Test your strength

Leeds United 4-0 Ipswich Town: Sticking with it

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Seen from behind the net, Pascal Struijk is running through the goalmouth just after putting the ball over the line for United's first

This Leeds United team may not know its own strength yet, but there are signs that the players are learning and liking what they’re finding out. Ipswich Town, too, must have been wondering this season when or whether they’ll meet their limits. Perhaps their limits looked like this.

Ipswich have been phenomenal for too long to be fluking it, only losing four times in League One last season, only three times this time in the Championship. But two of those defeats have been to Leeds, and Leeds have put eight goals past them, four each time. At Portman Road, Town came back with three. At Elland Road they looked beaten and lost when they were 3-0 down before half-time. That feels like progress for one of these teams. We’ll know more about whether it’s a setback for the other after they host Leicester on Boxing Day. Only Leeds have put four past Ipswich since Charlton did it, in October 2022; this was only the fifth time in two seasons that they’ve failed to score. It’s impossible to say yet if denting those streaks together represents a blip or a change of tune.

Daniel Farke said before this game that he thinks his team can improve in the second half of the season and, after our own setbacks against Sunderland and Coventry City, this game looked like two steps toward the next level that, with more experience, he believes his young team can reach. “It’s not possible in football to be there with a perfect performance,” he said afterwards, “but it was probably our most mature performance of the season,” and that’s probably the highest praise he can give right now to players he has previously claimed to love for their naivety. Young footballers are never only exciting for their own sake, they’re exciting when you imagine how they’ll grow up. The other week Archie Gray told The Guardian that, “My childhood dream was to win the Champions League with Leeds, captain England at senior level and win a Ballon d’Or,” and in case anyone thought he was getting carried away, he added, “I’m still really young, so there’s a long way to go before any of that happens.” Before going down the tunnel at the end of this match Gray was dancing to Marching on Together as if he’d just been given the date and time when he can pick those honours up, a veteran seventeen years old delivering on the promise that got him onto Leeds United’s Premier League bench two years ago this month.

Marcelo Bielsa put Gray on that bench when Leeds were depleted by Covid, injuries and suspensions before playing Arsenal, and while he claimed he was doing the young player no favours, actually chastising himself for putting Gray in the spotlight, the manager who knew from one look at young Mauricio Pochettino’s legs that the sleeping boy would be a star footballer must have known the future Gray could have. John McGinn’s pre-season assault made sure Jesse Marsch had no piece of Gray last season, which might have been a blessing. Daniel Farke, now, is quietly helping him elevate his game without making him the centre of attention. Ethan Ampadu and Glen Kamara were the bosses of Ipswich’s tough-act midfield of Sam Morsy and Massimo Luongo, leaving Gray to enjoy himself from right-back. Sam Byram won all the club’s individual honours from right-back in his debut season, back in 2012/13, and while that didn’t include the Ballon d’Or, it proved that good players can be good players wherever they are on the pitch.

Gray was key to United’s second goal, turning trouble into opportunity from right-back and sending Leeds upfield. But two other players put my mind onto questions of strength and potential. The first was Pascal Struijk, the 24-year-old captain, who since he took the field against Coventry last weekend and started battering their striker Ellis Simms, has been playing as if Farke has hauled him in front of a mirror and pointed out the stature he has, the physique he has, the haircut he has, and invited him to start using his strength. The disparity between Struijk’s size and Struijk’s effect has often had Leeds fans yearning for Charlie Cresswell at the back, a player who if he doesn’t end a game being stitched back together will go headbutt a punchbag to try bringing out a bruise. Struijk, meanwhile, with his Ajax upbringing and careful grooming, has often looked terrified, as if his own shadow was taking the shape of Lee Tomlin’s on that haunting debut against Cardiff City. Until now. He was up against George Hirst and Conor Chaplin this week, or more accurately, they were up against him, and bouncing off him onto the floor. Ipswich boss Kieran McKenna is still looking for a free-kick after Struijk bashed Chaplin, before going upfield to head in a corner the next minute, after Joel Piroe’s header was saved on the line. “He pushed him with two hands around his neck,” said McKenna, and that’s great, says me, because throttling strikers and throwing them around feels like it could be what makes Struijk as good as he ought to be.

Our other subject is Georginio Rutter. I think Rutter knows his own strength. He looks too good at using it not to be fully aware of it. It’s everyone else, looking at this lanky, cheerful soul, done up in expensive pyjamas and toting a handbag, squealing with delight at his first player of the match award, that’s assuming he’s all soft-skills and no courage. That was an easy conclusion after his gloomy first few months as a Leeds player, and centre-backs in the Champo must have been relishing the idea of taking him on down here in the dumps. Instead, he’s taking them on. There’s not much funnier than when Rutter miscontrols the ball, then chases after it past two markers, shoving another out of the way to get it back. And there are few better strikers at holding off defenders, creating a space in which they can either foul or lose, before turning and passing beyond them. Total vision, unshiftable arse, he’s like Lionel Messi crossed with Niall Quinn.

