Leeds United shouldn’t have lost to Charlton Athletic. Not only as a result of the greater resources Marcelo Bielsa spoke about — the better players. But because, if Leeds United want to be promoted at the end of this season, losing to Charlton was a bad idea.
If Leeds want to be promoted they’ll have to score goals, and uncannily that was their problem again at The Valley, although it took a slightly different form to the regularly reoccurring. Because of Pablo Hernandez’s injury Bielsa had to make one change the fans had been proposing as a solution, giving £15m winger from the future Helder Costa his first league start.
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Then Bielsa made others. Adam Forshaw came on at half-time, to add stability to midfield that has been missing while he was injured. Eddie Nketiah joined Pat Bamford in attack at the same time, to give the midfield more to aim at, and the fans a front two. The midfield acquired Stuart Dallas, on the move from right wing-back.
And after all that United’s problem altered from finishing chances, as it has been up to now this season, to creating chances. All the changes intended to make things better made things worse, just as Bielsa’s substitutions did against Derby last week. Those changes were hard to fathom; these were things a lot of fans had been asking for. Now we were left looking at Bielsa, and he was looking at us, and Bielsa will win any staring competition he enters, so we were soon shuffling off to leave him to it. He’s the manager, not us. We tried! Unfortunately, so did he.
The players tried too; they put all the effort they could into trying to equalise Charlton’s first-half goal. That came, inevitably, from a corner: the ball was tamely volleyed at Kiko Casilla, who reacted as if a live cat had been flung at him, pushing the angry bundle of claws and teeth away from his beautiful face, rather than catch it and risk the scratches. It hit Macauley Bonne and bounced behind Kiko and over the line.
For those keeping count, that scoring chance hardly budged the expected goals dial, given a mighty 18% expectation of going in. But it would take NASA to model the mathematical black hole of Leeds United’s defending at set-pieces.
The trap was set and Leeds had walked into it. Charlton sat deep and broke the game up with tackles fair and foul, and Leeds walked into it again and again, usually meeting themselves coming the other way. Cross after cross was flung in the general direction of Bamford, then Bamford and Nketiah, then anyone Leeds could get forward, but Charlton boss Lee Bowyer had planned a switch to three at the back on twenty minutes to stifle Leeds, and with a goal advantage, he added both full-backs and a couple or four midfielders to the Addick hordes in the penalty area.
Once, Jack Harrison swerved and danced past a few of them, brilliant front foot dribbling that created space and a line to goal; he put his shot high into the stand. Apart from that, there were crosses. One fell to Nketiah, a yard or two from a post, but he shinned his volley across goal. Ben White flicked Kalvin Phillips’ cross backwards but nobody got another touch on its journey wide. Mateusz Klich put over what might be the cross of the season so far, and a Charlton defender relished heading it to safety. Forshaw tried to finish a goalmouth scramble, but he was the end of it, too; even he, who will never score, would have put that chance past Casilla at the other end if he’d been wearing a red shirt. Or maybe even a grey and pink one.
Chances were created but the quality wasn’t there; xG fans should note that while Charlton’s eventually crept up to 0.42, the Peacocks only nudged theirs up to 1.6; only while beating Brentford have Leeds scored worse on their most anxious statistic. Leeds lacked creative inspiration, but perhaps more than that, with Phillips subdued by Charlton’s marking and off his game throughout, Leeds lacked leadership.
Leadership is normally associated with defenders, but when Leeds are trying to find a way to score, there’s not much Liam Cooper can offer apart from encouragement. “Keep going, lads!” What leadership he or Casilla could offer while defending corners is a separate subject.
But leadership in attack is just as important, especially when that’s what your team is set up to do, what it spends most of its time doing, and lately, when that’s what it is finding hard. In the Peacocks’ case, leadership normally means Pablo Hernandez, but he was out injured. Without him, United’s midfielders and forwards looked like teenagers discovering that the dream of the teacher not turning up to lessons isn’t the joyful anarchy they’d assumed: exams are next week. They get off their Instagram stories and back to their textbooks, but without teach, those diagrams are meaningless and they feel like they’re forgetting everything they’ve spent a year learning. The classroom descends into hushed anguish and young Mateusz is ostracised for not knowing the answers. So what are those glasses even for?
Klich, Harrison, Costa and Jamie Shackleton all declined responsibility for taking the imaginative steps around Bielsa’s gameplan that are required to make it work. Helder Costa was supposedly signed to take that burden from Hernandez, and he was the most disappointing. Those badly drawn crosses aren’t always a problem, at least wearing down a beleaguered defence, but that only works if you have the wit to vary with a through ball or a different kind of pass through the middle. Leeds were predictable, but it wouldn’t have taken much to get Charlton guessing, if anyone had taken it upon themselves to stop, think, and play.
Only Tyler Roberts looked capable of improvising his lines within the plot. He came on as a substitute for Bamford, who was taken off a minute after he could have been sent off for hacking through Conor Gallagher’s calves, and Roberts played without the apprehension of the others; his imagination was the one glimmer of optimism for Leeds. But, again, we’re assuming a player from the bench can change all our fortunes, even after seeing Costa’s ninety minutes and the twenty Nketiah and Bamford spent together only making us worse.
Relying on Roberts to come in and add the flair Leeds need also lets the ditch-diggers toiling their way through games off the hook. It’s what Costa is expected to do, and Harrison is capable of it. Bielsa trusts them to play, every game in Harrison’s case, but they won’t reward him by sticking stubbornly to the wings, crossing to a striker that isn’t there, not nine feet off the ground in the six-yard box, anyway. It’s easy to make changes on the teamsheet. But why can’t the players already on it change? ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)