Leeds United signed a striker and started scoring lots of goals, and that’s football done the easy way. Leeds haven’t been lacking attackers but it wasn’t just a wine and gravy fantasy that had Sam Allardyce naming a team full of defenders in our last win-and/or-bust-anyway Premier League game. With a squad full of wingers, plus more in the treatment room and more on loan, nobody could make the Leeds attack make sense, so Allardyce banked his half a milly and didn’t even try.
Daniel Farke is having to work harder for his money but wise spending of the club’s cash, about £10m up front for Joel Piroe, immediately unlocked missing value in the three misfits surrounding him. Is it a coincidence that Georginio Rutter, more than three times as expensive, suddenly looked like a player at Portman Road? That Wilf Gnonto could score, shushing generically to all the haters and losers out there, and Luis Sinisterra could finish a difficult chance with style that could bring suitors calling before this hideous transfer window is over?
It’s a lot to put on Piroe’s shoulders, but they’re wide, and he wears the expression of a boxer from the 1920s, a glare caught on old newsprint, undefeated and now undefeatable. I wonder if Piroe’s scoring start was welcomed most of all by Pat Bamford, wherever he and his hamstrings may be. Whenever Bamford has looked around for someone to share scoring responsibilities, he’s only seen Rodrigo smiling mildly with his Space Jam backpack over his shoulder, or Dan James, exiled either from the wing or the club altogether. Piroe, his help and his rival, can make Bamford’s life better.
Few things go easily at Leeds, so we’re still pending a season-ending injury to our new attacking talisman. Until then, we can also think about how our long-awaited strong goalscoring no.9 was picked to play by Farke behind Rutter, and was often heating his map in midfield. This was not what we wanted! It was better. Piroe might not have the incisive creativity we still desire from a no.10, but he had a sensible style of holding the ball and giving it to Leeds players, and whenever Rutter drifted off to the wings – where he insists he doesn’t want to play, but come on Georgi, we can all see you – Piroe drove to the penalty spot to get on the end of anything coming that way. His goal was perfect. Piroe was deep in his own half when Archie Gray sent a long pass across the field to Luis Sinisterra, and when Sinisterra’s shot was saved, he was on the spot to knock in the rebound. It’s almost too much to ask for – a roving striker who gets back to help and gets forward to finish half chances. We’ve been without that for so long I might actually cry.
That was United’s third goal in a delirious nine minute attacking spell that, had it been allowed to go on much longer, would have caused a riot of Champions League betting. In a way we should be grateful for the match either side keeping our feet on the ground. Ipswich, who have been winning games for as long as Leeds have been losing them, took an early lead by breaking the offside trap behind Luke Ayling and having their cross to nobody finished off by Joe Rodon. United’s defence were constantly grumpy with the lino after that, but when Sam Byram went off injured, Cody Drameh joined in at left-back by combining the grumps with playing Ipswich onside. Then he whiffed a backheel and underhit a backpass, that Rodon and Illan Meslier didn’t get to, leaving Nathan Broadhead free to pop up and score, something he’d been threatening to do in the spaces between Gray, Ethan Ampadu and the centre-backs even before Drameh set him up.
Drameh was dragged off again at half-time, and Jamie Shackleton set about ruining Cody’s chance of sympathy by overcoming any mitigation: perhaps, you could argue, it was unfair to make Drameh play out of position on the wrong side against the pace of Wes Burns, but Shackleton didn’t seem to mind any of that. He was so good at left-back he was able to burst through midfield to set up a goal for Sinisterra, and if you ever doubt Shackleton’s ability, take a close look at the timing and weight of that through ball. He’s a good player, solving more problems than he’ll ever cause.
Leeds still have plenty of problems, although they’re so familiar now that I’m almost fond of them. After the dirge at Birmingham and the disappointment against West Brom, this was an open game and it meant the comeback of an old favourite, Illan Meslier making lots of good saves but still conceding three. It might be significant, in a wider football sense, that two of them came deep into stoppage time at the end of each half: I think teams are still working out what to do with these unpredictable extensions to play. The new edicts on timekeeping are working as advertised by allowing a team that’s chasing the game to keep its momentum going for longer than the opponent, who presumably has been slowing the contest down, can withstand, and that’s how it felt here: Ipswich ended both halves strongly, but after keeping them out until the 45, Leeds didn’t know what to do with the extra six and five minutes. But Leeds had not been timewasting to any great degree – the extra time could have been down to subs and celebrations – suggesting they, and every other team, will need to get the hang of defending for 100 minutes plus, as standard, pronto. That sighing you can hear is Luke Ayling, ailing.
Maybe, in this division at least, Leeds can just make so much of their attacking advantages that no team will ever have time to come back against them. We’ve already talked about the radical simplicity of Piroe making it 3-1 – big pass, dribble and shot, rebound in. Before that, Rutter had equalised by taking down a chip forward from Ayling, holding off his markers, then dragging the ball under his feet through one gap, then another gap, then another gap, turning five defenders into five nobodies before sliding a shot into the far corner. Three minutes later Gnonto turned the day’s biggest story into its smallest, returning from his Goodison dreams and, after Piroe moved the focus from right wing to left, getting on the end of Byram’s inswinging cross with a boot at the back post. Then there was the fourth, when Sinisterra took Shackleton’s pass, sent a defender tumbling, and popped a finish across the keeper into the corner.
Four forwards, four good goals, four months since Leeds last won, on 4th April. The last away win was even further back, 4-2 at Wolves. Could it always have been this easy, all along? The tag on Piroe is that he’s an ‘obvious’ signing – nothing clever, not a project, not a player with potential, just a striker who scored twenty goals last season, and the season before. But at Ipswich, it was not only about him. Another ‘obvious’ step for Farke to take was to reject Gnonto’s apology for refusing to play against Birmingham and West Brom, to leave him and Sinisterra waiting in disgrace for bids to take them away. But through the complicated process of bringing them back, Farke moved Leeds into what could be a new spell of simplicity: our brilliant wingers now have a brilliant centre-forward to play with. Scoring easily makes defending easier. It might be taking longer than we hoped, but not as long as we feared, for Leeds to catch up with themselves this season. Then they can try catching everybody else. ⬢