Here are Leeds United, rebelling against themselves, by conforming. They did what they were supposed to do against Middlesbrough, and that’s not Leeds United’s style.
Too often Leeds defy the expectations of their own fans while exceeding those of their opponents. Teams expect to lose to Leeds, but get gift-wrapped winners or defensive errors in their favour, like a lollipop for being brave at the dentist.
November 2019 has upended the idea of the sort of game Leeds United lose, as they’ve played five of that sort of game and won them all. Fortunately Leeds fans are so habitually cynical that even five straight wins and eight unbeaten won’t change our assumption that we’ll slip up next time, so as long as the Peacocks keep playing against our instincts this season and proving everybody else right instead, then things just might turn out okay.
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Middlesbrough at home after a run of four wins was about as gimme as it gets; add their injury crisis and their inexperienced manager and there seemed few opportunities for Boro to turn around their recent form. They can only have expected one thing from their visit to Elland Road to play Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United.
There were a few glimmers their way. Leeds hadn’t played at home since November 9th, so that winning run manifested itself in distant Luton and Reading, which might as well be other planets to many of the 35,000 turning up in LS11. Away wins are fine, but we’ll believe this lot are any good when we see them win at home.
The other glints came from Middlesbrough’s midweek win at Barnsley, their first win anywhere since mid-September, and the ability of their ex-Leeds contingent to get the players as up as the fans for a local not-quite-derby. Manager Jonathan Woodgate brought Robbie Keane with him as his assistant, and as representatives of our Champions League season, well, you kind of wished it was Mark Viduka and Olivier Dacourt.
Woodgate should have become the best of David O’Leary’s babies; while Alan Smith got up the noses of experienced defenders at one end of the pitch, from the day of his debut Woodgate was calmly reading the games of top class strikers back to them, and they couldn’t believe the accomplished voice they were hearing. But he spent most of the Champions League season in self-inflicted exile at Hull Crown Court, wasting away and wasting his potential. As for Robbie Keane, he was signed too late to be eligible for European games, and was used at Leeds like an unnecessarily extravagant dessert adding nothing to an already excellent dinner. When Leeds were already 3-0 up, another goal and a cartwheel from an £11m substitute was like lowering a Viennetta from a helicopter and setting it on fire.
They both had reasons to be up for the game, with the added intrigue of Keane’s outrage at Pat Bamford’s refusenik status with the Irish national team. On the pitch Jonny Howson should also have been up for the match, but at right wing-back he looked a shadow of the player that Leeds fans used to accuse of looking like a shadow in League One. The difference was that he was actually good back then, and he was not actually good here. None of Middlesbrough’s players were. I’m not even sure they all made it out onto the pitch. Did anybody count them? Did Boro station somebody by the tunnel to stop them trying to slip away?
Goalkeeper Aynsley Pears made a noble attempt to stop Leeds scoring their first goal by saving Bamford’s header, but spilling the ball gave Pablo Hernandez a chance to put in another cross. The first had come from Jackie Harrison, and as United’s own ex-Boro contingent, he and Bamford had brought all the determination Woodgate, Keane and Howson were looking for. For that reason and many others Bamford was not going to miss his second header, and I’ve rarely seen a striker concentrate so hard on heading a ball so hard. It worked. 1-0 to Leeds, Bamford and Harrison, with three minutes gone. They’d made their point and won the game.
Leeds could have already scored before that and had another flurry of chances to quickly make it 2-0; Woodgate’s occasional gesture to his players to keep calm seemed misplaced against the onslaught. Perhaps if they’d panicked they might have done something. Instead they were so supine that United found playing against them too easy; passes were misplaced, the referee started arguing about timewasting with Kiko Casilla, United’s own players started moaning about how long their own throw-ins were taking. The second goal, when Bamford diverted Harrison’s long pass into the penalty area and Mateusz Klich forced his shot in off the goalkeeper, came from the last kick of the half, and came as a relief.
The second goal didn’t seem to change Bielsa’s half-time demands. Leeds were in Middlesbrough’s penalty area twice in the first minute of the second half, and kept attacking it twice a minute until the score was 4-0 and they could finally relax. It didn’t take very long. If there was a smidgen of concern about Leeds it’s that they were their usual relentless selves but their usual profligate selves too; they could and should have won by more, and the goals they got were well taken gifts.
Helder Costa, having his best game for Leeds so far, took his habit of dribbling directly at defenders to its logical conclusion by going through two tackles at the edge of the area as if they weren’t there. Beyond them there was nothing to stop him smacking the ball as hard as he could into the net, so that’s what he did.
Likewise, after United’s experiments with short corners at Reading were messed up, they completed one without difficulty here. Kalvin Phillips passed to Hernandez, who gave him the ball back, not difficult given the ten yard gaps Middlesbrough’s defenders were leaving. Phillips pulled back to Klich on the edge of the box, and as there was nobody to stop him, he took his time about placing his curling shot into the far top corner.
Costa and Klich needed those goals, and Luke Ayling dragged Klich to the ground for a celebratory pile-on as if he’s been missing those long-range Klichers as much as Mateusz. They should enjoy them, too, and take all the confidence they can, but beware that it’ll never be as easy to score this season. Unless when we go to the Riverside at the end of February Boro still haven’t sacked Woody.
Or there’s always next week. The game lasted twenty minutes after Klich scored the fourth, Eddie Nketiah coming on to see if he wobbles when he runs, Ben White getting some training exercise in for covering midfield when Phillips is suspended. The party atmosphere at Elland Road was boosted by the half-time and full-time updates about our next opponents: 4-1 and 5-2 to Bristol City against Huddersfield Town. Like Middlesbrough, Huddersfield like to think they have to prove something against Leeds, and no doubt we’ll hear plenty at the McGalphSmith’s about their recent holiday in the Premier League. It may be the sort of atmosphere and occasion where Leeds, if they’re typical Leeds, could turn against themselves and lose. We’ve won five in a row, after all; that’s normally plenty.
That’s pretty much what Middlesbrough were thinking, too. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)