We’ll start with the good bits, and it won’t take long: the scoreline was much less brutal than was feared, we managed to create some chances, and if two of those chances in particular had been scored, Leeds United might even have scraped through and escaped from Fulham with a win.
But really that would have taken more, much more. Fulham were in our penalty area in the second minute, Stuart Dallas and Pontus Jansson searching upfield with binoculars and radar trying to find where Ezgjan Alioski had been while Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney were skidding down the wing. That, rather than missed sitters, was United’s problem of the night, although they’re all part of the same problem.
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It comes down to aggression. Paul Heckingbottom, who is tireless in his use of that word, has successfully identified the great lack in this side. But he’s buggered if he can work out what to do about it. That early attack from Fulham set a pattern for the first half hour, as they held onto the ball and weaved with it, in and around and over and under Leeds United’s players, who couldn’t get close to them. They tried; but only Ronaldo Vieira seemed to have any success winning the ball when he tackled, and then only now and then. The rest of the time Leeds players were left floundering, shrugged off like jilted prom dates, falling after their bouquets to the floor.
It became painful at a corner on thirty minutes. For the second time in the game, Jansson let Aleksander Mitrovic head freely; this time, rather than getting a good save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Mitrovic got a deflection off his teammate Kevin McDonald’s buttock, and the ball dropped inside the post.
No coach would tell any defence that, when defending a corner, the opposing team’s most dangerous striker should be left unmarked, and yet that’s what happened, twice, and the responsibility must rest with the players. Jansson is undoubtedly the leader of Leeds United’s defence, and it was undoubtedly Jansson who let Mitrovic go free, and when your leader isn’t taking responsibility for basic defending, what can you do? Jansson did what he can always do: he had a massive moan at the referee after a heavy tackle took out Alioski, and got a booking for dissent.
Five minutes later Samu Saiz was trying to get the ball back from one of Fulham’s bigger boys, and as a melee was brewing with Fulham’s Stefan Johansen in the middle of it and building up to a booking of his own for dissent or worse, Jansson stepped in to take him in hand, calm him down and take him away from the situation, and it was one of the more frustrating moments of Jansson’s frustrating night. The night ended with him yelling at the referee for penalising a foul throw, but that moment of twisted leadership — taking a Fulham player in hand and saving him from a booking — annoyed me more: the wrong sort of leadership, at the wrong time, in the wrong way.
There’s a thought growing in the back of my mind about whether an eye catching World Cup that ends with a £25m move for Jansson to finance some FFP-friendly rebuilding at Elland Road — of the team, rather than the stadium as in the Bates days — might not be the worst thing to happen. Not selling your best players is a sound principle, but what would be more useful next season, one Pontus or four more Forshaws?
Fulham’s second goal was foreshadowed at the end of the first half, when Pablo Hernandez was trying and failing to make something happen near one of Fulham’s corner flags, and seventeen seconds later the ball was flying through Leeds United’s six yard box, after just missing Mitrovic’s toe. An hour had been played when Gaetano Berardi’s pass to Caleb Ekuban was the crowning glory of a sustained attacking movement from Leeds; not that it was a brilliant pass, but what came after was much worse. Football would be a kinder game if it gave goals for team moves like these, but that’s not how it works, and how it works is like this: Ekuban is through one on one with the goalkeeper but his shot is saved, and twelve seconds later Tom Cairney is on United’s byline, looking to see which Fulham player is unmarked and can score. Mitrovic is the answer, so in two more seconds it’s 2-0.
It might have been Sessegnon, as he’d been unmarked at least twice already in pretty much the same place with the same space; the first time his shot hit Mitrovic, the second time his shot was well saved by Peacock-Farrell. The fault for at least one of these was with Saiz, who when Sessegnon was running through and laid the ball off, followed the ball and left Sessegnon free for the return pass. But the problem was general, not specific: players making bad decisions about who to mark, and other players not taking the decision out of their hands, and just telling them. No leadership, no organisation, no aggression, and not a hope of getting near Fulham when they moved the ball around at speed.
Ekuban’s chance was a sign that not all was going badly for Leeds. Fulham began the second half as if they wanted to settle the game in its first two minutes, but after that United had a reasonable amount of control, and the wherewithal to give Hernandez and Saiz the ball. They couldn’t make good chances, though, and as Ekuban then proved, they had to make the very finest gold standard of chances that were not gilt edged but pure solid gold right down to a molecular level for them to have the slimmest chance of being finished off. Between them, Pablo and Samu worked out a short corner like a new Strachan and McAllister, and Saiz chipped a pass to the back post. Pierre-Michel Lassoga was waiting to head it in, but so was Jay-Roy Grot, and he got there first, and from two yards, he headed over the bar, instead of under the bar. Under the bar was an empty net; over the bar was oblivion. It might have been the last time Saiz passed the ball all night.
It feels like quality is the issue in attack: like Ekuban and Grot aren’t and never will be good enough to finish the chances they were given in this game. But there’s some truth being said when people yell at Grot that their gran could have scored that. Quality doesn’t come into it from two yards with an open goal and a ball dropping onto your forehead. It’s a question of belief, and again, aggression: whether you’re a quality player or not, that ball goes in the net if you believe you’re going to fucking score the fuck out of it. That’s what people mean by a ‘natural finisher’. There isn’t a thought process involved. To be fair to Ekuban, he did not lack technique as he attempted to finish his one on one; but he was too busy thinking about technique. He needs to get to a mental place where the only thought he has in that situation is: score.
Well, it is supposed to be a simple game, but Leeds would find it much easier to play if they took the angst out of their play and just did the strong, instinctive things. Score. Pass. Tackle. Mark. If you go looking for reasons why you can’t do those things, you’ll soon find them, and compared to the speed and grace with which Fulham move from one end of the pitch to the other, Leeds United’s players look beset at all times by reasons. If they could stop looking and start doing, they might find that football is an easier game than they’re making it look. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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