Leeds United 3-2 Middlesbrough: Overdriven

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Photograph by: Lee Brown
A close up of Pascal Struijk's big sexy head as his hot breath creates a cloud in the cold air during the warm up before the game with Swansea

One of the early iconic moments of Leeds United’s return to the Premier League in 2020 came from the salivating mouth of Jamie Carragher. Expectorating in the background as Martin Tyler commentated on United’s opening game at Anfield, Carragher wondered aloud, “What am I seeing now?”

What he was seeing that was shocking him, as he explained a minute later, was United’s centre-back Robin Koch giving a first half demonstration of Marcelo Bielsa’s man-marking in Premier League action. “There was actually a throw-in just then, round about the halfway line,” said Carragher, “And the centre-back actually went past the ball to go with Firmino.” He was still perplexed by the time his Monday Night Football show came around, when with Gary Neville for company he highlighted Luke Ayling, following Sadio Mane from the Leeds right-back area to the Liverpool right-back area, travelling a full diagonal of the pitch to nab the ball at another throw-in.

This was Leeds United’s peak of pride of the last decade. Our love for Bielsa’s football grew in two seasons underground, then reached full bloom at the point when it burst into the world as defined by the Premier League, and that world started watching, bewildered. Carragher’s confusion, and Jurgen Klopp’s post match “Wow,” helped make that 4-3 defeat to Liverpool feel like a victory, because it was proof that what Leeds were about to do was about to cause trouble. It was followed a few weeks later by a 6-2 defeat at Old Trafford, when analysts like Neville convinced themselves that Leeds fans would be unhappy with Bielsa for the scoreline. In fact many Leeds fans got over the result and kept arguing against the punditocracy in favour of the way our team was playing. Even on the wrong end of such a scoreline to such a rival, we were always taking Bielsa’s Leeds over Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s whatever.

Against Middlesbrough on Saturday, the Peacocks only had two starters in common with the eleven at Anfield in September 2020, Illan Meslier and Pascal Struijk. So it was a throwback treat in the first half when, under instructions from his new manager Daniel Farke, Struijk was found up by the Boro penalty area, chasing the strikers or even carrying the ball far afield; or when defensive midfielder Glen Kamara was in the eighteen yard box, blocking off their goalie’s passing options. More conventional, but still thrilling, were the assists for United’s first two goals – a cross from the left-back, then a cross from the right-back – as the team pressed, countered, recycled and scored like it was 2018 again, coming up with a 2-1 lead with only seven minutes played. With one minute of the ninety to go, Tony Dorigo on LUTV captured the mood of the 3-2 lead over Boro’s ten remaining players as he watched right-back Gray heading to get involved with an attack on the left wing, then pausing and shuffling back: “Where’s Archie going? Come back! Thank you!” Gray had spent much of the last part of the match hovering around the edge of the Middlesbrough penalty area, but abandoning his wing entirely was going too far.

It’s to Farke’s credit that, with just a few months of work, he has Leeds United working to limits that go beyond most other teams, and players longing to break them and go further. It’s something that, while watching Jesse Marsch’s Leeds – even as early as his first home game, the awful 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa – I thought we had lost forever. We don’t need to retread that story here, of how the people picking a coach to, in Angus Kinnear’s phrase, “accelerate the coaching transition” from Bielsa did so while completely misunderstanding what made Bielsa’s football so good, but the point is that after the team’s style – the whole club’s style, really – accelerated into a Big Sam Allardyce shaped brick wall, it was hard to see a way back.

Enter Daniel Farke, and while Jesse Marsch has started appearing on podcasts again recently, to wail about what a hard job he had following Bielsa, I would argue Farke has had an even harder job of sifting through the wreckage of Marsch and Victor Orta’s attempt at building a new Leeds United and recovering the best of what remained of the old one. Farke’s is not entirely a throwback operation – most of the current players spent little to no time with Bielsa, so a lot of this is entirely his. But it’s perhaps telling that he said after the game that, while Struijk was following orders when he followed Morgan Rogers upfield, Glen Kamara was causing “one or two problems” when he was “a bit too over excited to attack the goalkeeper”. To one player, this stuff was second nature, to another, it’s all new, and after last week’s discussions of Luke Ayling’s continuing role in or out of the team, perhaps this is the value of him, Pat Bamford, Liam Cooper and Stuart Dallas, that Leeds should not want to lose too soon – the guys around the training pitch who, when the new players are looking at Farke like he’s crazy, can back him up, reassure their teammates that they know this will work, and help to teach them how.

