Leeds United 1-1 Nottingham Forest: Decisions

In 2018-19 articles, Free, Leeds United, Leeds United Match Reports 2018/19 by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

It’s about time Leeds United profited from one of the mediocre officials that Shaun Harvey allows to roam the Championship, ruining football matches. Kemaradona’s goal pays back a tiny slice of the balance owed to Leeds for injustices dating back beyond the 1960s; perhaps we can chalk this one next to the time Raul punched the ball past Nigel Martyn to help Real Madrid, with Nottingham Forest manager Aitor Karanka in their side, beat Leeds in the Bernabeu. “There is no way that I touched the ball with my hand,” Raul said at the time. “I don’t know what I hit the ball with, but it was not with my hand.” At least Kemar Roofe owned up.

Leeds didn’t even get all they should from the furore that followed his equaliser. As Forest’s players surrounded the referee, slapping their arms and heads like an outraged troupe of morris dancers, Pontus Jansson grabbed the ball to take it back to the centre circle; Michael Dawson objected, and there was a tussle that Jansson won. That wasn’t enough for Dawson, who sprinted after Jansson, demanded he turn and face, then threw hands at him; to be fair Roofe punched the ball harder than Dawson hit Jansson, but if the referee’s back hadn’t been turned, there was enough in it for a red card. Like Serge Canos of Brentford, Dawson got away it; and they call Leeds United the cheats.

It was all exactly what Leeds United needed, and it’s a shame it didn’t all happen much earlier in the game, perhaps before Leeds conceded another stupid goal from an avoidable corner. There’s nothing useful I can say about how Jack Robinson gave Forest the lead. Leeds United either need to learn how to defend set-pieces, or get back to the days earlier in the season, when we looked like scoring four goals before even conceding a corner.

The equaliser brought fire to the game that I thought, hoped, prayed might be more than Forest could withstand. The urgency that came after the drama, although it was building for a while, wasn’t there at the start and hasn’t been for a while. And it’s hurting Leeds. Recent performances have featured two crucial problems: a lack of composure in attack, and too much composure at the back.

I think the second problem is more severe than the first. There’s a basic principle behind the football Marcelo Bielsa has Leeds playing. The central defenders look forward, aiming to get the ball into dangerous areas, and that usually means picking a wing to attack. If the route down that wing gets blocked, the ball should either go back, or preferably be switched quickly to the other wing, where there’s space. That makes the decisions that Jansson and Liam Cooper make, in conjunction with Kalvin Phillips and Bailey Peacock-Farrell, an important part of what happens further ahead of them.

Those decisions take much too long. At one point Luke Ayling was swinging his arms frantically in space on the right wing, on the halfway line. The ball, from the left, was passed square to Cooper, who let it roll slowly across his body, took a touch, waited, then squared to Jansson. Jansson let the ball trundle towards him, took a touch, and finally passed it wide to Ayling. By now the Forest eleven — they’d scored by this point, so they were all behind the ball, salivating for opportunities for wasting time — had all shuffled over, and the opportunities ahead of Ayling had all closed up. So he passed it square again to Jansson, who took his two or three touches again before trying the other wing.

I don’t know if Gaetano Berardi’s instinctive desire to kick everything that comes near him as hard as possible is a factor, but with him in the team earlier in the season, these actions were happening with much less pondering; as they should. The idea is to move the opposition about until there’s a gap and you can bash the ball forward to where it’s dangerous, not to take a few touches and idly size them up until they’re bored of waiting. It took until around ten minutes before half-time for Forshaw to take a grip on things and start speeding up the play, but then he came up against the obstacle at the other end of the field; in this case that Pablo Hernandez, after his brilliance against Ipswich, could hardly pass the ball.

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Bielsa had tried to correct some of the attacking shortcomings by using some of the line-up that ended so well against Ipswich Town in midweek, leaving Samu Saiz on the bench and relying on Forshaw to link Phillips to Mateusz Klich. It didn’t work. In the first half Forshaw received 41 passes, but Klich only received fourteen. That meant Roofe was only given the ball eleven times, never in the penalty area, only three times in the middle rather than wide or even in his own half. The less said about Hernandez’s distribution the better. Ezgjan Alioski, as ever, was busy but confused.

Part of the solution was to bring Saiz onto the field and get the right reaction; rather than petulant he was imperious, determined to give the team what he’d sat and watched it missing for more than hour. When taking the ball between the lines, he turned and saw triangles; when wanting the ball between the lines, he moved and made triangles. The goal came from one of several short, chipped diagonal passes Saiz was landing on Forest’s goalline, the only player all game thinking triangularly.

Another part of the solution was Jack Clarke. While Saiz borrowed Bielsa’s set square, Clarke took to the field with Bielsa’s give-no-fucks attitude, and had narrowly missed by aiming a drive at the top corner within moments of coming on. All his other aims were just as targeted and dangerous; beat a player, cross the ball, kick it as hard as possible as near as possible to Forest’s goal. To Forest, it was like someone had dropped a match on dry grass in summer, and was now hanging around to dance barefoot in the flames.

Clarke’s confidence extended across the full width of the pitch and brought Roofe to life; after waiting for the ball all evening, he now went looking for it out wide, knowing Clarke would move into the central striker’s position, taking defenders with him; Roofe didn’t just go looking but hunting, tackling and fighting, and became three times the player he was before Clarke was on the pitch. Hernandez took chances to swap sides with Clarke, and with Forest dropping deep, it was hard to say exactly what our attacking formation was, as Saiz, Clarke, Roofe, Hernandez, Klich, Forshaw, Stuart Dallas and Alioski swarmed around the penalty area. They seemed to know what they were doing, though, and were doing it as fast as possible, always in dangerous places.

This was Leeds United as it’s meant to be under Marcelo Bielsa, not the overthought and overwrought angst of the first hour. It only yielded one goal, perhaps a continuation of the inefficient faults Bielsa has identified, although it didn’t create many chances, either. But it created pressure, on Nottingham Forest rather than ourselves, and it’s frustrating that United have to be under pressure and chasing a game to chase it like this. If Leeds played the first half hour of every match the way they played the last half hour of this one, they’d win every game 4-0 by half-time; the way it looked, a few months ago, like they would.

That way, we wouldn’t need the so-called help of the match officials to get a result. And as a last word to that point, if anybody thinks Leeds United won’t be paying for getting such a high-profile televised decision for the rest of the season, if not for the rest of the club’s existence, think again. The key is to raise our game so that other people’s decisions are no longer decisive, and our football is. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)