For an hour Leeds United were terrific, but for half an hour they were horrific, but we do not have to lose the terrific behind the heavy sigh, tongue click, but. The first hour happened, and we should acknowledge it, just as the last half hour happened, and we should acknowledge that. It was, after all, decisive.
If only Leeds had been as decisive when they were playing well. This would be a different report, written in a different mood, read by a different audience, had Leeds done what their first hour’s performance deserved, and smacked the ball into Derby County’s net two, three, four times. People say you should make hay while the sun shines, and while there’s precious little sunlight on Hallowe’en, some friendly witch held back the moon long enough for us to have turned Tuesday night’s glimmers into Wednesday morning’s diamonds. Leeds ran away from her. Perhaps they thought she was their own shadow. We’ll come onto that scaredyness later.
We need to start with the first goal, that Thomas Christiansen said in his press conference before the game was important to score. He got some grief for this, but the full answer expanded on the point and it’s sound sense: score the first goal and don’t concede is advice as old as football, yelled by every coach at every team walking onto every pitch for 150 years, but it’s the opposite to what United have been doing. So it was fair for Christiansen to tell the press that he wants to see a back to basics approach: stop conceding first and chasing the game, instead score first and don’t concede. As an intention it’s flawless. It’s what every team wants.
It’s what Leeds got, too, which made my sly £2 bet on Leeds to score first very satisfying. It was Pierre-Michel Lasogga with it, supplied after Samuel Saiz got the ball from Ronaldo Vieira and did the twist outside Derby’s penalty area; Lasogga was in his favourite place in the box, from his favourite angle, and beat Scott Carson with a powerful low shot that curled away from the keeper and inside his near post.
Possession had come United’s way through three united instances of pressing Derby’s midfield, until eventually one of them gave up the ball to Vieira, and the energy with which Leeds set about dominating Derby brought to mind the game last Friday night, only this time it was different because it was Leeds doing everything good. What Sheffield United did to Leeds, Leeds were doing to Derby, and that seemed very Championship, a division that seems to be a circular game of weak punches and Chinese burns. Sheffield United, it’s worth noting, lost to QPR this night; QPR are twelfth, but in their previous game beat top of the table Wolves. Why does anyone expect this league to run to form, or make sense?
The only certainty is that when you’re winning a game, you have to make sure you win. That’s why Christiansen’s truism about scoring first is especially relevant in this division; as soon as a team has the slightest advantage, they defend it for all they’re worth. This was true of Leeds after going ahead against Derby; with Stuart Dallas diligently supported by Ezgjan Alioski at left-back, and Pontus Jansson more like his normal self alongside Matthew Pennington — Pontus even got a booking, which was something of a relief. Communication still seemed to be a problem, as if they don’t want to risk offending each other by shouting very loudly about something their teammate already knows, but there was no repeat of the shambolic moments against Sheffield United.
Besides, Leeds were on the attack most of the time, with Samuel Saiz, starting behind Lasogga, as ever the high bar of creativity. I swear one day he’ll sway through a defence from the halfway line to score, like Maradona against England in 1986 — I only hope it’s for us. With a goal lead, Saiz set the swaggering tone for those around him, so that even Kemar Roofe was an incisive part of good attacking football, so that Alioski, as well as helping Dallas, was finding fizzy crosses that Lasogga looked at longingly, from slightly too far away. Lasogga won headers but still looked like a man alone, not sure which direction to head the ball in, with teammates stood apart, not sure where he would head the ball. Like with Chris Wood, I think we need to forget about Lasogga’s head, and concentrate on the through balls and volleys he thrives on.
There was joy about the way Leeds were attacking, and it wasn’t just due to Saiz. Early in the second half a switched free-kick found Alioski out wide; he volleyed audaciously at the near top corner, and the ball would have gone right into it had Carson not saved. Saiz used the outside of his boot to screw a powerful cross onto Lasogga’s foot, but his shot went over the bar; he was offside, so my earlier comment about volleys still applies. There would have been bedlam had either of these, or a host of other difficult but finely crafted opportunities, hit the net; instead there was a rousing chorus of ‘We Are The Champions, Champions of Europe’, a sure sign that things at Elland Road were going well.
