit, who unlike Hernandez has shown ability to wield it in the grittier matches, was on the bench. While we wait for Leeds United’s other new players to catch up with Samuel Saiz, we might have to admit that we’re reliant on him and play him in games like this, whether it feels like a good idea or not. Saiz only has good ideas, and the whole sport of football is trying to catch up with him, so we’ll have a long wait before Mateusz Klich or Jay-Roy Grot manage it. We can’t afford to be patient, so we should just play him every chance we get.
Football’s a simple game in that respect, so simple that it can make Neil Warnock look like a genius just for putting Sol Bamba in midfield. Football is also so simple that it can instantly make you look like an absolute idiot for getting it wrong. There are worries for Leeds in this performance, but they’re best left for later, clearer thought.
All I feel right now is gall: it’s galling to think of Neil Warnock and Kevin Blackwell heading to their cars after the game, giving themselves the morning off, and slapping themselves on the back for teaching that Thomas Christiansaguilera bloke a lesson. “I tell you what Blackie, if we get promoted this season,” Warnock will type in a late night text to his assistant after half a bottle of wine, “I can’t wait until we’re at Old Trafford, telling Jose all about this.” ◉
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