Pablo Hernandez chipped Alan McGregor, and it was agony at the northern end of the ground, watching the ball to see where it would drop — in the net, or in among the scarves in the South Stand.
It would have been better to watch Pablo. He started celebrating as soon as the ball left his foot, and what a feeling that must be — to know that you’ve done this exactly right, and can kiss your arms and slide in front of the fans while the ball is still travelling over the line. Feliz Navidad, Pablo.
The goal was an example of everything that was good about Leeds against Hull City, and much of what has been good about Leeds this season: effort and commitment from Kemar Roofe, who has often only been on the fringes of the first team, closing down space for Hull’s defenders and goalkeeper, forcing a mistake that put the ball at Pablo’s feet; and sublime skill from an outrageous talent, beauty aligned with brawn.
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We only had that one moment of sublimity to enjoy, because Samu Saiz wasn’t playing, and for the first half an hour, Leeds United played without him the way I felt without him — there was an aching, sorry gap in my heart that only the Napoleonic genius could fill, and a gap on the pitch, too. Admittedly, Hull had a lot to do with it, fired up from the start of the game and threatening our goal within the first minute, and for many of the next ninety.
Felix Wiedwald is an enigma because he’s managed to keep clean sheet after clean sheet without ever putting in a strong game of goalkeeping, but in the first half United’s defenders let him be tested. Hull attacked in numbers and Leeds struggled to protect Wiedwald, who protected his goal anyway, and played like what he technically should be: a good goalkeeper.
Pablo’s goal made Leeds United’s mind up, and gave them a purpose in the game. Defending that had looked frantic became focused once Leeds had a lead to protect, and with a game plan decided — defend the lead — they gave it their full effort. Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper eased Nouha Dicko out of the game, and Gaetano Berardi underlined his comments about Leeds needing a better left-back than him by showing just how good that replacement left-back will have to be. Only Luke Ayling ever looked shaky, as he has for a while, but as a whole Leeds changed what could have been an off-day into a very good defensive performance.
That off-day did afflict Leeds going forward, where Roofe was again peripheral, because Ezgjan Alioski and Pawel Cibicki couldn’t find him, and Hernandez was safe, rather than Saiz. Behind them, Ronaldo Vieira was giving the ball away, as was Kalvin Phillips, until he was replaced at half-time by Eunan O’Kane. Unless Hull were willing to make another mistake, a second goal seemed unlikely, and Leeds seemed to sense it, and elected not to pursue it. Rather than Jay-Roy Grot, this week we got the welcome return of Pierre-Michel Lassoga in the closing stages, bullying Hull’s centre backs and giving our defence a relief.
Game management: it’s not sexy, but it’s not something Leeds were good at a couple of months ago. Two successive 1-0 home wins might not please every one of the 35,000 who came, but they’re a damn sight better than successive defeats, and a sign that Thomas Christiansen has been doing what he was accused of not doing earlier in the season: learning. What he was not doing was implementing what he was learning, but that takes time.
Christiansen has been speaking in recent weeks about closing the “first round” of the Championship, as after playing Hull we have played every team in the league once, and about how the effects of the many changes at the club are beginning to be felt. “[There are] many things that have changed in the club since I arrived,” he said, “and now everyone knows their place, knows what to do. It’s easier to work now and also the confidence in everyone has grown with the time.”
It’s a good point, worth dwelling on now that the initial thrill of hearing that Garry Monk has unwrapped a P45 for Christmas has subsided. That could have been Christiansen a month ago, after a run of defeats far worse than Middlesbrough have managed, but the consistent message from Leeds United during that spell, that everything apart from the results was good, that Christiansen was doing what was being asked of him, that with time the work he was doing would change the losses to wins, has ended up sounding very sensible. Christiansen was an unknown when he came to Leeds, and there was pressure to get rid of him without ever getting to know him. With what we know about him now, we can be glad we kept him.
And we can be glad that Leeds can win without Saiz — although I don’t want us to make ‘without Saiz’ a habit — and can turn rough performances into 1-0 wins, and can take supporter initiatives to improve the atmosphere at Elland Road and turn them into scarf shaking spectacles that rivalled Pablo’s chip for beauty. Waiting for the ball to cross the line was agony, waiting for Christiansen to turn results around was agony, trudging to a half-empty football ground season after season has been agony. Ecstasy was always there somewhere, though. ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)
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