In some ways I wish Felix Wiedwald had started this game, rather than Andy Lonergan. That way the animosity creeping from the stands could have been focused on one player, rather than distributed haphazardly around the ten other escaping goats.
Thomas Christiansen’s backing for Wiedwald was never as forceful as it sounded. He wouldn’t talk about him in depth as an individual, as he never does with any player, other than to say Felix has been in tough situations before and overcome them. “I have confidence in all my goalkeepers,” said Christiansen, effectively giving Wiedwald and Lonergan an equal chance to start.
Lonergan was the right choice because knives had been sharpened in readiness for just one more mistake from Wiedwald, and he was never likely to perform well under that sort of pressure. Instead of prompting a positive atmosphere, though, Wiedwald’s absence inspired the blade runners in the crowd to seek new targets, and by the end of the game, there were plenty to choose from.
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Save for the goalkeeping change and Gaetano Berardi replacing Vurnon Anita at left-back, the team was the same as hammered Burton Albion after the last international break, and from the very earliest stages resentment was simmering that Leeds weren’t showing signs of repeating that blistering, and now bewildering, performance. The opening quarter hour was punctuated by cries of “Get it forward!” as United passed sedately from foot to foot in their defensive third, keeping it away from Reading’s high-pressing players.
Anyone who expected the removal of the tippy-tappy softie from nets to instantly transform Leeds into 4-4-2 thunder was sadly disillusioned, and that disillusion was soon audible. But the chances of that ever happening were minimal, especially against Reading.
Reading’s run of six winless games and growing injury list was either going to send them gung-ho for an instant reversal of fortunes, or more likely given Jaap Stam’s managerial preferences, crab-like and defensive in search of a result to keep Stam in a job. It was more like the latter, with added high-pressing and close man-marking of Samu Saiz, whose ankles must have been bruised purple by the end of the game.
With tight, closed ranks of bright orange Reading shirts between them and the flouro-pink of their goalkeeper (add in the flouro-green of our ‘keeper and this game was hard to look at, never mind watch), United were cautious. Eunan O’Kane and Kalvin Phillips dropped deeper than usual, and Leeds game plan was revealed as patient and risk-averse, not a bad choice given our own recent results. Retain possession, and don’t take silly risks; try to go forward, but don’t be afraid to go back; keep looking for the opposition error or the flash of creativity that would mean a goal, that would open up the game, and let us close it down again.
For Leeds that goal never came, and neither did the opposition error. Reading were playing like a bunch of robots and didn’t make mistakes, and there wasn’t much Leeds could do about that. But the lack of creativity, the lack of even a flash of it, was absolutely in United’s control, and its absence was much more worrying than square passes in defence.
Thomas Christiansen’s game plan can be defended, in a weird way, by pointing out that Reading had a very similar plan and won. It’s also what won our games against Sunderland, Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City, when Leeds were calm, but found goals at the right moments to turn their calmness into control. The problem against Reading was that Leeds were stretching their calm patience beyond the boundaries of this game, and seemed content to wait and see what might happen through ninety minutes and on into next week if they had to.
At some point Leeds had to accept that Saiz couldn’t do it on his own from underneath his orange shadow; that Pablo Hernandez was not involved enough; and that he was, even so, more involved than Kemar Roofe. Pierre-Michel Lasogga, drifting here and there upfront like an unmoored oil tanker in the breeze, touched the ball six times in the first half. Patience at the back wasn’t being matched by willingness or ability to seize the game up front and turn waiting for something to happen into making something happen.
One problem with a patient plan, though, is its deceptive way of looking like its working. Nil-all at half-time, with no serious chances given up, allowed Leeds to believe they were on a good course. Christiansen said after the game that in the first half Leeds were too slow; so all that was required in the second half, in theory, was the same thing but faster.
Which is what Leeds provided, and it was better, but it still didn’t work, and the crucial mistake ended up made by Leeds — the defence switching off, expecting a free-kick for a tug that toppled Hernandez — while the flash of creativity came from, of all people, substitute Mo Barrow, who took advantage of the grand switch-off to score. The goal did, as expected, open the game up; frustratingly, Leeds had already spent the ten minutes before it playing their best stuff of the game, with substitutes Hadi Sacko and Jay-Roy Grot providing more speed and movement up front. Now behind, they had to attack Reading, and ended up with their best chance to score, Saiz shifting the constant fouls against him into the penalty area, but Hernandez only giving his tame penalty to Mannone in the Reading goal.