Not just Rutter’s strength, but his determination not to be dispossessed, was key to United’s second and third goals. Getting the ball after Gray’s magic in the corner, Rutter brushed tackles aside in the centre circle and gave it to Kamara to put Crysencio Summerville away. He could have played a through ball for Piroe, but in another example of expressing ability, he held onto the ball and ran with it around the outside of Harry Clarke instead. When he crossed, Leif Davis finished at the back post, an own goal from a former Leeds player still treasured for a meme. Run it back for goal number three, a couple of minutes before half-time, when Rutter held off Morsy as they tussled for Djed Spence’s up and under, then transferred the counter attack from Town’s corner to Dan James, who gave it to Summerville, who won a penalty off Davis and stuck it in the top corner himself.

It’s almost a wonder Summerville went down to win that spot-kick, after he was gently chastised by Farke for not getting a red card for another former Leeds player, Jack Clarke, ten days ago. But this determination to play is helping to make Leeds compelling. Watching Rutter against Ipswich, as he held off the grizzled hacks trying to bring him down, I thought about the interview Brenden Aaronson gave a few weeks ago when he tried to justify how he played for Leeds last season, against criticism he was claiming not to have read. “I was trying to draw fouls around the box and people thought, ‘Oh, he’s going down too easy’. But that was just me trying to get fouls,” he said, and the contrast with Rutter, Summerville or James highlights how much hopeless anti-football whining that was. Trying to get fouls? What good are fouls? Rutter could have got plenty of fouls against Ipswich. But he stayed on his feet, fought for the ball, and that led to two goals. Like most football fans I’ll take goals over fouls, please, but maybe this was one of the tactics Jesse Marsch reckoned Elland Road would have to “learn” how to cheer for; to excuse young Brenden, I do feel the dim wits of Marsch behind him in this, and refer you again to the blessing that Gray was kept away from him. If Jesse Marsch knows anything Archie Gray needs to know, Archie’s dad already heard it from Neil Warnock.

I feel pretty sure it’s Daniel Farke’s influence helping these players get the most from themselves now. His imposing self-confidence is to Jesse Marsch’s stress what Rutter’s strength is to Brenden Aaronson’s, and while that’s a low bar – remember the relief when we all saw how calm and assured Michael Skubala was in his first press conference – it’s an important difference when developing players for a team. It’s possible to chuckle a little when Farke rattles off his points tallies with Norwich or the golden boot winners he’s coached, as these personal accomplishments never seem far from his mind. But perhaps, coming from little old Lippstadt, Farke feels he has to work a little harder to be convincing, and perhaps he’s doing it right. The players seem in thrall to him. For example, when Leeds played out from the back earlier in the season, it was almost always through Struijk. Against Ipswich, with Djed Spence wrong-footed on the left and a future Ballon d’Or winner on the right, Illan Meslier was always looking for Gray and the team looked harmonious, committed to the change, contrasting the confusion of last season. Dan James, who often looks to receive the ball in behind, seemed to have instructions to take Davis on, and by following them he was threatening like a second Summerville in the first half. Any disagreement about who should take the penalty was smoothed over by Farke, who said afterwards that he was happy for Piroe and Summerville to decide between them. Piroe got his goal, early in the second half, a snappy finish after Gray’s smart interception set up an attack that Rutter’s determination kept going, and the final 4-0 score, clean sheet included, seemed like a thank you from the players to Farke for smoothing over their recent wayward games. After losing to Sunderland and drawing with Coventry, nobody was thrown under the bus. Nobody was dropped. While fans and pundits demanded changes, Farke stuck with the same eleven. And he kept on sticking until they won 4-0.

The trick now, after beating Ipswich home and away, and Leicester away, is to turn that good-day superiority into good-season consistency. That might just be a matter of time, adjustment and conviction, like gradually turning Pascal Struijk into a real captain, a Champo van Dijk; persuading, practicing and proving. It might not only be the points gap to the top two that holds Leeds down this season, but the time it takes to emulate the self-belief with which Ipswich have been taking to the field for two years – until now. This performance, though, and the result it earned, has done a lot to prove that Farke is giving this job the shot it needed. We know from our recent history what good, promotion winning management looks like at this level – it looks like watching hours of video footage and then looking in the eyes of players like Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas, and telling them, you’ll do for me in the Premier League. It didn’t work with everyone, every time; Samu Saiz checked out early, and Pascal Struijk never quite found his top flight feet. That never meant, though, that Struijk’s potential went away, or that someone else couldn’t bring him out of himself. A different boss, a different style, but the same basic ideas – the good ones, the ideas that work. Or, at least, are working so far. ⬢

(Photograph by Mark Fletcher/MI News, via Alamy)

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