The best news about this game is that Leeds United could have absolutely battered Ipswich Town, which is not something we expected to do to Mick McCarthy’s hardy bunch.
In the end we didn’t, and the reasons for that were partly Ipswich and their hard work, but mostly of our own making. But we won the match, and three points, and scored three goals. And as Thomas Christiansen would say, we can be pleased that we had the possibility to do much more.
At first it looked easy. Leeds started the game with the ball and with attacking intent and with the lead on thirteen minutes. Conor Shaughnessy showed one of the benefits of converting a midfielder to centre-half is that he can play a through ball from inside his own half with Hernandez h’accuracy; Pierre-Michel Lasogga showed that one of the benefits of swapping a ponderous striker for an emphatic one is that chances like this don’t just get poked straight at the keeper anymore. Lasogga sprinted away from the defenders and into the channel to meet Shaughnessy’s pass, and he slowed as the ball slowed, and I’ve rarely seen such harmony betwixt running man and rolling ball. Then he belted it low into the corner.
We were already grateful for the lonesome patience of Pierre-Michel’s spouse, Salina, whose delayed baby was leaving Lasogga Leeds-side to play for us and score goals. It turned out after the game that her patience had been bettered by her generosity, for she had the baby on Friday night and Papa Pierre stayed here to batter a football around anyway. After a rapid Sunday visit he’s coming back to Thorp Arch on Monday for the pre-Cardiff press conference and then presumably the match on Tuesday, and the first thing anyone should ask him is from what convent his saintly Salina sprang, and how it feels to be a parent with her, the world’s best person.
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Salina’s done so much for Leeds so far, that once she has recovered from giving birth, I think we should invite her to Elland Road, and stick her in midfield, where she might have ensured Leeds went from strength to strength after Lasogga’s goal. Without her, Leeds — well, I don’t know what the problem was with Leeds. Perhaps the players were expecting Ipswich to continue being as generous as Salina.
They weren’t. How could they be, when they had Mick McCarthy, a one-man tight margin, prowling the side of the pitch like it was a maternity ward waiting room? McCarthy’s teams give nothing, and take everything you let slip, so after giving up a goal, they redoubled — or more accurately, started — their efforts to get something off Leeds.
Perhaps Leeds fancied the Russian roulette elements of this game, because they made a tempting proposition for Ipswich. There is a time and a place for passing the ball slowly at the back, and neither of them coincide with the proximity of McCarthy, imploring his hard working, low scoring strikers to pressure the softy keeper and the kid defender and the little oik in midfield every chance they got.
Leeds didn’t learn from the countless panicked clearances and misplaced passes, though. At the end of the first half against Millwall, I had a list like the 95 Theses that I wanted to nail to Felix Wiedwald’s door, that I ended up discarding because he pretty much kept us in that game by the end. By half-time against Ipswich I was fishing in my smock pockets for the fragments, because it was all becoming relevant again. But even then, and even now, I’m not sure that United’s problems when passing the ball out from the back are all his fault.
Wiedwald’s distribution is, normally, excellent. Victor Orta does his research, and because he wanted a sweeper-keeper he went and found a good one, and I think that Wiedwald’s passing is sometimes under appreciated. He can ping a pass sixty yards and land it on Alioski’s boot, no problem. I don’t think the players have any doubts about the quality of his feet — otherwise they wouldn’t give him the ball so much.
Which is my interpretation of the problem. Eunan O’Kane, in particular, and not just in this game, has a self-destructive preference for giving the ball to Wiedwald, when he’d be better off turning and playing forward, and it’s usually this extra pass that causes Leeds problems, especially when David McGoldrick and Joe Garner have sniffed blood and sharked their way to the edge of United’s box, teeth bared, fins twitching.
Wiedwald yelled. He pleaded. He booted the ball upfield earlier. He tried passing it left, he tried passing it right. But still Leeds players, and O’Kane in particular, kept weighing up the danger from Town’s attackers and pinging the ball at Wiedwald anyway. In a way, this is good, because it shows that while some fans are losing patience — and tufts of torn out hair — seeing our keeper contorting his way through difficult clearances that ought to be easy, at least our players still have the confidence to give him the ball under pressure, assuming he’ll deal with any difficulties. Or they just really hate him, but I don’t think it’s that.
It’s important that self-belief doesn’t disappear, and if Thomas Christiansen wants the ball passed through Wiedwald, the time to really start the big worrying is if United’s players start ignoring that instruction and cutting him out of the game. It’s important that Wiedwald stays confident too, and when he sprinted fifty yards from goal and cooly took a loose ball around Grant Ward, that didn’t seem too much of a problem. For now it was all about Felix’s feet and a lot of small worrying, about what we could do against Ipswich if we weren’t going to hammer the ball upfield.
Invite loads of pressure and concede a goal too easily from a crossed free-kick, that’s what, a goal as confusing as it was deflating — why was McGoldrick, Ipswich’s main striker and a well known terror to Leeds, being marked, or not marked as it turned out, by Eunan O’Kane?
