Never let it be said that Leeds United fans are not fair. When referee Jeremy Simpson gave a dubious free kick United’s way, after giving every other dubious thing to Brentford, the crowd sang that he didn’t know what he was doing, even now that his incompetence had, for once, gone for Leeds. A bad ref is a bad ref, and nobody wants a bad ref to ruin a good game. Jeremy Simpson is a bad ref.
So when Neal Maupay scored Brentford’s unfair penalty and ran to taunt the South Stand, and was pelted with every object the fans there had to hand, that was probably fair too. Missiles are on trend right now, first a cabbage at Steve Bruce in midweek, and then a ‘marital aid’ at Brighton on Friday night (although it’s beyond me why you have to be married to buy a dildo; whatever his relationship status, George Graham bought David Robertson anyway). It’s a trend that can only end in tears and ought not to be condoned, but the debris was raining on Maupay because he was like one of those thrill seekers who can’t resist driving towards erupting volcanoes; he brought it on himself. He could have been booked for his provocation, but Jeremy Simpson would have had to approach the South Stand to do it, and his one good decision of the day was to judge that those fans were provoked enough already.
Instead it was Pontus Jansson who assumed control and restored order, gently but firmly ushering Maupay and friends away from danger. That was just one of many instances of outstanding leadership from Jansson, from his superb control of United’s pressured back line, to his towering late header that equalised the score, to swearing on television and refusing to apologise, instead calling the referee a thief. “Do you think I should be happy?” he bellowed in the face of Sky Sports’ hapless reporter, who quickly shifted the conversation onto what he thought would be safer ground, although for a moment after being asked about impending fatherhood I thought Pontus was going to deck the fellow for talking about his wife.
In all these ways and more Jansson had an excellent afternoon, blossoming in the new senior role that he’s given himself this season. He has said he took some decisions in the summer, about being a better teammate by being a better person, and not making himself the centre of attention; he said it was to do with growing older, but I wondered if it’s to do with his desire to become permanent captain of Sweden. From my seat as an armchair psychologist I’ll now throw in approaching dad status as a factor, and from our vantage point further into the season we can add that Leeds United are building a proper challenge for promotion that will be helping to focus his thoughts. Jansson wants to play in the Premier League before he ends his career with Malmo; that’s the goal. Winning promotion to the Premier League with Leeds United is his dream. This season dreams might come true, and Jansson is recognising, after the World Cup made him a latecomer to Marcelo Bielsa’s revolution, that the more serious he is, the more true that dream could be.
Once upon a time Jansson might have whinged about Liam Cooper’s mistake, that allowed Ollie Watkins through on Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who shaped his body as he dived at Watkins’ feet away from the player to avoid all contact, but not before said player had decided to send his body crashing to the floor through Peacock-Farrell’s dive anyway. There’d been an hour of the referee giving everything Brentford’s way until then, so Watkins could judge that going down was laying a pretty safe bet in his favour, and he was right. Instead of whinging, Jansson did what he did all game; he sorted the mistake out, going up the other end and meeting Ezgjan Alioski’s dangerous free-kick with a carefully placed header into the net.
He had a lot of sorting out to do. Brentford, for all their help from the referee, were good; they pressed Cooper from the first minute, and with a fast front three, and attacking full-backs, they were as dangerous a team as Leeds have played. At left-back Stuart Dallas was in pain and out of place, but coping; Cooper and Luke Ayling were off their game. Ayling in particular was struggling to complete a pass, although he did play a through ball late in the game with a disguised backheel, so he’s not completely broken. Then he was sent off in the last minute of stoppage time for an innocuous trip that was deemed worth a second yellow card, because the referee is broken somewhere deep within his rotten soul.
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That Leeds kept Brentford down to one goal, and that only a penalty, was due to a couple of good saves from Peacock-Farrell, Jansson’s aforementioned leadership, and Kalvin Phillips, who kept popping up in surprising areas of defensive midfield to crunch a player or intercept a pass. He also sent one delicious through ball to Jack Harrison, a drilled volley from left-back to right-wing, but most of his best work was defensive. Leeds were creaking under pressure, but covered each other and should have earned a clean sheet. Teamwork makes the dream work, you know.
