Three weeks from now we could be hailing this Leeds United team as heroes. Right now? They’re a bunch of clueless, gutless, witless, bottleless gets who have lost the grip they had on their own destiny and destroyed the fans’ confidence in the future. They scored two lovely goals, though.
We would have dreamed of being third in the league twelve months ago, and this result didn’t alter United’s finishing place. We can hope that was the problem, that the game wasn’t important enough to bring out United’s best, but the game against Wigan Athletic at Easter was certainly important enough, and that was lost in similar shambolic circumstances, after being given a penalty and a one player head-start.
Another straw worth clutching at is that the opponent wasn’t good enough to force Leeds to the top of their game, except Ipswich Town have redefined bad this season, and started this game ready to be beaten. Leeds found it easy to keep the ball and stroke it around Portman Road without being challenged; Adam Forshaw was whipping out his disguised no-look square passes, Pontus Jansson backheeling around three opponents. Ipswich were opened up by drilled cross-field passes, and didn’t know how to stop United’s attacks or even get the ball. So, Leeds United started giving it to them.
Kemar Roofe was involved early on, and lively, a positive sign as he regains fitness to cover Pat Bamford’s suspension and lack of finishing guile. Roofe was scrapping with his markers, getting to loose balls, pouncing on mistakes to win possession, and it was mildly impressive. But the longer it went on, the more apparent it was that he was having to scrap because Leeds weren’t controlling the game, that he was battling for loose balls because United’s passing wasn’t crisp enough, that he was trying to profit from mistakes because Leeds didn’t have the touch to make clear chances.
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There were some lovely moments, but instead of imposing their style Leeds were teetering beneath its weight, and like flicking a switch Ipswich counter-attacked and scored just before the half-hour. Andre Dozzell tricked the Leeds defence with a pass past them all that Collin Quaner chased towards the corner, chased in turn by Leeds’ goalkeeper, Kiko Casilla, who slid beneath his leap and was booked for a foul a long way from goal. Leeds don’t like set-pieces into their penalty area and they didn’t like this one. A scrum of players collided, leaving the ball bouncing ready for Flynn Downes to kick it in the goal.
Despite their possession, Leeds weren’t attacking fluently, instead exerting pressure with a series of corners and then an equaliser that, on another day after another result, could be admired. From the back of the centre circle Forshaw played a long pass over the left-back that Luke Ayling caught just before the byline, flicking the ball delicately and backwards into the penalty area, where Mateusz Klich strolled onto it and struck powerfully first-time inside the near post. Klich was starting his 46th league game of the season and this was his tenth goal, two facts that combined with his overall play made him a lowkey contender for player of the year.
He ran to retrieve the ball, a show of willing for the win; half-time intervened, the match resumed again, and Ipswich went back in front. Leeds steadily built their first attack of the half but, when it broke down, three passes took Ipswich over the halfway line. Another took them to the edge of the penalty area, by which time we could see the difference between Ezgjan Alioski and Stuart Dallas at left-back, and Ipswich could see the enormous space where Alioski would have been charging back if he, like Dallas, had been caught in an attack upfield. Dallas had realised the developing danger but didn’t have the engine to get back before Dozzell shot past Casilla into the corner.
After fifteen more minutes of attacking by Ipswich, Marcelo Bielsa reshuffled, bringing on Jack Clarke for Forshaw and moving Pablo Hernandez into the middle so he could play. Clarke had a good opportunity; from the right touchline on halfway, Ayling curved a ball across the pitch beyond the opposing right-back, perhaps by accident more than design, but it rolled into Clarke’s path and after a clever first touch he shot straight at the keeper.
Leeds started getting the ball more often, and giving it to Hernandez more often, and the second equaliser was inspired by his audacious execution; you could call it vision, only he was seeing something Bielsa has made him see in training for ten months: Ayling barrelling outside the left-back at the end of a patient forward move. Hernandez was on the edge of the area and when Klich gave him the ball, he chipped it first time, calculated to drop onto Ayling’s boot, from where it was volleyed across goal onto Roofe’s head. His header hit the crossbar, Dallas bundled the ball over the line. I always like to point these out: the left-back was in the six-yard box, profiting from the right-back’s cross from the byline, and I guess that’s why goals like Ipswich’s second happen.