It was followed by a long Ipswich team meeting on the sidelines, that was frustrating, and thirty-three seconds of football, the last fifteen of which were exhilarating. Shaughnessy ducked beneath a long Ipswich pass, leaving it for Cooper, who nodded the ball to Shaughnessy, who chested it down and volleyed it past O’Kane to Alioski: all this next to the dugouts.
Alioski, drawing a willing Ipswich nip at his ankles, laid the ball off to O’Kane, who rolled it under his boot then chipped it forward to Lasogga. Lasogga rose, and flicked the ball even higher in the direction of someone much smaller, Samuel Saiz. Saiz let the ball drop above him, ten yards outside the penalty area, then with a header as deft as anything he does with his feet, and vision to see where a run from deep that had taken Kalvin Phillips to within thirty yards of goal would lead, sent the ball bouncing and rolling into the box, where Phillips took one touch to trap it and round the keeper, then another with his heel to roll it into the net from a tight angle, with aplomb to spare.
Led by Luke Ayling, Leeds then held a celebratory conference of their own in the technical area, because as well as being beautiful, we won’t be outdone at being bastards.
Although the chance to take the piss was too good to miss, retaking the lead proved more important, because it didn’t knock Ipswich off their stride. In the second half they became more determined to grab some of the bait Leeds were dangling. Leeds still had plenty of wow and flutter whenever they attacked, and Hernandez was sending successively more outrageous cross-field passes out of tight situations to Alioski, that Alioski controlled with successively greater ease each time. Ipswich wouldn’t calm down, though, and both Hernandez and Lasogga were tiring, limiting United’s options for breaking. You could feel Wiedwald’s pain; even if he wanted to whack the ball long, and the Elland Road crowd certainly wanted him to, Lasogga was nowhere near sharp enough to get on the end of anything, so the ball was only going to come back.
Perhaps learning from the experience at Millwall, Christiansen’s first move was to declare this a game for Berardi, and bring him on in place of Vurnon Anita, who as at Millwall was the target for most of Ipswich’s attacks. Then fortune turned United’s way, although Pablo Hernandez will tell you there’s no such thing as luck in a war: it’s your right foot versus the world. Spotting that keeper Bartosz Bialkowski had taken a position off his line to the back of his goal, Hernandez put his corner kick on his line at the front of his goal; Bialkowski caught it, dropped it, then picked it up again quickly and tried to run with it upfield. You can’t outrun a machine, though, and Hawkeye the goal decision system was backing the judgement of Hawkeye Hernandez, the corner taking system, declaring a goal for Leeds. Bialkowski looked around in vain for somebody he could complain to, and a few Ipswich players took the matter up with the referee, and there’s something brilliantly pathetic in the new grievance computers are giving disconsolate Championship defenders. “Ref, that was never a goal!” “But the computer gave it.” “Well the computer’s wrong!” “The computer’s not wrong, be serious.” “Well it’s, well it’s, well it’s — well your computer’s crap!”
At 3-1 with less than 25 minutes left, Leeds should have been able to distribute popcorn in the stands and give the ball to Saiz for the rest of the game. Instead, within five minutes, Iorfa crossed low into the six yard area, Wiedwald dropped to his knees and pushed the ball to Garner, and Garner scored: one goal each for Town’s strikers, and not what Wiedwald wanted to be doing when his kicking was already under scrutiny, when he’d pushed a ball to Steve Morison in similar circumstances last week, and when the bloke up the other end had all the clanger headlines sewn up already.
Not to mention that he was making it very difficult for Leeds to win the game. At 1-0 this could have been a stroll; at 3-1 this could have been a stroll. That it wasn’t is only partly Wiedwald’s fault, but people don’t need many reasons to start looking askance at a goalkeeper.
The nutmeg count dwindled considerably in the final twenty minutes as the clearances and blocks mounted up, Berardi and Shaughnessy leading the way instead of Saiz and Alioski, Stuart Dallas and Jay-Roy Grot coming on to provide graft and to give Wiedwald someone to aim at. O’Kane stopped making Wiedwald’s life difficult and concentrated his efforts on getting Leeds through the game; Ipswich had much more of the ball once the score was 3-2, but no individual had it more than O’Kane.
I’ve been tense through the end of matches before, but normally when we’re losing, so in its way all this was pleasant, especially once tension became a relieved tingle at full-time. This was all also important. The concern after Millwall, even though we’d only lost by one, was about Leeds being ‘found out’, and rendered unable to play against the Championship’s dourer, sourer faces. After Ipswich, although we only won by one, we can say that if wasn’t for our own self-destructive tendencies, we could have beaten one such dour, sour and dangerous side — who had done their homework on us — with ease. That’s something good to take with us to Cardiff. ◉
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(feature image by Jim Ogden)