Until, after an hour, they weren’t. The flairful attacking play was great, but you longed for someone to just stick their laces through the ball and drive it past Carson. The longer that didn’t happen, the less sure Leeds looked, and a lack of confidence filtered through the team from front to back. Derby found they were able to hold the ball, without being pressed the way they were, and Leeds went into their shells, as if an hour of getting everything right needed more validation than a one goal lead.
The lead disappeared into the same defensive black hole in which Reading and Sheffield United found so much energy, and six league points; confident defending became frit backpeddling as Derby broke down their left, and with Luke Ayling absent presumed attacking, and Roofe unprepared for the chase to catch Forsyth, it was left to Pennington, Jansson and Dallas to stop the ball reaching Winnall; they didn’t, he scored. What had been a changing emphasis became a complete flip: with the scores level, Derby took command, and Leeds reverted to their meek worst.
Hadi Sacko, Pablo Hernandez and Jay-Roy Grot were sent on, but hardly got the ball in attack; Sacko contributed, but for Derby. With Ayling again absent from right-back, Sacko had a go at stopping Lawrence on the edge of United’s box; outside it, say most people with eyes, but inside according to the referee, who gave a penalty with which Winnall won the game.
Thomas Christiansen complained vociferously about this afterwards, and about a penalty not given when Alioski was grabbed and tossed to the floor when attacking a cross in the first half, but they were the complaints of a confused man, and hard done to. For an hour he’d been the coach delivering a perfect riposte to his critics. Thirty minutes later he was Darko Milanic walking. Perhaps he caught sight of the same tweet I did after the game, that pointed out this is Leeds United’s best start to a season for eight years, and felt like I did: like punching a wall.
Because it’s difficult to know what Christiansen can do about situations that are so obviously personality and character driven, short of resigning the job and placing Leeds United’s first team squad in the hands of a psychologist. It’s hard to argue with Christiansen about tactics, formation, selection or preparation when, for the first hour, Leeds United were the better side by a distance that was clear in every way but the scoreline. Even there, a one-nil win would have worked wonders. Two- or three-nil would not have flattered Leeds. An awful lot of this game was right.
But then a lot of this game was awful. And it came through no specific tactical switch from either coach, or an inciting moment that began a new phase. Leeds simply seemed to lose heart because they hadn’t scored again, while Derby gained confidence, probably from the same thing. Derby had savoir-faire; they knew what to do. Leeds had Samuel Saiz; he wasn’t enough.
Who we put around Saiz may have more influence than who the coach is. The lack of communication and the lack of leadership has the lack of Kyle Bartley, last season’s defensive hero, written all over it; but prising him away from Swansea, before he was injured, was beyond this club’s budget, a budget that favours players from below the radar, and below a certain cost threshold. That need not mean, though, that the team should lack leaders. The recent flurry of new contracts for existing players has been a method of securing exactly that. A new Pontus, Ayling or Dallas might be hard to find, but we’re making sure of keeping the ones we have here. They now need to keep their end of the bargain by asserting themselves and ensuring that any head dropping around them has its chin slapped upright again.
Thomas Christiansen is presiding over a team of waifs and strays, players spat out by Serie A, the Bundesliga or the Premier League, or tentatively trying to find their way towards those new heights. They’ve been brought together at Leeds and given a playing style and tactical plans that sometimes work, sometimes don’t; that’s on Christiansen, and Victor Orta above him. What nobody can give them is the heart, guts, desire and confidence to make the most of their chances and make their god damn mark.
One great hour is great, but it isn’t good enough. I don’t think the question that needs answering is, do we have the right coach? Or, do we have the right director of football? Or, do we have the right players? But rather, why the change, the blast from hot to cold? Answer that, and the rest might follow; and it might answer some of those preceding questions anyway. But that’s the first, before we get to any of that. This was terrific for an hour. What would it take for an extra thirty minutes? ◉
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(feature image by Jim Ogden)
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