Over the last month Elland Road has been vocal and volatile in defeat, noisy about defeatism, roaring defiantly towards one single league point.
The second Lasogga goal against Millwall, the one that put Leeds United 3-2 up from 0-2 down, was the euphoric highlight, sparking celebrations as angry as they were joyful. But still we lost. Sol Bamba’s own goal gave us hope of a reprise against Cardiff City, Lasogga and Roofe brought the Bristol City match back to us in ten stratospheric minutes, but that moment against Millwall hadn’t been beaten.
Then Brentford were beaten, and Leeds United’s run of beatings was beaten by our first win after ten without, and still that Lasogga goal against Millwall feels like the best 2018 has had to offer so far. Victory over Brentford was overdue, critical, vital to this season and possibly beyond. But it wasn’t memorable, or special, or particularly good.
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Brentford’s manager Dean Smith tried to give us something to remember the weekend by, complaining that the grass was too long and the referee too biased. In favour of Leeds, he means; he must have misunderstood the deep sarcasm when Elland Road cheered yellow cards to Brentford players as loudly as a goal, and missed entirely that the referee ignored all that and persisted with not booking Brentford players when they were definitely due. Worst of all, he denied Leeds an almost certain goal when Pierre-Michel Lasogga did whatever he does instead of bursting away from Brentford’s high line and was through on goal, with options to either shoot or pass to Ezgjan Alioski, when the referee pulled the play back. For a free kick to Leeds. Aye, Mr Smith, he gave Leeds everything, whether we wanted it or not.
Those were pretty flimsy talking points, though. What we’ll talk about instead is how what looked before the game like a flimsy United team won the day through the sort of effort and application that stronger lineups have only managed in short bursts in recent weeks. Paul Heckingbottom’s selection was weakened by an injury to Pablo Hernandez and the labour of Mrs Adam Forshaw, while he was as ruthless with Laurens De Bock and Kemar Roofe as he was with Eunan O’Kane, leaving both out of the squad entirely, although the rules about homegrown players had something to do with De Bock, and Roofe may have had a knock. The point is, they weren’t there. Showing his softer side Heckingbottom resisted any temptation to be ruthless with Felix Wiedwald or Liam Cooper, and in midfield, O’Kane had crept back in.
When the game started, O’Kane crept around its edges, as ineffective as ever. Whether Adam Forshaw is the scouse Iniesta is beside the point. His is an influence that can be measured with one simple stat: against Brentford, O’Kane’s pass success was 62%. Against Derby in midweek, probably Forshaw’s least good display so far for Leeds, his was 82%. That difference, translated to the pitch, is painful to watch, and some of O’Kane’s decisions register like pins to the eyeballs. Kalvin Phillips wasn’t doing much better at keeping the ball, but he was doing much better at presence, making sure Brentford knew he was on the pitch and best avoided.
That regard for the ball as something troublesome rather than a friend filtered throughout the team in the first half, leaving all the football up to Brentford, but for once United’s defence was stout. Brentford couldn’t get behind the back four, and hadn’t got the memo about the goalkeeper; corners were swung away from Wiedwald, to everybody’s relief, and one fierce shot on target was very well saved, a cross safely caught and held.
Chaos was conspicuous by its absence, but so were Leeds as an attacking force, until Stuart Dallas won a free kick on the left with panache to make Luke Ayling proud. Alioski’s delivery was spot on, and for once, so was Liam Cooper’s header; after trying and trying and trying, finally Cooper scored a goal, directing the ball from in front of the front post, beyond David Bentley’s dive, and firmly into the far bottom corner.
The goal gave Leeds a purpose for the remaining hour, a reason to play, something they’ve missed when chasing games through deficits of goals or players since the start of the year. United’s energy, when a player down or two goals down or both, has been unfocused: in every game, there’s been too much to do, so they’ve struggled to do enough of any of it. This was a different situation: unlike at Derby, the lead lasted beyond half-time, and the second half was a matter of keeping it that way.
O’Kane tightened up, Saiz looked at the space behind Brentford’s attacks and beamed with ideas, Dallas, Alioski and Phillips threw themselves into the defensive breach with gusto. Alioski had probably his biggest cheer as a Leeds player outside of scoring when, after failing with one tackle, he got up from the floor and threw himself into another, timing it superbly to send the ball thudding into the advertising hoardings. Even Saiz caught the mood; losing the ball in attack, he sprinted almost to his own penalty area to win it back, then ran with it all the way back to where he’d lost it in the first place. Pontus Jansson went the other way; coming out of defence with the ball, he somehow ended up in Brentford’s penalty area, pleading for a return pass that never came.
Although Brentford did most of the attacking, Leeds had better times in their penalty area than they had in ours. Lasogga cut from right foot to left and then back again, Brentford’s defenders and goalkeeper swooning like fans at the feet of Marlene Dietrich and falling to the floor around him. He tired himself out so much, though, that there was no strength left to hammer the ball into the net, and his eventual shot was blocked. Alioski slid in challenging for a cross from substitute Caleb Ekuban, but couldn’t connect, while other efforts met their end either with the referee’s absurd advantage decisions — Brentford loved a kick or pull on Saiz just after he played a deadly pass — or the linesman’s flag for offside.
Soaking up pressure and playing on the break seemed to suit Leeds, which was surprising, given our defending has been like throwing a sponge into the sea for everything its soaked up lately. The difference was workrate. Whether it was the impetus and confidence of having a lead that was lasting, or that two weeks of south Yorkshire common sense is beginning to sink in, Leeds were winning second balls, and that was crucial. Saiz’s return has done no harm, but he did little harm to Brentford before the goal, so we can look for the improvements elsewhere. They were found in improved application from players like Alioski, application being different from attitude: Alioski has never looked to me short of effort or willing, he just hasn’t had the confidence to do anything about it. Here he was winning the ball and beating defenders, and looking better every time he did it.
The extent of the improvements is harder to judge. This game wasn’t an explosive return to form, and even after ten games without a win, finally getting one didn’t bring much euphoria. It wasn’t even relief. The best way to describe it is that this visit to Elland Road didn’t hurt as much as being punched in the face normally does. And that Heckingbottom’s first win was secured without Hernandez or Forshaw gave it an unreal aspect, as if we’d snuck this one through, and the real wins will start once our proper team is out there.
We’re still waiting to see what a proper Heckingbottom Leeds will look like, and given his talk this week about working out which players are up for being here next season, we might have a while to wait while he decides. In the meantime, though, Leeds United have won a game of football. And they’ve also made sixth place just five points away, close enough to — well. That’s the point. Nobody’s getting carried away. But if Leeds beat Middlesbrough on Friday night we’ll go into the weekend level for seventh and two points behind Bristol City and their failing form. Then, mark my words, we’ll get carried away. ◉
(feature image by Jim Ogden)
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