A year ago the Carabao Cup was the first time we fell in love with Samuel Saiz, Ezgjan Alioski and Caleb Ekuban, and this game with Bolton Wanderers was a chance to find some new flames among the new signings and youth players showing for the first time.
Instead, the first interest was in the players Marcelo Bielsa chose to keep from the two league wins. Luke Ayling, Kalvin Phillips and Samu Saiz would not have been anybody’s idea of the spine of a side even three months ago, but they were in place to ensure standards and talent were still of the highest, while the debutants and kids around them tried to climb.
And Pontus Jansson. He returned from the World Cup and a summer holiday like an iron man in desperate search of oil; creaking and clanking after Clayton Donaldson, he made several trips to the bench for sachets of energy powder and drinks, and it wasn’t only his body that was weak; he looked like he was remembering how to play. So this game will have done him good, but he probably needs a couple more like it before he’s fully Jansson again.
It was fortunate that he could rely on Kalvin Phillips to manage him through it, something else we wouldn’t have said last season. Flitting between midfield and defence like a moonbeam on a pond, Phillips waved Jansson forward with the ball and covered him, then ordered him back when it was time to defend again, all part of his new role as Bielsa’s most important player. Phillips is playing like one of those fly-zapping blue lights in a chip shop, cleansing the air so Saiz can cook his chips to golden perfection.
Phillips looks newly confident, too. Last season he would do things as if he wasn’t sure he was making the right decision, but the most demanding coach in world football has somehow given Kalvin faith in his own choices. Phillips used to pass to the goalkeeper as if it was a last resort, as if he thought Thomas Christiansen might tan his hide for it later; now he doesn’t waver. If that’s the ball that’s the ball, and by giving it everything he’s got, he gives it greater chance of being the right one.
You have to watch Phillips at this, because he’s almost as hard to find, for opponents and spectators, as Saiz, but in a different way. You can spend ages scanning the pitch for Samu, trying to find the space he’s found where no defender will ever find him; you can look in vain for Phillips, too, until you realise he was only about five yards from wherever the ball was, and now he’s won it. Phillips has rapidly become indispensable, and that’s why he played in this match.
Saiz has looked vital in every game as well, and he was key to the win. Patrick Bamford had two good chances to score in the first half, one from a Saiz dink into the six yard box that he fluffed from close range, another that he made himself, shooting narrowly wide. Then Saiz helped him to a third chance, and his first goal. It started with a straight Jansson pass that Saiz was almost able to turn on, but he was tackled in the turning; it was still important, because the defence were unprepared for Bamford, who shuffled his feet and cracked a low shot into the corner. It was only a half-chance, but this is Bamford; when he’s good, he’s great at finishing, and he celebrated by pointing to the ground as if to shout, ‘I’ve arrived!’, rattling his racquet off the table in the tennis club bar.
After the assist for Saiz, the goal; he was inside the Leeds penalty area defending a throw-in when Ayling shoved the ball to Lewis Baker, who set off upfield; he and Saiz were racing each other, and the pass Baker eventually gave put Saiz into problems; a lot of Bolton defenders had got back too. It didn’t matter; in his black high-top boots, Saiz stomped through the penalty area like Nancy Sinatra, and shot into the goal for 2-0.
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Baker was one of the support cast of debutants, but not one of its leading lights. Among the rigours of the gameplan and the clearly dictated jobs, Baker looks a little unsure of himself so far, his passing about a yard off target, his positioning about a yard away from ideal. Another loanee, Jack Harrison, had similar problems on the left wing, although his discomfort was more of a pain in his neck; he might need to play in a neck brace to get him to look up and see where he should play a final ball. Jinking left and right in the penalty area late in the game, he didn’t notice substitute Alioski in space five yards away with an open shot on goal; as he went tearing up the wing with the ball, Tom Pearce was chasing after him crying “Jack! Jack!” sounding as forlorn as Kate Winslet in Titanic.
Pearce played well, putting a dangerous early cross in for Bamford or Tyler Roberts to finish; Roberts also gets filed under work in progress, as he was never able to get much momentum in his game, although he did stop a quick and smug looking Bolton free-kick by slide tackling the receiver, leaving him looking smug and glancing anxiously to the bench, hoping Bielsa noticed. A tip to the players: Bielsa noticed. Whatever it was, he noticed. I’m sure he noticed every breath Jamal Blackman took in goal, but as he was only troubled once or twice by Bolton, it’ll take Bielsa’s eye over mine to determine whether there was any trouble there for Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
The real star, backing up Roberts from right-back, was Jamie Shackleton; Saturday’s debutant became Monday’s newly contracted professional and Tuesday’s star turn in the Carabao. Bolton targeted him at full-back, because Donaldson and their winger Yanic Wildschutt are both big blokes, and Shackleton is — let me just put my glasses on here to check — Shackleton is four foot four. But although he was beaten once or twice, he was always able to scamper back and beneath their legs like through an obstacle course at Crufts to win the ball back. It was even more impressive given that he’s spent a lot of time at youth level playing where Saiz plays, but now he’s an attacking defender, and there was some pretty good attacking going on. In the second half he drove through the middle of the pitch with the ball, laying off to Saiz and carrying on for the return; Saiz chipped instead to Baker, but it was stirring stuff from our tiny new right-back.
By that time the score was 2-1. Bolton got a goal back early in the second half, due to one of the screwball defensive moments we’ve seen at least once in every game so far. It’s hard to apportion blame when five defenders all seem to be flying at the ball and missing tackles, but it’s our one vulnerability; once or twice a match the other team will break and Leeds will panic. And in second halves, when teams are goals down to us already, they’ll mark Saiz — Derby did, so did Bolton — work harder after being yelled at by their manager, and bring Bielsa and his trio of coaches to their feet in the technical area; the trio urgently instructing, Bielsa pacing.
The opportunity — as we saw against Derby — is in absorbing that fightback and scoring a couple more on the break. That didn’t come here, although Alioski, Kemar Roofe and Mateusz Klich were brought on to try and make it happen. Bielsa described his wish to take “Excessive precautions” to protect the lead, but his method was to bring on fresh attackers and yell at the defence to push up to halfway. It was a battle to recapture the carefree spirit of the first half an hour, and it’s Bielsa’s permanent battle in sport; he intends to take not worrying about the opposition to its logical conclusion, so that whatever they’re doing, his team keeps playing the same.
If he ever achieves that nirvana I suspect Bielsa will turn into white light and disappear, bucket and all, but he’s not drawn the perfect circle with any of his teams yet, and the Carabao Edition of Leeds United 2018/19 aren’t the team that will do it. They’re closer than we might have expected, though, and while none of them yet will trouble the spine, there were some flexible candidates in this side who will be joining in the fun soon. ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)