There it goes then, the air out of our balloon. Try to let the air cool your furrowed brow as it breezes by.
I knew it was coming, which is why I was so determined to get everything I could out of the joy of Wednesday. Can’t we go back there, to the land of stepovers, goals, and Carabao, where everything was good and the energy boost meant we never wanted to sleep?
I actually thought the balloon would meet its pin against Fulham on Tuesday, but things developed quickly across Friday and Saturday. With Leeds United planning to welcome the biggest opening home attendance since 2013, the last thing needed was serious speculation about selling Chris Wood, swiftly followed by a drab, scoreless game to remind everybody — including Chris Wood — that this is a long way from Premier League football.
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The unmet and probably unrealistic expectations made things seem worse than they were. Before bursting it, someone did that thing of putting a piece of Sellotape over the balloon, then sticking a pin through that, so the air was released slowly and without much noise. Stick another bit of tape over that one and the balloon might even last a bit longer, although we’ll have to see what Fulham have to say about that.
The only changes from the Bolton game were the enforced ones, Thomas Christiansen resisting the urge to let Alioski, Ekuban and Saiz continue the fun and games of midweek, although he did relent a little later. The more crucial changes were that Preston, doing a great grass impression in their green kit, were more determined to defend than Bolton had been; we didn’t grab an early goal for confidence, which I think certainly helped at Bolton; and Pontus Jansson, replacing Matthew Pennington, seemed to have forgotten how to play football, stumbling and bumping his way through the game, even though his style was supposed to be ideally suited to United’s new way of playing.
Our new way of playing found its match in the form of a Championship team set up to win an away point; it’s amazing how quickly Alex Neil has removed all trace of Simon Grayson from Preston North End. Grayson had Ben Pearson in his midfield though, and against Leeds this mop-haired Sunday league looking sod was dominant against Kalvin Phillips, Eunan O’Kane and Pablo Hernandez, if not especially bright. Fourteen bookings last season suggest the two he got on Saturday were not untypical; he dragged Hernandez up off the floor as he rested after a clout, for a warning; he went flying in on O’Kane for a booking; then he dragged Phillips down as Phillips ran towards Preston’s defenders, getting himself sent off. A quiet fist bump between Phillips and O’Kane said a lot; with this bastard gone, perhaps now they could play.
Or not. Phillips was soon taken off anyway, replaced by Ronaldo Vieira; Samuel Saiz replaced Kemar Roofe, and this was some impishness from Christiansen. The emphasis in conversation from him and Andrea Radrizzani had been on attack, and the question after Wednesday was whether two such attacking magicians as Saiz and Hernandez could play in the same team together. Up against a dour Division Two side reduced to ten men, Christiansen’s answer came down on the ‘let’s have fun’ side of the equation, even if we didn’t get to see them rabona-ing together through the centre of the pitch; Hernandez went out wide, where he has played most of his career, but has always looked a touch less effective for Leeds.
Sadly it wasn’t the signal for another repudiation of spoiler tactics by United’s new warriors for beauty and backheels. Hernandez was effective, linking up with Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, who has nailed getting into attacking positions but hasn’t quite got his radar locked onto Chris Wood’s positioning yet. And Hernandez put Wood through for the chance of the game, an exquisite through ball from the halfway line giving Wood the ball and thirty yards of space between him and the goalkeeper.
Wood swept away from the defenders, and swept the ball low to the keeper’s left, then swept to the west lifting his arms to celebrate; but Maxwell, the Preston keeper, got down quickly to push the ball away. The mood would have been very different had Wood scored that, and the mood might have been different had someone other than Wood missed it. As it was, the gallows humourists talked of snapping Burnley’s hands off and the true miserabilists wondered how much that had knocked off his transfer fee. It was reminiscent of Michael Bridges missing a one-on-one against Newcastle shortly before he went to play for them; he made joking reference to it once he’d moved, for which some Leeds fans have never forgiven him. Let’s just hope this wasn’t the final miss for which we’ll remember Wood, and seriously hope he doesn’t sign for bloody Preston.
Christiansen changed things up again with ten minutes to go, and this, along with Saiz’s introduction after the red card, is one of the reasons I’m not too disheartened. Borthwick-Jackson was replaced by Stuart Dallas, and Leeds went to three at the back, Vieira and O’Kane in central midfield, Dallas and Alioski on the wings, Hernandez and Saiz between them and Wood. After watching frustrated as last season ebbed away from Leeds United and Garry Monk refused to change a thing, it was good to see Christiansen already willing to be flexible to have a go in the second game of the season.
It didn’t work, which underlined that we don’t just need to hold on to Wood, but add to him; for all the changes, and although Ekuban was available, we still only had the one big striker up front. If Pierre-Michel Lasogga is coming from Hamburg, let’s hope it’s not as a replacement. Leeds stayed on the front foot in the closing minutes but that was also when Preston had their best chances: rolling a ball across the six yard box, fodder for those unimpressed so far by a still underused Felix Wiedwald; then hitting the crossbar near the end of added time with a cross/shot thing that left Wiedwald standing and me almost in tears.
That’s more to do with pre-match beer intake than in proportion with the result, though. Yes, this was disappointing, but hey, the advertising hoardings looked nice. And, hey, the way this game developed would have led to the same result last season, only this time we had the brightnesses of a coach willing to make attacking changes, and we have the understanding that with a lot of new players to integrate and a coaching staff mostly new to the division, working out how to beat teams like Preston will be a work in progress.
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I’ll take this if we learn from it. And I hope I’m not saying the same after we play Fulham on Tuesday, but some variation of ‘Have that you regatta-watching bastards.’ ◉
(photo by Jim Ogden)
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