Samu Saiz and the post is the hate-to-love-you rom-com of the season. They’re the original odd couple, but can’t keep away from each other!
Hitting the post, when he was one-on-one with the goalkeeper and had what Thomas Christiansen called the chance to “close the game”, was almost Saiz’s last act against Norwich City. His actual last act was what he did instead of following his shot and popping in the rebound: standing in the penalty area, flinging his arms into the air and his eyes to the heavens, as if he’d just arrived to dinner and found the restaurant hosting a coach party of English referees.
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It wasn’t quite happening for Saiz, ‘it’ being beating all Norwich’s players and probably the substitutes and back room staff too on his way to scoring an unforgettable solo goal, which was what he seemed to want from his afternoon’s play. (I hesitate to call what he and Gjanni Alioski do for Leeds ‘work’, because they seem to have so much fun.) I didn’t want to change a thing about him, though, because if nothing else his ball-carrying sprints were a valuable way of denying Norwich chances to equalise. And I certainly didn’t want to turn Saiz into a six-foot-six pillar of inadequacy, but Christiansen replaced him with Jay-Roy Grot for the last ten minutes anyway.
Saiz hitting the post did feel like a portent of onslaught, United’s last chance to score before Norwich, making attacking substitutions, threw themselves forward to equalise. The previous eighty minutes had been even, Leeds taking the lead just before half-time with an expertly directed header from Pontus Jansson. The goal was the third big set piece chance of the game, after a free-kick from Pawel Cibicki came off Luke Ayling’s shoulder and went to the keeper, and Kalvin Phillips toed a free-kick by Alioski onto the post — Cibicki shot hard at goal but couldn’t score the rebound.
Jansson’s header was on a set piece cross by Cibicki, who had been a surprise inclusion from the start, despite his strong finish at QPR. Sure, that was good, but was Cibicki really from-the-start good? Yes, as it turns out, and he was one of our best players. Willing to battle harder than his snappable frame suggests, Cibicki’s main contributions were dangerous crosses from the right in open play and from set pieces, and an attraction to the corridor of uncertainty on a par with Saiz’s lust for uprights. Low or in the air, Cibicki made the line of the six yard box his target, and whipped balls along it all game.
On the other side, jealous Alioski watched on. He couldn’t get involved in United’s attacks, so he attempted tricks when he did get the ball, and contented himself tracking back to help Gaetano Berardi. Leeds were too narrow too often, too anxious to find Saiz at the first opportunity, who was reticent about balls wide. But his dribbles through the middle often came to nothing before he was near Kemar Roofe, who didn’t get the service or the opportunities to shine as he had at QPR. Leeds had one winger playing well and another itching to try, but kept running into trouble in midfield, where Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips were battling with Norwich’s troupe of tiny angry men.
United’s defence dealt firmly with star attackers James Maddison and Alex Pritchard; they liked a dribble as much as Saiz, Maddison losing a chance to score to a superbly timed Phillips tackle in the penalty area, when he could have just whacked the ball at Felix Wiedwald. Even then, there was a fair chance Wiedwald would have saved it; he worked harder for this clean sheet than he has for some, making one excellent point-blank save, one very good one when a free-kick was hit through a crowd of players, and another from long range that would have been very good had he not parried it straight to Nelson Oliviera, who blasted the rebound over the bar.
Oliviera’s other contribution was some off the ball hilarity with Pontus Jansson — hilarious, if Jansson hadn’t been inexplicably booked for standing still while Oliviera ran into him and bounced off, clutching his face as he fell to the floor. It was in character for Norwich; I thought Saiz could moan, but the referee could hardly blow his whistle without the little fellas in yellow swarming around him like baby ducklings quacking at their mother. The referee blew his whistle a lot, so it became quite frustrating.
The last ten minutes became sixteen minutes thanks to the referee’s added time, and anxious, frustrating and fractious thanks to Christiansen’s substitutions. I wrote after the Brentford game that I feared Andrea Radrizzani’s desire to watch a team playing to win every game was directing Christiansen into some naive mistakes — in that case, bringing on Jay-Roy Grot to get on the end of United’s second half ability to cross into the box, instead of staying wise and taking the draw.
That’s changed in the last few games; Christiansen has been closing games down to take the result, bringing on Matthew Pennington and playing five at the back, as he did here, along with Pablo Hernandez for his experience and intelligence under pressure. And he also brought on Jay-Roy Grot, for his, um, I’m not sure.
I am sure that Grot won’t benefit from the low level stick he took from the crowd. Taking off our best player and replacing him with the guy many people think is our worst drew murmurs even before Grot was on the pitch; that his first touch was a failure confirmed all the bias and made it vocal. The problem is, while it’s reasonable to ask fans not to jeer one of our own players, as Christiansen did after the game, it’s not possible to defend Grot when he plays like this. One or two touches and runs came off, and he was useful when defending free-kicks, but the rest of the time he was slow to react, couldn’t control the ball, and despite being marked by two defenders he was comfortably taller than, didn’t jump above them for long balls and didn’t win possession. If he did win a header, he won it off balance, as if he’d stood in the wrong place and headed it by mistake, and gave it to the opposition.
Grot’s debut at Nottingham Forest had everything this didn’t; there he was strong and skilful, holding up the ball and barging Armand Traore to the ground. If he’d played like that against Norwich, he would have been an asset. But he didn’t do any of the things Leeds needed him to do to help them “close the game”, and put us under more pressure in the closing stages than if Saiz had stayed on the pitch to continue his battle with the woodwork.
Much more is made of Grot’s inadequacies than is probably necessary, though, including by me here. The world won’t end because our nineteen year old fourth choice striker isn’t up to the pace of The Championship yet; with Lasogga back in training, we should soon go back to seeing less of him, and perhaps a Cibicki-like Lazarus effect will take hold in training. Who knows. He did give the ball to Hernandez for the last big chance of the game, although it was a simple lay-off on the halfway line, and the rest was due to Pablo and Alioski: Hernandez span between two Norwich players, played a one-two with Alioski that cut out countless more, then swerved his shot just wide of the near post.
I would have loved a late goal to crown a hard fought win, but it wasn’t to be. 1-0 was enough anyway. Only Wolves have beaten Leeds in their last six matches, and even if performances aren’t as dreamy as when we beat Burton, there’s a confidence and a welcome normality developing about the way teams are being lined up, fought, and beaten. Long may that continue. ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)
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