Leeds Rhinos in the Challenge Cup in Doncaster, Leeds United U23s on the coast at Scarborough, and Leeds United’s first eleven, or something like it, in Beeston, where Elland Road, pre-makeover, looked reassuringly as grey and beige as it ever did.
Not in the players’ tunnel, mind. Before the game Snapchat showed us what teams will be walking past on their way to the pitch this season: a wall-sized mural of Leeds players striking vaguely threatening poses, or poses against vague threats, whichever. Choosing whose images to feature, with weeks of the transfer deadline to go and the starting line-up against Bolton Wanderers not yet seen, must have required some brave decision making, or an intense game of stick the pin in the squad list. It’ll be a bold centre-half who signs for Leeds United now, knowing he’ll have to walk past an enormous image of frowning Pontus Jansson before every home game.
Thomas Christiansen is sticking to the line that the players have time in training to impress him and get into the team to play Bolton, but there were strong clues against Oxford. The defence, the area of the team that wisdom suggests requires the most cohesion, and the area of the team that will start the season with a big Bartley ’n’ Jansson gap in the middle, was Janssonless, hinting at practice for Liam Cooper and Matthew Pennington; unless we sign somebody, it’ll be those two for the first two games while Jansson is suspended.
When the substitutions started in the second half, only Luke Ayling was taken off, replaced by Vurnon Anita, and that only for the last quarter of an hour, indicating the back line has been settled upon and is in motion. Around the pitch, the first three changes weren’t until after the hour, the next three not until the last fifteen minutes, creating what felt like a clear distinction between the players Christiansen expects to be spending most time on the pitch, and those who will need to work to get involved.
Which is a bit of a worry, because it was the substitutes who livened this game up. There wasn’t much wrong with the first hour, but Leeds didn’t look like a team at their best. Eunan O’Kane was in one of his more dominant moods, but couldn’t get the same level out of Kalvin Phillips and Pablo Hernandez next to him; Pablo, at one point, volleyed a Michael Brownesque pass high towards the East Stand that drew a collective, ‘Huh?’ from all around. The defence, with Felix Weidwald behind, didn’t have too much to do, so all we can really say is that Matthew Pennington looks good, and Liam Cooper still needs to stop with those long cross-field passes to nobody. Just give it to a midfielder!
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Up front, Ezgjan Alioski, the great Macedonian hope of preseason, was quieter than his hype but combative, and given that Leeds fans always like a player who is willing to kick people, to get that in a flash-haired winger feels like we’re being spoilt. Chris Wood should have scored, and I mean, he really really should have scored; he had the ball about three yards from goal with the keeper scrambling, and missed, a moment LUTV have mercifully left out of their brief highlights.
Kemar Roofe did score, and had a good game, as was befitting given this was the inaugural Kemar Roofe Invitational Trophy Match, arranged in honour of his transfer from Oxford last summer. Eunan O’Kane won the ball in midfield, carried it forward, and slid a nice pass into the penalty area to meet Roofe’s run from the wing; Roofe feinted and rolled the ball inside the defender and shot inside the near post. It was cool work from both, especially Roofe, whose role in Ayling’s goal against Borussia Mönchengladbach was also calm and skilful, neat control and a slick pass in a fast one-two.
That didn’t herald an avalanche of goals against League One’s Oxford, who looked more than competent in what looked from a distance like our new away kit, while good old boy Pep Clotet patrolled the technical area in what looked from a distance like a beige velour tracksuit, but was actually chinos and a pullover pulled over a pale blue shirt and gold tie. For about fifteen concerning minutes in the second half Oxford were actually the better side, controlling the match while Leeds’ midfield chased them, and grumbles were setting in until the changes.
Hadi Sacko always brightens things up, and is still wing-walking between glorious victory and glorious failure; he runs, he terrifies, he still can’t cross properly, he still shoots when he should pass and he passes when he should shoot. It was Samuel Saiz who stood out though. Small and glowing like a newly minted David Batty, straight from 1988, he showed a speed of thought and invention beyond anything from the first hour. Pass to Wood? Yes, and if that means a sudden chip into space that neither Wood nor his markers have seen, that’s what Saiz would do. It wasn’t just the speed of his thought, but the things he was coming up with; another comparison would be with Pablo Hernandez at the start of last season, when he was passing the ball in ways I’d forgotten were possible in the Championship.
Mateusz Klich only got twelve minutes, but that was enough to for us to get higher on inhaling some of that new player smell, and for him to set up a goal for Stuart Dallas. Like a deeper and more careful Saiz, his early pass wide for Dallas was characteristic, and with Gaetano Berardi overlapping to distract the defenders, Dallas cut inside and curled the ball inside the post and scored a lovely goal. It wasn’t the first time Dallas has scored that goal in preseason. I’ve always been a bit unsure about Dallas, unable to work out exactly what he’s best at, but if that finally turns out to be curling the ball inside goalkeepers’ posts, that’ll be a good enough answer for me.
Will it be enough to get him on the pitch from the start against Bolton, though? Was any of it enough for any of them? The defence picks itself at the moment, as much due to a lack of depth as anything. Neither one keeper or the other has firmly staked a claim, and that decision feels big: Robert Green may well be off in search of first team football if he doesn’t start the season, leaving us reliant on Weidwald adapting to the Championship, quick.
Wood will play, although Caleb Ekuban looked a good stand-in, but then it’s all up in midfield. Christiansen has options aplenty, but hasn’t had the time in preseason to weigh them all up, which might be why O’Kane, Phillips and Hernandez got the most time against Oxford: they’re the best known quantities, although the same could be said of Liam Bridcutt — on among the last batch of subs — and Ronaldo Vieira, who wasn’t used.
It’s among the unknowns that the excitement lies, unless that’s just natural new-signing bias, the assumption that they’re great in the absence of any evidence that they’re not. On Saturday night, Samuel Saiz was my new favourite player. Me and Thomas Christiansen probably need a few more weeks to decide if that’s really the case. ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)