Pablo’s reaction to his injury time miss perhaps said as much about where Leeds had gone wrong as anything else in the game. There was still time left afterwards for Lonergan to come forward and attack a corner, but two minutes after the penalty was missed, while Leeds waited to take a set-piece, Hernandez was on his haunches in the penalty area, staring at the grass, still replaying the penalty. Stuart Dallas ran twenty yards to lift him to his feet and tell him to get over it and get on with the game. Hernandez is the team’s senior player, its example; as I’ve said a few times, its theoretical Strachan. But a setback had made him even more introverted than he had been all game, introversion that seems to have taken hold of our once — and quite recently — expressive and forward thinking team.
The patience — the pissing about at the back, as Elland Road has taken to calling it — would be easier to understand if more chances were taken in attack. The popular notion at the moment is that Leeds United — specifically Thomas Christiansen — have been found out, that other teams know how we play and are setting up to stop it. They are, but if it was that simple, no team would ever be able to play the same way more than twice in a row. With easy access to match videos and data analysis, every team knows how every other team plays, they even know how every player plays, within a day of them doing it. As a competitive advantage sussing out the opposition is not what it once was. Or it shouldn’t be.
The trick on yourself, and the failure at Leeds right now, is in not playing the way you want to play well enough. It’s not the theory, it’s the execution. Had Leeds scored this game’s 84th minute winner the performance would have been chalked down as dull, businesslike and effective. That Reading scored it shouldn’t prompt wholesale inquests into everything from coaching to recruitment to tactics. Instead of demanding to change everything at once, we should focus on another question first: why aren’t we doing better at what we’re trying to do now? Why did a dull, even game leave us with Leeds United’s result on Saturday teatime, not Reading’s?
Answering those questions might still lead to the wholesale tactical and personnel changes that a lot of fans are demanding, but it would approach the problems in a more productive way than scrapping every plan Thomas Christiansen has worked on with the players and starting again. For one thing, there isn’t time for that. There was plenty of time since the Sheffield Wednesday defeat for Christiansen and his staff to analyse what happened at Hillsborough. But in his press conference on Thursday Christiansen said that, due to the international break, he’d only been able to hold the full team debrief on that match the day before. That gave them Thursday and Friday to prepare changes for the game on Saturday, not enough time for radical new plans. The question keeps being asked of Christiansen, is he learning from our defeats? A better question might be, when has he had the chance to pass on those lessons?
Changes at this stage need to be easily communicated and quick to implement, like changing the goalkeeper, for example, without chucking away the improvements we saw with the same players playing the same system at the start of the season. I’ve surprised myself by becoming reconciled to the square passing at the back, because I’ve seen how patience can work for us, and because more calmness and patience in defence would have been beneficial against Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday. The problem has become combining patience at the back with thrills in attack, so solutions need to be found that free Saiz to be more influential, that restore Hernandez to excellence and seniority, that make Lasogga a legitimate target, rather than a far-off unreachable island.
Solving that might mean sacrificing a forward to be more dominant in midfield, or at least to give Saiz some help; it might mean starting with Sacko, and using his pace to frighten defenders into giving our other attackers more room; it might mean sticking with the players and the plans we’ve got, but kicking arses and reminding people of their responsibilities, so that they return to their previous standards.
Leeds shouldn’t need a complete rethink and a whole new approach to something that we’ve seen work superbly. If a team turns up prepared to counteract our style of play, our players should be good enough and strong-minded enough to win their personal battles and make sure our style of play wins the game anyway. Leeds have looked unstoppable at times this season, and that was only partly due to the tactics. Lately they’ve looked very stoppable, but that’s only partly due to the tactics, too.
Arguably Christiansen has a better opportunity to improve things in the next two weeks than in the last two, when enough of the first team were away to limit the opportunities in training. There’s no game this midweek, so assuming Leeds travel to Bristol on Friday, they have Monday to Thursday to do nothing but work. Let a second string go to Leicester next Tuesday, and use Monday to Thursday again to do nothing but work, ahead of playing Sheffield United.
Everyone except Caleb Ekuban is fit, and dropping Wiedwald has shown that everyone’s place is up for grabs. United have shown they have what it takes to be successful this season. The next two weeks need to be about remembering how that was done, not forgetting it all and starting again. Things need to change, and without Felix to yell at, it felt at Elland Road like everything would have to change to make everybody happy again. But changing everything is not always the fastest way to happiness.
The optimist’s view of Saturday is that Leeds were too slow for forty-five minutes, patient for twenty-five minutes, and the better team for the last twenty; Hernandez had a penalty for a point, Pontus Jansson had a chance earlier that could have changed everything about the game. It didn’t feel this way as I kicked my seat and sulked off home at the final whistle, but we’re dealing with narrow margins rather than disastrous gulfs. In the rush to close the narrows, we risk widening the gaps. Leeds can’t afford to keep losing every week, but they can’t afford to keep losing their nerve with every setback, either. ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)