An avoidable incident is not avoided, goalscoring chances are not taken, a situation is not defended, and a winnable game is not won. Leeds United didn’t do much wrong at Portman Road, but they didn’t get much right either.
The incident that changed this game resulted in a red card for Eunan O’Kane ten minutes before half-time. Told in the post-match press conference that a photographer close to O’Kane had seen him headbutt Ipswich Town’s Jonas Knudson, Thomas Christiansen was adamant that the footage he’d seen showed no such thing. “Prove it!” he said.
A fan’s footage from behind the goal supports both cases. After Knudsen runs towards him, the “provocation” of which Christiansen has complained, O’Kane moves sideways towards him, dipping his head for leverage. You can hardly call it a headbutt. But after the contact, Knudsen goes down as if viciously struck, and O’Kane was snared: that’s football, where if a non-violent action results in a pretend-violence reaction, it’s a red card, all day long. O’Kane didn’t so much stick his head on Knudsen, as into Knudsen’s well laid trap.
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O’Kane’s immediate reaction — freezing like a kid caught with his Christmas presents in November, then trudging off the pitch with barely a word of protest — has been read as an admission of guilt. It looked to me more like an admission of defeat. Referees don’t change their minds on red cards, and whether O’Kane felt his was justified or not — his claims afterwards indicate he didn’t — football’s foremost humanist reacted rationally in accordance with his beliefs: he knew from previous evidence that arguing would do no good.
The lack of a protest from O’Kane probably reveals the intent behind the action for which he was sent off. As we’ve seen from his play in midfield, O’Kane doesn’t have an aggressive impulse in his body, and without a red card in his career so far, he was drawn into a situation out of his depth. Later in the game Gaetano Berardi, once described by Sampdoria fans as a werewolf for whom the grass of a football pitch acted like a moon, had Joe Garner in his face, as much as O’Kane had Knudsen in his. Berardi didn’t flinch, and just kept walking, as if Garner wasn’t there. It’s a cruel irony: if O’Kane really was violent enough to headbutt an opponent, he would have been clever enough not to.
In that later incident Pontus Jansson soon arrived, trying to make something out of nothing as he had with Garner all afternoon. Two red cards in two games, and four in the league this season — only Millwall have as many — hint at a ragged indiscipline to Leeds United, that Jansson seemed determined to embody as he threw himself towards Garner and raged at the referee.
The more worrying indiscipline is in front of goal. Leeds have scored five in their last seven matches, and had more chances to win this game than Ipswich, who were under strength and very poor. A scrappy first half of throw-ins and head tennis was punctuated by big chances for Leeds: a pull back from Pablo Hernandez that left Pawel Cibicki an easy opportunity to score, that Baby Zlatan scuffed like a Baby Brolin; Kemar Roofe, breaking the offside trap with Hernandez’s help, trying to spin inside for a better shooting angle and losing the chance; then there was the situation that led to O’Kane’s sending off. A powerful shoulder charge by Kalvin Phillips in attacking midfield put Roofe into a dangerous position on the byline; the ball was recycled to the other wing, where O’Kane forced his way with nutmegs and pushes to the byline again.
A simple pattern was developing: Phillips winning the ball in midfield, Hernandez creating, and Cibicki or Roofe missing. Had they continued that way with eleven players, persistence ought to have ended with a goal eventually, and a repeat of the results against Norwich or Hull: a slender 1-0. Even with ten players this game could have gone that way. For the second half Conor Shaughnessy replaced Ezgjan Alioski and Leeds began with a line of six defenders along the edge of their eighteen-yard box, watching Ipswich dictate, until they realised Ipswich would need more than a one player advantage to become a good team. Hernandez staged a midfield coup and began some dictating of his own, with Roofe his willing lieutenant, chasing every forward ball and holding it to give attacking reinforcements a chance.
The numerical advantage didn’t help Ipswich, but having one player that Leeds didn’t won the game. Bersant Celina, a 21-year old loanee from Manchester City, received the ball from a benign throw-in, cut inside Hadi Sacko, and seized the initiative when Phillips slipped on his way to tackle. Running at right angles to the goal, in the middle of the pitch he pivoted his body and fired a shot from twenty-five yards above and beyond the best Felix Wiedwald could have done. The game didn’t deserve such quality, but that’s why Championship clubs are loaning kids from the Premier League leaders: they might do something the league can’t do itself.
What Leeds couldn’t do after that was get anything right. The recovery from O’Kane’s red card was a creditable fight, and there was no sign of Leeds lying down or giving up. But there wasn’t much sign of them doing anything sensible, either. On as a substitute, Sacko was again the player who started the season with a disastrous cameo at Bolton, tripping over when the ball came near him, but with ten minutes left, he recovered from one such mistake to get the ball to Hernandez. He gave it to Roofe, whose second attempt at a cross beat Ipswich’s defence and goalkeeper, but was put high over the bar by Liam Cooper, as he rushed into the six yard box towards an empty net. There were ten more minutes of persistence, with even Pierre-Michel Lasogga finding reserves of commitment to floor a couple of Ipswich defenders, win a couple of headers, and force a good save with a low shot. But none of it did any good.
Nothing Leeds are doing seems to be doing much good at the moment, whether it’s on the pitch, in the transfer market, in discipline or in the treatment room, but doing nothing about that is not an option. What Thomas Christiansen will do — or can do — is limited, but he has possibilities in the next two weeks to make some changes that will help. The transfer market is one possibility; that’s for Christiansen and Victor Orta to wrestle with. But the market has already given us Laurens De Bock, who will hopefully be a positive influence on the left. O’Kane’s suspension coincides with Ronaldo Vieira’s return to training, and a return to our best midfield combination — Vieira and Phillips — ought to follow. Stuart Dallas is returning from injury, too, a more reliable option than Cibicki, with the characteristics Leeds need at the moment: skill, strength and effort, but also discipline, with the ball as well as with the head. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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