It was about time Leeds United drew a game, something we haven’t tried since the early nil-nils against Preston and Fulham. Those games feel like they were played in another season, as our form has swung from one extreme to another since. Some equilibrium was overdue, if not some calm.
Those early home draws were frustrating, as we began to see the attacking possibilities that Samu Saiz, in tandem with Pablo Hernandez and Ezgjan Alioski, might be bringing. This home draw with Aston Villa was deflating, because it came from a winning position, while those attacking qualities remained stubbornly in the realm of the possible rather than the actual. A cutting edge is still a problem.
Leeds had the better chances, though. They took a deserved lead around the middle of the first half, with a rarity from a set-piece. Hernandez dipped his corner before the front post, where Pontus Jansson dived forward and headed the ball backward, over his shoulder and past Sam Johnstone. As Thomas Christiansen celebrated, he searched his bench, presumably for Gianni Vio, the set piece architect; the runs of Luke Ayling and Liam Cooper, springing from behind Jansson and dragging defenders away, looked calculated to give Pablo and Pontus the room to connect. Pontus, connecting with his inner fighter again, connected with the South Stand, prolonging the celebrations and revelling in the moment.
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Jansson was good all night, something that can be measured by his defensive headers: when he’s hitting the centre circle from the penalty spot, he’s on his game. That simple commitment to heading the ball further, kicking it harder, and winning every tackle was repeated by all United’s players, who were taking determined advantage of a first half in which Aston Villa were under strength and out of sorts. Alioski in particular pounded the yards at right-back as he and Ayling ganged up on Adomah; when they play like this, Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips only lack maturity to be truly excellent; out wide, Gaetano Berardi didn’t have much to do keeping Robert Snodgrass quiet, which at least reduced the bizarre booing heard whenever Snoddy, one of the best pre-Saiz players of our recent dark times, had the ball.
The advantage wasn’t destined to last through the second half, as Steve Bruce kicked Aston Villa out of their changing room early, almost interrupting the half-time entertainment being had with two Norwegians, part of the fortunate few whose travel plans were not ruined when this game was moved to a Friday night. Villa began to play, and play at Leeds’ end of the pitch, bringing Jack Grealish and Henri Lansbury off the bench to boost their midfield.
United’s aggression was redirected from attack to defence, although they got the ball in the net again when Cooper headed in Alioski’s free-kick. That was disallowed for offside. They should have had the ball in the net before then: Cooper had brought the ball out of defence and played a good pass to Saiz, in space wide on the right. His low cross landed on the six yard line but evaded Alioski, Caleb Ekuban and Kemar Roofe as the permutations flickered through their brains like data readouts on a 1980s computer, and their legs jerked towards the ball like malfunctioning 1980s robotics.
Space and time to play were hard to find for Saiz, who was closely watched by Aston Villa, and suffered when Hernandez was lost from the second half through injury. In the first half Saiz had looked to Pablo to unlock the space he needed. Roofe was energetic playing wide, but couldn’t offer the same invention, so on the rare occasions Saiz got the ball he seized the opportunity with all his might. That translated into trying to beat every Villa defender and score himself, when he needed to relax and play a calmer ball, not forcing every bit of possession into a goalscoring chance. That said, whenever he does get the ball, my Pavlovian response has become to say aloud, ‘Score from here, Samu!’ even when he’s next to our own corner flag. But it’s not like he can hear me, so it’s not my fault.
You might as well blame me for Villa’s equaliser as anybody on the pitch, though, because it’s hard to find fault from a Leeds point of view. Villa switched play to the left wing, and as Neil Taylor approached goal, first Phillips and then Jansson made strong attempts to win the ball. It ran loose and Lansbury collected it between Vieira and Roofe, neither of whom could have done anything except hack him down and gamble on the card, and before Cooper could reach him Lansbury hit a low shot between a fully extended Felix Wiedwald and his post. Sometimes the way the ball rolls means the other team score and there’s nothing you can do. Sometimes, like this time, football is just really annoying.
There were twenty minutes left, and although Villa were the better team, there was no repeat of the late implosions seen against Sheffield United, Derby or Brentford, when Leeds allowed narrow disadvantages to become decisive deficits. Leeds were committed and aggressive until the end, but as players tired their replacements dulled our counter-attacking chances; Ekuban was replaced by Hadi Sacko, then Jay-Roy Grot had a little piece of stoppage time, if only to give our defenders a target with their clearances. Without Pierre-Michel Lasogga or Stuart Dallas available, Christiansen was short of match winners from the bench, but had plenty of game savers on the pitch, who secured the point.
That it came from a much better performance than we were seeing a few weeks ago, and that this was the third game played at that level since the international break, almost makes up for the disappointment of not taking all three points. We can at least take this as another sign of the restoration of parity between Leeds United and their hopeful play-off peers, after being beaten by Sheffield United, Derby and Brentford had made the top-six look more distant than it ever should. From that same group Middlesbrough and Aston Villa have now been outplayed, if not for two full games, enough for positive results.
The team needs more: more firepower in attack, more balance in defence, more options on the bench. The only way we’ll get those things is by finding new players. But what we’ve found enough of, now, is fight and spirit and desire, values we’d worried were absent when the flair ran out. Leeds United might lack the quality to win promotion this season, but they’re not lacking the spleen to give it a bloody good go. ◉
(feature image by Jim Ogden)
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