Football has come back mid-pandemic with a vengeance and it’s everywhere you turn, more than it was. Fans’ enforced distancing from individual games seats them at the internet, the front row for all the games at once.
Tuesday’s Leeds United match was behind closed doors but not apart from the world. The first flurry of action came before the teams were even announced at Elland Road. In Berkshire, Bryan Mbeumo headed Brentford’s corner over the line to put them ahead of Reading; in Shepherd’s Bush, two minutes after kick-off, Jordan Hugill headed a deep cross into the bottom corner and QPR led Fulham.
In Utah, Harrogate-born Rachel Daly, a former Leeds United player from a family of fans, controlled and shot an equaliser against Utah Royals for Houston Dash, the team she captains. That was a minute before half-time; a minute after it she put them ahead, a clean headed connection on a perfectly flighted corner.
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By now the teams were warming up on the pitch at Elland Road, Leeds unchanged, Luton Town frantically adjusting for late injuries. The next thirty minutes were tough on Yorkshire. Harry Arter’s opportunist shot bounced up into the goal off QPR keeper Liam Kelly’s gloves. Daly thought she had a hat-trick but the referee thought not, because she’d blocked a clearance by Utah’s keeper. Shea Groom increased Houston’s lead to 3-1, but Utah pulled one back just before Josh Dasilva streaked through Reading’s defence, following up the rebound of his own shot to double Brentford’s lead.
Five minutes later, in the last moments of the game, Utah grabbed an equaliser and Houston Dash posted the final score on Twitter with an asterisk, *3-3, believing Daly deserved her own three goals and a win. In the 96th minute of Brentford’s game, Joel Valencia’s swerving shot made the final score 3-0, while at Loftus Road Cyrus Christie hit the bottom corner from long range to give Fulham a 2-1 win. The final whistle blew there around the time the first half was ending in Leeds, where United were trying to bury Luton beneath a furious barrage of useless corner kicks.
It was only the Peacocks now, and the Hatters, and not Liam Cooper. Injured defending a corner he was out of the game, but United’s defenders were soon having an irrelevant night anyway. At half-time Marcelo Bielsa took off Cooper’s replacement, Gaetano Berardi, sending Leeds to solve their problems with Ben White as their only centre-back. Luton counter attacked and their own substitute, Harry Cornick, fired into the top corner without mercy and without beating White.
That made the problem more difficult but didn’t affect Bielsa’s proposed solution. Only he would try to win a game like this. White was joined by Luke Ayling and sometimes Kalvin Phillips at the back. Everybody else went forward trying to score two, with two wingers on each wing, Pat Bamford and Tyler Roberts near partners in the centre, Mateusz Klich, then Pablo Hernandez, deeper, starting every move.
It’s a beautiful idea of football but it isn’t pretty. Bielsa’s concept is superiority, not intricacy, so Jackie Harrison and Ezgjan Alioski were used as crowbars on the left, not penknives. Leaning on their heavy possession should splinter Luton’s defence, and did, and Alioski spotted the wide crack and didn’t miss, passing to the penalty spot where Stuart Dallas had a moment to control and equalise.
United’s audacious battering continued, including one spell when Helder Costa, Roberts and Bamford looked ready to pass all night along the right of Luton’s penalty area until the defence wilted and let them in. The trouble was, the defence was not wilting.
Luton should be goners at the foot of the Championship, but that has become an even more desperate place than before the pandemic began, now that nobody can give guarantees about the future of League One, or the teams caught in it, or what trouble Wigan Athletic’s administration will cause. Nathan Jones helped Luton up from League Two almost to the Championship before he got giddy and out of his depth at Stoke; sometimes a team and a manager belong together, and since he’s gone back to work with the core of that promoted team — Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu came up with them from non-league — Luton have been causing havoc at the bottom of the table. Beating Leeds would have put them level with Huddersfield and Hull; a point would put them a point behind.
Jones had drilled them into a stifling low block that meant Leeds needed those four attacking wingers to have a hope of finding space, and he gave brave instructions to his forwards so White always needed help at the back. Pre-match practice apparently extended to Jones revisiting his GCSE Spanish so he had some insults ready for Pablo Hernandez at the end, but his goalkeeper Simon Sluga was embracing his schmaltzy inspiration. Jones promised he would pay for Sluga’s Covid-delayed wedding if he kept a clean sheet, and that Hollywood romance made every save and clearance resound with the name of his betrothed, projecting a vision of her smiling through glycerine tears beneath Elland Road’s Klieg lights.
Ah yes, the lights. Luton were resolute but Leeds were strong and should have beaten them. Harrison’s cross accused Bamford of being a striker but he denied everything, slumping to the ground beneath the ball he should have headed into the net. In the 96th minute Alioski made a similar slander against Costa and he refuted it, the ball bouncing off the top of his head while Alioski fell to his knees and pounded the grass.
Bamford and Costa both indicated the glare of the West Stand floodlights had deceived them, a cruel complaint when Bielsa is your coach. He once had plug sockets replaced at Thorp Arch to ensure their equidistance and has explained that his illicit scouting of opponents was intended to settle his anxiety more than to discover secrets. He brought a set square to work on his first day. Now his own players are finding details that despite his compulsions he has missed, and the studies and repairs involved in adjusting the Holbeck illuminations will occupy the next week.
What else will? The end of Jean-Kevin Augustin’s loan contract will, as fans try to decide whether a duff hamstring is a greater impediment to diving headers than floodlights. Luton’s defeat at home to Reading on Saturday will be due to their exhausting effort against Leeds and will be a bitter aftertaste in West Yorkshire.
And on Wednesday evening Nottingham Forest’s game at home to Bristol City, followed by West Bromwich Albion going to Sheffield Wednesday, will adjust our Tuesday retrospect again. Leeds against Luton had dimensions beyond its own closed doors, and the Peacocks could go to Blackburn on Saturday with a bigger lead at the top than after beating Fulham. At the weekend it still goes on: Brentford and Wigan, Fulham and Birmingham City, West Brom and Hull; the world still going round, the ball still devastating to carbon-arc dreams. We must wait to the end to find out whose. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)