Teamwork is a bit of a failing of United’s at the moment, though. Leeds are still playing well but something was a bit off in this game, as it was against Birmingham City and Hull City. Some of the attacking crispness was missing, and it’s not just because we’re without Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe. I think it’s down to communication, not in terms of actually shouting at each other, but of reading one another’s intent. Several times a pass intended for one player would be intercepted by another teammate, thinking it was meant for him, stretching to meet it and losing possession; the mutual understanding has dropped from the high standards at the start of the season.
That could just be a product of the time elapsed since Bielsa’s revolutionary pre-season boot camp. For six weeks before the Stoke City match all the players did was rehearse, so they were immersed in their roles when they took to the pitch for the first game of the season. The season itself doesn’t allow for that sort of intensity, even with Bielsa’s long work days — players have to do recovery work, some are injured, there’s an opponent to prepare for, time is limited between games. Burnout over 46 games is this season’s fear, but the bigger problem might be whether a 46 game season gives Bielsa enough time to burn the players out in the first place, or keep them trained up to the levels demanded. I wonder how the local residents of Thorp Arch would feel about overnight sessions?
Another aspect might be that Bielsa just needs to review his team. He has stuck devotedly to the same lineup, injuries and suspensions permitting, but the closing stages against Brentford brought changes, and persuasive arguments. Jack Clarke made his debut as a substitute for the last twenty minutes, and made a positive impression on the right wing; while it might be a bit too soon to suggest him as a starter, by moving to the left wing, Jack Harrison looked reborn. He wasn’t only taking on two or three players, he was beating them, finding angles for dangerous left footed crosses. Behind him, moved to left-back, Alioski had the relief of release from the offside trap — although I only counted one transgression in this game — and the advantage of starting his committed defensive running much nearer danger. He didn’t have to run seventy yards to get a foot in; the foot was in, and then the ball was forward to Harrison, with Alioski a dangerous support act, changing the dynamic down Brentford’s right.
Replacing Samu Saiz with Lewis Baker had an impact too, not because Baker was particularly brilliant — he was decent, and nearly won the game when he headed Harrison’s cross just wide in stoppage time — but because Tyler Roberts began playing outside and across the width of the penalty area where Saiz had been, and causing Brentford problems, putting in passes and crosses to… well, to nobody, because the downside of Roberts’ new impetus was that we needed two of him for it to be effective. But it was a change, a demonstration of other possibilities.
Bielsa will have taken note. Despite his rigorous insistence on his chosen eleven, he has not been completely unbending this season, and has some decisions to make before the next match. Adam Forshaw was always supposed to play ahead of Mateusz Klich, and although the latter distinguished himself by playing with one contact lens for fifteen minutes — I wear contact lenses, and do not underrate this achievement — Forshaw is back now, and ready. Luke Ayling will be suspended, so perhaps Jamie Shackleton will be back. Although Asa Jansson has followed the fine leadership of her husband by scheduling her child’s birth for the international break — thanks Asa, and good health! — Sky Sports might dish out a ban for Pontus’s comments anyway, meaning another defensive change. Sorry, not Sky, the Football League — I forget who is in charge sometimes. Hernandez, Roofe and Gaetano Berardi should all be available again; Berardi will take over from Jansson, but will Roofe and Hernandez automatically return for Roberts and Harrison? Will Barry Douglas’ injury mean a replacement left-back is still required — either Dallas, who Bielsa admires, or on this showing, Alioski? Will Saiz continue in his lonesome search for sparks, or might someone more pragmatic take over at no.10 — if not Baker, then maybe Hernandez?
The thing about all these questions is that, despite just two wins in seven, Leeds are still just two points from the top of the league, and the possibilities are still exciting. We’ve come through a tough spell without key players, still well placed, still good, still better than we expected, or hoped, and still fighting — mostly, this season, against Millwall and Brentford, in dugouts. We’re still looking up, at tall Pontus, the leader; and still looking forward, to where dreams might be coming true. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)