After Andrea Radrizzani bought Leeds United in 2017 and promised promotion, disruption and modernisation, I started wondering about a culture shock at Elland Road that never really came. Maybe the salute badge was just too, too much to be taken seriously as a ‘modernising’ measure, and also, it looked out of date the moment it was exported from MS Paint. Maybe it was the pandemic that enforced a sort of soft-landing in the Premier League, preventing Leeds from fully embracing changes to things like the stadium. However it happened, United ended up back in the Champo as pretty much the same club they were before: with a better squad and more money, but now looking back to 1980 for Peacock inspired designs, and forward to our old EFL rival Daniel Farke for promotion number two.
The football itself, though, looked for a while like it was coming from some other future planet. We might have thought that, after Marcelo Bielsa, there was little left for Leeds United to learn about modern football, but maybe in the end that team was so good we never truly understood it. Or maybe Jesse Marsch’s Victorian kick-and-crowd stuff dragged us so far backwards we’re having to start and learn again. Either way, for fifteen exasperated minutes in his press conference before Leeds’ match with Bristol City, Farke seemed to be less explaining his thoughts on strikers, more disdainfully wondering if anyone present had seen a game of football in the last five years.
The debate, about Georginio Rutter playing ‘as a nine’ and Joel Piroe ‘as a ten’ and whether vice versa would be better, already seemed oddly out of sync with top level football before Farke declared an end to his part in the conversation. Earlier in the week, ESPN’s Ben Welch published an article of a kind that has been common for a while, about how football tactics are increasingly about what players do, and not where they stand. He used Manchester City’s Julian Alvarez as an example: ‘(his) intelligent movement means he pops up wherever there is space with the aim of linking play’. At the start of the season, Mikel Arteta was sweeping questions about his Arsenal formations aside: “I think we discuss formations in a different way. The other day there were 36 different formations in the match (against Fulham). Against Manchester City, 43.”
It’s difficult for fans on the beers in the stadium or on the sofas watching on TV to pick up when Arteta is making infinitesimal adjustments to formation every two minutes, but part of Farke’s exasperation was about why anyone would want to try, unless they’re trying to replicate Leeds on a Football Manager save or something. “I know my business, so let’s not speak about this topic anymore,” was his way of saying, you don’t need to worry about the technique, just enjoy the effects. Joel Piroe, at that point, had four goals in seven games; after the Bristol City game, he had five in eight. Why worry where he’s standing, as long as he gets where he needs to be when he’s finishing?
Against Bristol, with his explanations in mind, it was actually quite easy to see how Farke was using the day’s chosen forwards to get Leeds closer to the future we want. This is the Champo: there aren’t 43 formation changes in a game, which makes the confusion about Farke’s choices even more, well, confusing: what he has the players doing is quite simple. Georginio Rutter was furthest forward, the pinpoint, a great gregarious nightmare for defenders who is strong enough to fight them off, skilful enough to beat them, fast enough to drag them out of position or press them hard when they have the ball. There was a big fault when he put a low cross over the bar instead of into the open goal, but Bristol’s centre-backs hated every other second he was up against them. Their preoccupation with this unpredictable can-canning centre-forward meant Piroe, drifting around gently behind him, could seek and find quiet spaces to occupy. Farke says he is, “struggling to find, even in this whole country, players who are better in these finishing moments” than Piroe, and we’ve already seen – and saw when he tapped the ball inside a Bristol defender and rolled a shot from the D of the box into a big gap in the goal nobody knew of but him – that his finishing skills apply anywhere between the goal line and twenty yards away. Piroe doesn’t need to be goal hanging. He needs someone – like Rutter – to make space for him, and someone else to give him the ball to shoot with.
The existence or otherwise of that someone else is as much a part of the worry about Piroe playing deeply as whether he’ll be finishing often enough. The concern is that, if Piroe is at no.10, Pablo Hernandez isn’t. The reassurance here is that Crysencio Summerville, on the teamsheet as a left winger, rarely went near the touchline. Against Bristol he played like an old inside-left, Piroe next to him at inside-right, the pair behind Rutter forming a triangle with the idea of Rutter making the space, Piroe making the run, Summerville making the pass. Outside Summerville, the heat map’s actual left winger was Sam Byram, the left-back helped to go forward by Pascal Struijk, Joe Rodon and the young Paolo Maldini standing in at right-back, aka Archie Gray, comfortably forming a back three with Ethan Ampadu and Glen Kamara protecting them. Lest we leave him out, Dan James was faithful to his allotted place, stretching the Bristol defence from the right touchline; faithful until his pressing took him over to the other side of the pitch and allowed Piroe to take advantage of the unbalance that caused, trying a shot that, after it was saved, was returned to the back post where James scored by running in from the left.
Both Leeds goals were perfect illustrations of Farke’s explanation that where you start is not as important as where you finish. Also important: not conceding dopey equalisers from corners, especially just before half-time, especially if you want the club to keep looking forward to the future and not back to the haunting of Leeds United 1-5 Crystal Palace. Leeds had some slower witted moments that could have given Bristol City something, but overall were much better than a team that, although they’re not high in the table, looked basically fine to me? Nigel Pearson was content to wave a conciliatory crutch at the away fans at the end, and Bristol’s league record – 4-3-4, 14 goals and 13 conceded – looks about right for what they’re going to get with what they’ve got.
Leeds are 5-4-2, 17-11, and 5th. Farke ended his lecture on modern attacking play by asking people to, “leave my boys a little bit alone. Let’s let them just score goals for us. When they do this, we are all happy and everything’s okay.” That’s right, and it’s also a plea to make room for more tactile responses to games of football. The mining of social media for football ‘content’ means digging into the ever narrower seam of people who can even be arsed putting their thoughts on social media, who will tend towards making declarations of technical disappointment like asking whether a five-in-eight goalscorer is playing in the wrong position. The message that’s coming more frequently from coaches, when they ask that a tactical topic be dropped or point out they used 43 formations and you didn’t spot them, is that they’d like to be working behind a curtain creating wonder for people to enjoy. Unless you actually hold the power to reprimand or fire Daniel Farke, or conversely give him a pay rise, judging his tactics against imaginary key performance rubrics is an empty pastime. Perhaps too many fans believe they do have that power, or wish they did, imagining themselves occupying the most boring job in football, the CEO, docking wages and handing out P45s. Farke’s message was not only about not stressing his players out, but ourselves, as ordinary life gives people enough to worry about without turning football into another situation where we feel responsibility without power to act. When a player has scored five in eight it’s not the time to be worrying about what he’s doing wrong, when you could be having a good time instead. ⬢