Things have changed so much at Leeds United this season, and getting knocked out of the Carabao Cup didn’t change anything back, or none of the important things, anyway.
For example: in the 92nd minute Samu Saiz lost possession on the edge of Preston North End’s penalty area. The player who dispossessed him started taking the ball upfield, initially outpacing Saiz. But Saiz was determined to get the ball back, and sprinted aggressively after him to the halfway line, where he got close enough to make contact. When Saiz first started playing for Leeds last season, I was struck by how much, from a distance, he looked like a young David Batty, but I never thought I’d see him doing this: he scrambled his way between the Preston player and the ball, knocking his opponent over and wrapping his feet around the prize; he’d won it back and was facing Preston’s goal again. He dribbled towards the centre, swerving through two tackles, and was fouled by the third; he sprang to his feet, offered his hand and pulled the player who had fouled him back to his feet, then put the ball down for the free-kick, desperate to play.
Again, we were 2-0 down in stoppage time in the Carabao Cup here, but moments like these allow us to ignore the result and concentrate on how much things have changed. And there were plenty of these moments. All the grimness was in the first half, when Stuart Dallas and Conor Shaughnessy, two of the players who have played least for Marcelo Bielsa, were caught out by Preston’s intense answer to Bielsa’s favoured tactics. I was still making a note of Shaughnessy being pressed and losing the ball in the first ten seconds, when twenty seconds later the same thing happened to Dallas, and Shaughnessy gave away a stupid penalty to Louis Moult, stupidly scored by Daniel Johnson, who did a stupid, big-striding run up. The whole thing was just stupid.
Lots of the first half was stupid, as Jamal Blackman struggled to find a way to distribute through Preston’s four pressing attackers; after he ended up outside his area dribbling through tackles trying to pass to Tom Pearce, Pontus Jansson made a suggestion: just kick it long. That helped, as did Ryan Ledson’s red card, an interesting example of the down side of a high press; if you’re asking your forward players to make more tackles on opposing defenders, you’re risking them committing more fouls, and if your players aren’t very good at it, you’re risking one of them going flying over the ball two-footed for no reason and getting stupidly sent off. That was pretty much the end of Preston’s press, but not the end of the stupidity, as Brandon Barker was allowed to wander around Shaughnessy’s outside and smack the ball past Blackman, just before half-time.
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That should probably have been that, the big change there and then, from an unbeaten team to a beaten one, with all the questions and doubts that raises. But already before the break Saiz had been warming up on his own in front of the West Stand, pausing only to offer tactical advice to Jansson and Dallas, shouting and pointing from the sidelines like an extra coach. He was brought on at half-time, along with Mateusz Klich, giving us the thrill of seeing Kalvin Phillips properly playing centre-half, although that was rarely relevant to the play.
What was relevant was that Saiz was on a one-player mission to save the game for Leeds United and keep our Carabao-flavoured dreams alive. (Does Mr Carabao dream of electric buffalo?) Saiz was electrifying, taking responsibility on halfway, dribbling to the penalty area, and often choosing good passes; Preston couldn’t get near him when he had the ball and retreated, terrified, into their own final third. The problem was that, for all Saiz’s efforts, Leeds couldn’t get the ball into that third properly. Tyler Roberts was ineffective, as he was in his last appearance, and was replaced by Ezgjan Alioski, who matched Saiz for frenetics but not focus; he wasn’t helped by Dallas’ inability to complete short simple passes with any consistency. On the other side Tom Pearce was limping heavily after a kick, and couldn’t support Jack Harrison, who resorted to beating his two markers again and again, trying to find an angle for a cross. He won a lot of corners; Lewis Baker took a lot of bad corners. Patrick Bamford was the target, but the referee took against him, giving free-kicks to Preston for any physical challenge.
Saiz wasn’t the only player committed to the cause; as Preston keeper Chris Maxwell took his time-wasting to new extremes, Alioski and Harrison raced each other to retrieve the ball from behind the Kop goal. Maxwell was eventually booked, but only because it looked like an actual brawl was starting, if not with Leeds players then with Leeds fans; but the point of a booking for time-wasting is to stop it at the outset, not to dish out a couple of disciplinary points when it’s too late to affect the game. While Preston delayed, United’s will to win was tangible from the eleven on the pitch to the six or seven or eight or nine coaches in the technical area; I swear Bielsa has some hidden in there just for when Leeds are behind.
But Saiz was the emblem of the effort, because he had the ability, and if you forgot about the result — and, ultimately, not much rides anymore on what used to be the League Cup — it was fascinating to watch him begging for the ball in midfield, looking for ways through at top speed, of thought and foot. Saiz unlocked Preston as often as he could, but his teammates couldn’t go through with him. He never reverted to the Saiz of late last season, though, who seemed so disgusted by his options that he would try for wondergoals every time; that has changed. He has instructions now: pass into the box, or pass wide. The rest is not up to him.
And ultimately Leeds were not up the test, but it was not for want of effort. They were undone in the first half by players, lacking match fitness, failing to adjust to Preston’s intensity, and in the second half by a collective reserve attack that couldn’t respond to Saiz’s inventing. Put Roberts in front of Luke Ayling, or Harrison in front of Barry Douglas — or at least a left-back with two strong legs — and they might look different; it’s a team game, after all.
Or put them back into Bielsa’s lab for more testing, and more training; this is also, this season, a time game. The players who were in Bielsa’s first team group on the first day of pre-season are excelling; those who arrived later need more work. This game was part of that process, and losing didn’t change anything. It’s all so different now. ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)