Hello Ben Pearson

Leeds United 1-0 Stoke City: Thinking less, doing more

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Just a real nice profile view of Illan Meslier's face

Well done to referee Oliver Langford, who with a sense of aesthetic flair his namesake Bonnie would be proud of, blew for full-time while Leeds United goalkeeper Illan Meslier was flat on his back, ball in his hands, down by the northern posts, gazing at what few stars he could make out beyond the floodlights. He’d just made a big save to keep the score at 1-0 to Leeds, a matchwinning save right at the end. Then a minute later he’d had to do it again. This time, hearing the final whistle, Meslier could stay where he was for as long as he wanted without fear of a booking, and throw the ball up into the air above him, up there with the stars and floodlights like a size five moon.

On the post-game lap of relief, sub goalie Karl Darlow made sure his route took him to Meslier so he could pat him on the back, put an arm around him, and tell him well done. Nobody knows goalkeepers like goalkeepers know goalkeepers, so that mattered. Darlow probably thought he’d be playing a lot more than he has this season. Watching Meslier against Stoke, and at the weekend in Huddersfield, he knows better than anyone why he hasn’t.

For the rest of us, it’s not been ideal to have Meslier being among the most important players in games against two of the division’s lousiest teams. But different players contribute different things at different times. When United’s attackers have been feeling fresh and popping shots here, there, and into the goal, it’s been fine for Meslier to stand and watch and pass and pick up a clean sheet bonus. Now, with the forwards looking jaded and short of ideas, Meslier has been ready to make things as easy for them as he can. If Leeds can only score one, the goalkeeper has made sure that’s enough for a result.

The tired look about Leeds was worrying but not surprising. Madness? This is not Sparta. This is the Championship. The EFL’s concept is to arrange a 46 game season in such a way that it exhausts every good footballer in the league until they’re cowed by stronger, bigger boys who will stop them playing football. “Whoever is responsible for the schedule,” Daniel Farke said after this game, “I would like to have a cup of tea with them one day and speak about a few things.” The EFL sell this entertainment to Sky so they can put it on the television to compete with Champions League football. Armchair viewers with the right subscriptions on Tuesday night could choose between watching Harry Kane scoring twice for the five-time European Champions from Munich, or Kylian Mbappé getting a brace for Paris Saint-Germain, or extended bouts of head-tennis live from Elland Road livened up by usually Preston’s Ben Pearson, a player so thoroughly embedded at this level that I thought he was playing for Huddersfield at the weekend but who came off the bench here for Stoke, getting two yellow cards in half-an-hour, the ex-Old Trafford youth’s third sending off in eleven games against Leeds.

My theory is that it’s easier for teams like Stoke and Huddersfield to Champo while bleary because they don’t need to think very much. They have to concentrate, which is different, but the modern mantra for teams in trouble, even when they’re a goal down in a game, is to defend and waste time and hope to nick a goal. Our Leeds, on the other hand, are trying to invent ways to score, create dangerous situations, plot attacking moves: to think, in other words, and then to get their weary bodies to act on the things they think about doing.

Crysencio Summerville looks like putting all that together is a struggle at the moment, so he’s sticking to the method he doesn’t have to think about, cutting in from the wing and tap-tap-tapping in search of a gap through which he can poke the ball towards the goal, or square it. This is Summerville’s first full season as a first-choice footballer, and at times it has been like that season in the Under-23s when he just kept running beyond the last defender and beating the goalie one on one, over and over. Lately he’s looked in need of some new ideas, right at the moment when fatigue is making them harder to think up.

Dan James, by now, has been through all that and knows what to do. If you’re too tired to think, think less and do more. Admittedly that means James is still prone to those weird shots to the near post that always go over the bar, but he’s moved on from the days when that seemed like all he knew how to do. Now he knows that if you aim a shot across the goal, something will happen, like it did here after half-an-hour. Georginio Rutter, another player with moves not coming off, showed what it is to keep trying when swaying over the ball and turning in deep midfield gave him room to send James down the wing. Into the box went James, giving his touchpaper a twist before shooting low and in off a defender. The deflection was a big help because, like Meslier, Stoke goalie Daniel Iversen was having a big night. In stoppage time he stopped James from making it 2-0 by blocking a powerful shot with his face: he was not being beaten easily.

By that time Stoke were down to ten players but still sensing that a result was there for them, which kept them coming forward throughout the second half. The Potters had crept into ascendance by realising they could get quickly past Pat Bamford and Rutter’s tired press, and that Glen Kamara wasn’t enough to keep them away from Joe Rodon and Ethan Ampadu, where at last they met trouble. Then, after Farke replaced his front two with Mateo Joseph and Joel Piroe, and swapped Wilf Gnonto on for Summerville, United’s new problem was too much energy and enthusiasm, as now Joseph and Gnonto’s scoring senses were tingling and they were rushing forward every chance they got, giving Stoke too many chances to counter.

Joseph, in particular, looked brilliant; after scoring two at Chelsea he was first off the bench here, strong on the ball, and could have scored two again. Bamford and Rutter had been dragged into anonymity; Joseph, immediately, stood out as one of the best players on the pitch. The hitch that might keep him out of the starting eleven was that he possibly wasn’t supposed to be out there racing through on goal with a massive grin on his face. Farke welcomed the chances Leeds had but worried about the “greed” to create them, “transition, transition, transition,” because if you don’t score at the end of your counter attack, “you allow the opponent also to take part in the game”. Keep hold of the fucking ball, in other words, and I suspect Farke’s favourite moment of Joseph’s game will have been when he went down in Stoke’s half to win a stress-relieving free-kick.

Not that Farke wasn’t happy. “For me,” he said, “it’s the best win in 2024,” and remember, there have been ten of those in the league in that time, and one draw. Farke’s pleasure was, I think, the first inklings of a siege mentality beginning ahead of the promotion run-in. This win was in spite of the fixture list, the broadcast schedule, the fatigue, the expectations, and even the home crowd, who Farke described as going to Elland Road “for a cup of tea and a cake perhaps, instead of this explosion that we had against Leicester where everyone was on it.”

Farke realises, though, that the Champo can be as tiring to watch as it is to play. “You can’t expect that Elland Road is always such a firework that it was in the last game (against Leicester), because when you have 23 home games, plus cup games, if you would do this each and every game, then it’s more like a candle who burns from both sides. And probably in the end of the season no one shows up at Elland Road anymore,” because we’re all burnt out and melted into a waxy lump. It was okay to be off it for this game, because it was still enough, and the fans can save themselves for later, when: “it’s again Leeds against the world, then we need our supporters even a bit more.”

So Farke’s satisfaction was from the way Leeds, without being given any advantages, won this game anyway. It wasn’t Leicester, it wasn’t Chelsea, it didn’t explode, it was “another day in the office.” Keep a clean sheet, score a goal, bank three points, forget how it happened, concentrate on the next game. It was a tense Tuesday night against Stoke, who seemed weirdly pleased to only lose 1-0, which tells you something about the sort of game this was: a game you shouldn’t think about too much now it’s over. ⬢

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