Derby County are a terrible football team. Here’s how they played. Their defenders and Tom Huddlestone passed the ball around with their goalkeeper, trying to think of something to do. Then they gave the ball to Leeds. Again and again. I can’t remember seeing a professional team give the ball away so easily, to the point where it became funny.
Leeds either got or were given the ball and played with it either between the centre circle and Derby’s goal, creating long spells of pressure and trying to score, or between the centre circle and their own goal, where there was nobody but themselves and Jack Marriott. He would half-heartedly press Ben White, but decided his energy was better used standing still and berating his teammates for giving the ball away again. He was probably right; Ben White, like Derby’s team, was playing as if Marriott wasn’t there.
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The olés from the Leeds fans started after half an hour, and after Leeds had taken a very welcome lead on twenty minutes. Kalvin Phillips crossed a wide free-kick, Stuart Dallas shot, Kelle Roos saved, and the ball whacked Max Lowe’s legs and went in. Derby were unmoved, sticking to their plan of challenging Jaap Stam’s Reading as the most hilariously inept visitors to Elland Road, with the same devotion to fruitless sideways possession as Stam’s team, but without the ability to do it properly. All their fans had left were songs about Frank Lampard.
At least they could also look forward to equalising. That was inevitable after the 70th minute, when a few things were happening. Chris Martin replaced Marriott and now Derby had a striker who gave a shit. Helder Costa and Barry Douglas came on for Leeds and made the attacking and defending worse on both wings, at the same time as Derby started to benefit from the law that no team can be as completely bad or as completely good as Derby and Leeds had been for ninety consecutive minutes. And Mateusz Klich missed the penalty that would have won the match.
Pat Bamford won it, summing up his match in the process. A through ball put him clear to score but a bad first touch made that impossible. Then with determination and skill Bamford forced his way into the penalty area anyway, and forced the Derby defenders to foul him. Everything about it was excellent, as Bamford was all game, but for two things: he’d made a bad decision that made everything hard, and the ball was not in the net.
You could say that about almost everything Bamford did in the game, like not throwing himself at a cross to score in the first five minutes, trying to lob the keeper instead of shooting past him, shooting from outside the box when he could have rolled the ball inside it to Ezgjan Alioski, hitting the post from three yards out in the first minutes of the second half. Each time there was something very good to praise. But each time there was some mistake that meant he didn’t score. And that locked Bamford into a spiral of atonement, trying each time to make up for last time, and each time making it a little bit worse.
At least this time he’d won a penalty that Klich could score, only Mateusz managed to sum up the entire team’s performance with one stroke of his right boot. It was a simple chance to win the game and Klich took it calmly, correctly, exactly as rehearsed, exactly as has succeeded plenty of times for his previous clubs, for his country, and for Leeds last week. And up until the moment when the ball crossed the line everything was perfect, but it crossed the byline, not the goal line, a foot wide.
Klich hid his distraught face inside his shirt, and we all wanted to, because we all knew we’d be better hiding our faces in our shirts for the next twenty minutes than watching the inevitable unfolding. The missed chances had started the nerves calmed by the early goal thrumming again, and Klich’s miss amplified 34,700 erratically beating hearts. When Derby won a wide free-kick in the last minute, Elland Road didn’t sound like a stadium watching its team winning. The eerie noise was of 34,700 people turning to their neighbour, or to their chosen deity, and whispering, ‘They’re going to cross and score.’
They didn’t score, but that was just the fates toying with us. Derby scored in stoppage time when Douglas, brought on to defend United’s left, left United’s left undefended, trotting lamely behind Phillips who was racing back to prevent Lowe’s cross. That fell to Chris Martin, who scored by taking his shot early, but then again, we’d been waiting for it.
When the final whistle boos were subsiding and an angry fan was confronting Phillips at the front of the Kop, Elland Road, gleaming beneath the last brilliant sunshine of the summer, didn’t feel like the stadium of a club that is top of the league. I wrote last week about how Leeds needed to win this game to defeat the hangover persisting from the play-off semi-final in May; they didn’t, and the recriminations were an ongoing consequence of that dark night. Leeds have now won just one of their last eight home games, and the atmosphere around Elland Road won’t change until those results change. Leeds have won their last six away games, but Elland Road won’t feel like the home of champions-elect until that team shows itself for its home supporters.
But what can change, and what should change, and what will Marcelo Bielsa change, when his team are top of the league, and creating enough chances to win every game 8-0? Eddie Nketiah in place of Pat Bamford is the obvious call, and now feels like the right call, even if it’s cruel. Bamford’s contribution outside the box can’t be denied, but nor can his ineptitude inside it. Leeds need Nketiah’s carefree, clinical attitude to making scoring easy in the first hour of games, when Leeds are on top and creating for fun, and they need Bamford’s hard work and intelligence for the end of of games like Saturday’s, when he can keep the ball away from our goal without the pressure of trying to put it in theirs.
But we had come into this game expecting Helder Costa would finally start ahead of Jack Harrison, and Bielsa, typically, resisted the change. For a revolutionary he’s tough to budge, so we know already how the Peacocks’ approach will change: it won’t. Leeds United will continue testing their faith, their nerve, their trust and their control. All the things, in fact, that failed them on Saturday. They’re our most potent weapons under Bielsa, and our most glaring weaknesses. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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