As for why goals like their third happen, that’s another story. Marcelo Bielsa spoke afterwards about the defensive structures Leeds have on the pitch, and while he hasn’t satisfied the craving among the fans for energetic youth players, he has been quietly experimental in the last couple of games of the season. Klich, usually employed as Bielsa’s number 8 in midfield, has moved to number 10, taking his physicality further up the pitch; Forshaw, previously a defensive number 4 like Phillips, has taken over at 8, again stiffening the midfield’s resolve. At the start of last season Phillips was playing for Thomas Christiansen as an attacking number 10 behind Chris Wood, and this midfield trio gives Bielsa, in theory, an idyllic balance of players comfortable covering in each other’s positions, taking defensive attributes into attack and attacking qualities into defence. Put Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper behind them, voted by most as the best two centre-backs in the division, and Leeds should be as solid as Salim Lamrani’s biceps.
For the first time since New Years’ Day, Ipswich had scored two at home by the time that plan was ripped up to get Pablo Hernandez on the ball; when they scored their winner, it was only the second time all season they’d scored three in a game, home or away. A hopeless punt from halfway was dropping to Casilla just inside United’s penalty area, and Ayling was blocking off Quaner to give him the space he needed to catch the ball. Casilla didn’t catch the ball, so it dropped to Quaner, and he won the game with thirty seconds of normal time left. I can only assume that, since arriving from Real Madrid, Casilla has been learning about his new club’s history, and that after working his way through the Wiedwald and Lonergan season he’s arrived at the reign of Marco Silvestri and is studying it well.
“We contributed to the goals of the opponent in an exaggerated way,” said Bielsa, who seemed content to decide this was a deviation from the norm. The trouble is that Leeds are increasingly deviating towards making their defending for Aston Villa’s goal last weekend look like their norm, and there had been another weird repetition of recent performances ten minutes before Ipswich scored. Roofe received a pass in the penalty area and was tripped; Luke Chambers was sent off, and in attempting to restore his confidence and give Leeds the lead, Roofe tripped again while taking the penalty. The ball looped over the bar, and with a one-player advantage and a chance to take the lead from twelve yards against a team at the bottom of the table, Leeds contrived to fall flat on their arses and lose the game.
For years we’ve been used to hearing cries about dropping the lot of them and playing the kids as a way of embracing the darkness of an inevitable mid-table finish, or submitting to relegation’s abyss, but somehow an excellent season hasn’t erased the nuclear threat of Carlos Corberan’s youth-bomb. If, instead of playing for the Premier Development League, the club’s teenagers were sent out at Pride Park next weekend to compete for the Championship play-offs, many Leeds fans would be glad to see them. But we know, knowing Bielsa, that won’t happen; the same team will be playing that always plays, hopefully not doing the same things.
One hopeful aspect of the play-offs is that Leeds won’t be facing a team from the bottom of the table again, so the last few weeks can’t repeat in exactly the same way. United gave a much better account of themselves against Aston Villa in the meantime, and this weekend’s events elsewhere — free-kicks and penalties won by simulation, a goal scored when an injured goalkeeper tried to throw the ball out — showed they only drew that game through their own excessive sporting behaviour. Leeds have a 6-1 aggregate advantage this season over their semi-final opponents, Frank Lampard’s Derby County, and while Derby are in form, winning four and drawing two of their last six, they’d also only lost one from eight before the last time Leeds took them to school.
“I don’t ignore what happened today but I know that our team is not described by the game of today and the result of today,” Bielsa said afterwards. “Today’s performance is an accident and we will forget it right now. From tomorrow on we will be focused on the next one.” We have to hope he’s right, because that’s the only hope we have.
But what Bielsa wants to describe or define our team is being eroded from within by his players’ waking up one morning in the form of frustrating insects, and by attempts from without to define his team for him. The journalist who blundered into Bielsa’s consciousness with an ill-judged try at humour about spying on Derby County won’t be the last attempting to construct a play-off narrative around the events around Derby’s training pitches in early January. Well, let them talk. Leeds need firing up. And Leeds need to start playing, so that three weeks from now they won’t need binoculars to see the Premier League. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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