“We want to create chaos,” Farke said after this game, “especially behind the opponent,” and his mention of over-excitement about the pressing triggers was an acknowledgement that, as he said in his next breath, “It’s important that we don’t create chaos for ourselves.” For the second time in four days the crowd at Elland Road enjoyed a bewildering opening few minutes, as Leeds went behind and immediately levelled – against Swansea – or took the lead, against Middlesbrough. Enjoyed is the right word, because neither time did it feel like the visitors’ opener was going to be the last word. In each game the concessions were poor. In the third minute, Boro found it too easy to move from back to front through United’s first attempts to press, too easy to turn Gray, too easy to beat Meslier. Their second goal, just before half-time, was too easy too – Struijk was lost upfield with Kamara ahead of him and, after Sam Byram stopped the counter, he didn’t stop Emmanuel Latte Lath heading his second from the corner. Actually, maybe ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word for this stuff, but Leeds were still 3-2 up, and although the Boro fans roared the concept of six minutes of first half stoppage time, their team didn’t have the momentum to make anything of it.

The reason that 6-2 defeat at Old Trafford didn’t hurt Leeds fans much was that, despite the four goal difference, Leeds looked capable of terrifying their hosts into giving up the lead right until the end. That’s the feeling I’m welcoming back: the idea that going behind is no longer a barrier to getting a result. If going behind to Middlesbrough was wrong, Leeds wasted no time putting it right, first through a counter by Dan James; his chip over the onrushing keeper was cleared off the line, but there was a mood to this attack that wouldn’t allow it to end without a goal, so after Georginio Rutter’s shot was blocked, Byram’s deflected cross to the back post was headed in forcefully by James, and had that not worked, Leeds would have found some other way to equalise. Goal number two was down to Rutter not letting a move falter, and Summerville heading in another deflected cross from Gray. Number three was down to a combination of United’s pressing, and Boro not quite being able to play out from the back the way their boss Michael Carrick imagines. Goalie Seny Dieng passed straight to Ethan Ampadu, who passed straight to Rutter, who turned Matt Clarke on his way into the penalty area. Clarke had just stepped onto the pitch as a substitute, fell, and brought Rutter down with a grip of his ankle. Joel Piroe whacked the penalty into the corner of the goal.

In the second half Middlesbrough got as near to momentum as they were ever getting, and after I wrote in midweek that it was kinda fun when Leeds gave Swansea a chance, now it felt like a mistake to be giving a better team an even better chance. Boro sabotaged that themselves, Anfernee Dijksteel getting sent off for a second yellow card with half an hour left, and the rest of the game was about United’s own battle between control, recklessness and charity. Everyone except Meslier was drawn into Boro’s defensive third, and Leeds were let off a three versus two break when Struijk deflected Sammy Silvera’s shot onto the post, and Joe Rodon dived to block Rogers’ follow-up shot. Did Leeds learn? In so far as Gray checked himself later before going all the way to the left wing, yes, but he was still wonderfully tempted to go all the way.

Farke mentioned players being too “excited” seven times in his brief post-match press conference, “a little bit overdriven in our emotions”. “This is also a side of my team that I love,” he went on, “when we are a bit more over-excited, and over-emotioned, and over-aggressive, instead of playing football like sleeping pills. I love this, but on the other hand it was still important at half-time to speak about a few details and calm them a bit more down.”

Which is, I think, the better way to be. The jarring transitions from Bielsa to Marsch-and-after demonstrated that it is much easier to calm a team down – or render it immediately unconscious – than to wake a team up. And as we saw in those swash-buckling days of just a few years ago, a team that is “over-emotioned” will find more ways out of the problems they get into than a team that is “like sleeping pills”. In an ideal world, perhaps, Struijk would not be so far upfield and Kamara would not be giddily attacking the goalie and Gray would not be straying to the left wing trying to make more goals. But in an imperfect world these things are giving us so much more to believe in. ⬢


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