Kemar Roofe combining stepovers and strength, Pablo Hernandez playing a first time cross as accurate as a paper plane with a guidance system, Ezgjan Alioski cracking the ball into the roof of the net, and Leeds United’s players piling into the front of the Kop. That’s the kind of visual spectacle I like.
It’s the kind of visual spectacle that is very difficult to achieve, as Leeds have been proving recently, which might be why they tried the easier option of cardboard and flags. Or perhaps Andrea Radrizzani knew that linesman would turn out a complete pillock, and wanted to arm the fans accordingly.
Thomas Christiansen doesn’t seem like a man who does easy options. Being under pressure makes him “feel alive,” he says, and his response to the legitimate bad luck that has plagued United’s attempts to score — see Samu Saiz, hitting the post once more against Boro, after another brilliant composition he began on halfway — has been to work the players harder, to get them creating more chances, to overwhelm luck with so much endeavour that the fates can’t prevent them all.
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Leeds could have sacked Christiansen; that would have been another easy option. Instead they gave him a chance to prove he could work his way out of the doldrums. And he took that chance, not only by getting a dominant win over an expensive top six side, but by presenting a Leeds United team that was its old self again, its best self, playing like the bad form never existed.
Pontus Jansson, whose emotions can be read from his biceps, was the most visibly returned to health, which was bad news for the health of those around him. Marcus Tavernier crumbled beneath an aerial challenge, then heard Pontus yelling unkindnesses as he lay dying. If that’s the price we have to pay to have our Pontus back, so be it. Jansson also got his first booking of the season, which came as a relief, then intervened to stop the South Stand’s hail of flags towards the linesman, the sort of ambassadorial, leadership role that Jansson cherishes, but hasn’t been earning lately.
It was hard not to notice how well Alioski was playing too, a blond flash up and down the right wing, giving his social media team plenty to choose from for his post-match highlights video. They can mix it up this time; not just the winning goal or the skills, but running off the ball, tackling, closing down. I don’t know how work rate looks with a Eurodance soundtrack, or whether a minute video can capture how knackered he looked by the end, but Alioski’s performance exemplified the team response to losing its mojo: forgetting about mojo, and giving themselves to graft.
It was a good job, in that case, that Pierre-Michel Lassoga was unavailable. I wondered in the early stages of the season whether United’s new style would work well with Chris Wood, given that Hernandez kept feeding him delicious through balls, and Wood kept puking them back up again. He solved that problem by leaving, only for Lasogga to take over his role of staring, confused, at Samu Saiz, and do it too well. Some strikers use an apparent lack of work rate to disguise clever movement and a killer instinct where it counts: see Marko Viduka and Jermaine Beckford. Others just create a void on the pitch, an empty space where an eleventh player could be.
Step forward Kemar Roofe, nobody’s first choice to lead the attacking line, who is becoming the only choice, at least until Caleb Ekuban lives up to the potential his cameo against Boro again showed, or we buy somebody new. Until then, Roofe will do very well. His presence changed the second half at Brentford, and he was central to how well Leeds played against Middlesbrough. Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips dominated Jonny Howson and Grant Leadbitter, partly because they weren’t chasing them around, trying to get the ball back after Lasogga had failed to win it upfront. Instead they had Roofe moving rapidly to the ball, winning it or doing his damnedest to, and giving Vieira and Phillips, and Hernandez, Saiz and Alioski, the chance to have the ball and play.
The first goal was marvellous for this. Roofe didn’t — couldn’t — win the high clearance from Andy Lonergan. But his attempt was strong enough to give Leeds a chance with the second ball, that Vieira quickly grabbed. He gave it to Pablo the creator, who chipped it to Phillips, who headed it into the path of fast moving Roofe. Roofe carried the ball across the pitch and played it wide to Alioski, whose position stretched the Middlesbrough defence and whose cross found Phillips; a deft header from him sent the ball to the backpost, where it met Pablo the finisher.
The same scenario with a certain other striker would have allowed Middlesbrough to win Lonergan’s goalkick unchallenged, then start an attack. Instead Roofe was involved twice, making the right challenge and playing the right ball, causing movement around him that he joined and augmented, instead of standing like a lighthouse flashing a warning to teammates to stay away. The second goal won him even more credit; he dribbled past two players and into trouble, but fought on, getting the ball wide to Hernandez the crosser. His ball to the backpost was perfect, and Alioski was there, profiting from the chaos Roofe had caused.
Leeds could have been 4-0 up soon after that, Saiz writing Vieira’s part for him in a one-two that ended with a firm strike against the post, and Liam Cooper heading one of Gianni Vio’s free-kick designs achingly wide. Instead Messrs Stroud and Mainwaring, the referee and his assistant, intervened to give Middlesbrough a penalty. Stroud had been inconsistent at corners all game; he could have penalised Gaetano Berardi at one, and gave fouls for soft pushes at others. The error this time was oversight; the officials didn’t see Daniel Ayala gripping Luke Ayling’s neck and throwing him to the ground, but they did see the downed Ayling grabbing Ayala’s ankle and throwing him to the ground, so that’s what they gave. Britt Assombalonga scored the penalty, as he should at that price. Later, they didn’t see Ayala punching the back of Berardi’s head, and Ayala was fortunate not to be seeing his maker; Berardi must have been content to be winning, and mercifully let him live.
The penalty was the sort of luck Christiansen has spoken of, and it would have been typical of the last two months if Leeds, playing well enough and making the chances to lead 4-0, had let the decision push them off course and gone down to a draw or worse. But United’s resilience showed why Christiansen has been describing luck as an enemy to be overcome. Although they gave Middlesbrough chances after Stroud found seven minutes of added time, Leeds didn’t give in, and the final minutes were as resolute as the final minutes at Brentford were woeful.
Some might want to look back at the worst parts of the Brentford game, and some of the poor performances we’ve had along the way, and ask accusingly why Christiansen allowed those to happen, when the team can do much better. Football’s never been that simple, though, and consistency is one of the hardest things to win: that’s why people celebrate long runs of good results, not only because they lead to success, but because they’re remarkable in themselves. All the possible solutions and complaints of the last few weeks — the coach should be sacked, the Director of Football should be thrown down a well, all the new players should be returned with our statutory rights unaffected, Radrizzani should shove his PR stunts until he’s bought proper players — fade away when the setup we have, the players we have, and the team we’ve got, play this well and win.
It suggests that the solutions required aren’t as radical as has been thought. Leeds need to work their way back to the consistent good performances they’ve shown they’re capable of, and then take decisions about staff and recruitment from there, so that we’re building on the good that we have, rather than tearing it all down in a panic.
It should mean, too, that we take some credit forward into the games against Wolves, Barnsley and Aston Villa. One win over Middlesbrough doesn’t make those matches any easier, or mean that all our recent problems have been solved, and Wolves in particular threaten to stretch our team beyond its capabilities. But Middlesbrough were a test, and Leeds passed it, and can go on now with a mixture of relief and belief. That was good, that. Now go and do it again. ◉
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(feature image by Lee Brown)