Pre-match publicity hyped the impact of the hostile Elland Road atmosphere on Pontus Jansson, Leeds United’s fallen and crestfallen hero.
But Elland Road is often as dismissive to the opposition as it is malevolent. The other team has come to be beaten, and the crowd has come to watch the Peacocks beat them, and if they don’t, the initial hugs of affection for the home team can become more rib-crushing and painful than anything done to the visitors.
Patrick Bamford heard cheers when half the ground thought his deft header past Brentford’s onrushing keeper had bounced into the net. It had gone wide, but I hope it did Bamford good to hear what celebrating a goal at Elland Road might be like. It’s been a while.
(Prefer this as a podcast? Click here to support Moscowhite on Patreon.)
The next cheers came when, deep into the second half, three quick successive attacks broke down with the ball at, near, or missing Bamford by a mile. Upon the third United’s coaches leapt straight up and called for Eddie Nketiah; the crowd noticed, and as he tugged his shirt on ready for his home debut, the crowd chanted his name — his first name, anyway — proving that loan players can be favourites, even if it’s only for one season, if they’re exciting enough.
Bamford made one more forlorn chase for a through ball with his presumed replacement’s name ringing in his ears. He was the exciting new striker this time last season, and shouldn’t feel too bad about the chants he was hearing; Eddie has simpler syllables than Patrick.
But Bamford wasn’t replaced. Pablo Hernandez gave way to Nketiah, while a simultaneous change brought Gaetano Berardi on at right-back and sent Stuart Dallas for treatment. Ahead of Berardi was Helder Costa, moved from the left-wing where earlier he’d replaced Jack Harrison, and the left-wing was taken over by Ezgjan Alioski, even though he stayed at left-back. The empty space in front of him seemed to be part of the plan.
This is, as I’ve written a lot over the last year or so, why they call him El Loco. Marcelo Bielsa reorganised Leeds with two central strikers and one winger, and if that imbalance was confusing from the stands, it was worse for Brentford, trying to adjust their back three to suit.
With Bamford and Nketiah side-by-side up against two of the three centre-backs, Costa’s pace threatened the third, tying them all up while Alioski hovered menacingly on the other side. Brentford were overloaded even before they thought about Mateusz Klich and Adam Forshaw threatening from midfield. Bamford’s frustrating habit of dropping deep and slow when Leeds attack down the wings became a virtue with Nketiah ahead of him; when Klich released Costa down the right Brentford’s defence was split between covering Bamford and a pull-back, and chasing Nketiah into the six-yard box. It felt like Costa was waiting too long to cross, but he likes increasing the tension, an Alfred Hitchcock of the wing. Nketiah tapped in the winner four minutes after coming on.
Jansson, trying to stop Costa, was megged by the cross and mocked by the Kop. His reaction to the occasion was one of the night’s attractions, and while he avoided any aggression, he lost his impact instead in friendliness. Brentford avoided the usual players’ entrance to avoid flashpoints, and during the preliminary handshakes Jansson saved big hugs for Kalvin Phillips, Pablo Hernandez, and the biggest of all for Alioski. Phillips got another playful cuddle during the game, after Jansson turned a tangle with Kiko Casilla into an embrace; it felt like Jansson was on a determined charm defensive.
He might have kept his friends in the team but the crowd were not so kind; at full-time the South Stand taunted him with an ironic chorus, calling for him to air-punch them like he used to do when Leeds United won. Jansson resisted, walking calmly down the tunnel, perhaps mentally punching himself instead.
Jansson had played well, part of a cleverly packed Brentford team that narrowed United’s spaces and made it hard for Hernandez, in particular, to find his range. In the first 23 minutes only thirteen of United’s 28 passes into the attacking third were successful, well down from the 70% success against Nottingham Forest; in that 23rd minute Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo hit the post with a curling shot that thoroughly beat Casilla.
Leeds improved after that, and in a series of step-ups; half-time improved them, the subs improved them again. It needed Bielsa’s wild thinking to unlock Brentford, and for the first time United’s summer business looked crucial; if photos of the aftermath are accurate, summer’s businessman Victor Orta celebrated by smashing up his executive monitor.
In the few minutes before he scored Nketiah already made a chance for himself by using his speed, something that wasn’t in the squad last season but that he and Costa have added. Bielsa now has a balance of talents that can unbalance opponents, even if it means unbalancing his own team with asymmetrical formations.
It’s a fine science, and after years of watching midweek Championship games like this one dwindle into boredom or defeat, this was another night to thank Bielsa. He looks, he sees, he changes. Most others can only look. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
(Are you reading the BUFF? A daily email newsletter by Moscowhite for twenty pence a week. If you enjoy these reports, your money supports more: Click here to get your daily BUFF.)