The Leeds Way

Leeds United 4-3 Bournemouth: Get into this

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Wilf Gnonto screaming at the Kop after Sam Greenwood's goal for Leeds against Bournemouth

It can be hard to tell what’s wearing Jesse Marsch down most, the defeats or the wins. “I hope it doesn’t continue this way,” he said on Saturday, after Leeds United came back from 3-1 down to beat Bournemouth 4-3 in an exhilarating match. “I want to try to make things simple on us,” he went on, “but that’s not the Leeds way, I hear.”

That’s not the first time Marsch has rebelled against the adrenalin sustaining what, at other clubs, might be impossible results. The first question put to him in May, after Sergi Canos’ implosion and Jackie Harrison’s goal kept Leeds in the Premier League on the final day, suggested that ‘If there’s a Leeds way of doing things, that was it.’ Jesse didn’t seem keen on the idea.

“I’ve heard this a lot about Leeds United and the community,” he said, “that we always think we have to do it the hard way. Honestly, part of the job of being the manager of this club is to change that mentality, to change the mentality to say we deserve more … I’ve heard this is the Leeds way but I’m not buying into that. I’m only thinking about the potential we can turn this into.”

Maybe, after this confusing and exhausting week that has done everything the month before did not to make sure Marsch will still have a job in 2023, it’s time for Jesse to stop fighting against the Leeds United way, to stop trying to change something neither he nor we understand, to embrace the chaos and submit to the sublimity of Wilf Gnonto setting up Crysenscio Summerville for a Bonfire Night winner. Whoever was setting fireworks off on Beeston Hill at that moment was part of the insanity, a gift for the Premier League’s worldwide broadcast feed, a display of explosions that would not have been visible from inside the ground if the 1950s West Stand had been redeveloped by now.

If it wasn’t for the Leeds way, those fireworks might have been hailing a change of management at Elland Road, and Marsch would be heading for home, probably still convinced that with a bit more time and a few more motivational speeches he could have overcome 103 years of irascible history and changed the mentality in LS11. Because he’s staying, he has a chance to drop that idea, and quit butting his head against a joke setup from the 1970s — the bloke who tried to change the mind of 35,000 Yorkshire people — and concentrate on changing the way his team plays, so these death or glory fightbacks aren’t needed anymore. That’s how you change the culture — that’s how you stop doing things the hard way — by not leaving your right-back marking two attackers again and again and again and again. Sort that out, and leave the Leeds United way to us.

There was an hour of this match when Leeds toiled and laboured at Marsch’s match plan, and the 3-1 lead Bournemouth took from it was the least they deserved. Then there was half-an-hour of ‘typical Leeds’ madness that changed so much of the mood that the fans can bounce from this one through whatever happens at Spurs and right on until after Christmas. Marsch deserves credit for his part in making that half-hour happen, by trusting midfield to Sam Greenwood’s energy, attacking to Wilf Gnonto’s desire, helping Liam Cooper stand as the defence’s inspiration. But as he tries to reverse engineer solutions from this shaken-up fortnight, step one should be submitting to what the signals on the pitch are telling him. It’s not Leeds United that needs to change to reflect the best of Jesse Marsch. It’s Marsch who could profit by letting Leeds United make the best of him.

After Crysencio Summerville completed two sensational back-to-back Premier League minutes by winning a penalty in his first 55 seconds of play since he was subbed straight off from the high of his Anfield winner, and Rodrigo converted to make it 1-0, all the confusing and self-defeating contradictions of Marsch’s style played right into Bournemouth’s eager hands. The narrow shape leaves room for our full-backs to attack wide, but makes long diagonal balls over them the first thing a team tries against Leeds. The centre-backs come over to help, Marc Roca doesn’t have the legs to track runners from midfield, and United’s defenders do a dance of shadows trying to keep their opponents out. Bournemouth’s equaliser was a ball over the top of Pascal Struijk that brought Cooper over to help him; Robin Koch tried to head the cross clear but Rasmus Kristensen, with no choice but to make a choice, had gone for marking Kieffer Moore and left Marcus Tavernier free to volley in. Bournemouth went ahead by pinging a ball over Kristensen, who lost a race with Tavernier; his shot was saved by Illan Meslier but he got another go, teeing up Philip Billing to smash on his run from midfield. It became 3-1 just after half-time because Leeds started the second half well and won two corners in a row. They got away with a break from their own corner in the first half, Summerville and Meslier just keeping Bournemouth out; this time, after running down the left, Tavernier could choose Dominic Solanke ahead of Moore from between Tyler Adams and Gnonto’s desperate attempts to cover.

That was Bournemouth’s sixth shot on target, while United’s one and only was the penalty, because the relentless pursuit of witless dead ends continued to be their main priority. Harrison was hauled off after a frustrating first half and he might have felt relieved. Desperate to get Summerville into a game he’d disappeared from for over half an hour after winning the penalty, Harrison twisted on the right, desperately scanning the left wing for a pass, eventually finding Summerville standing five yards away from him, along a straight line to the goal, in a crowd of red and black striped shirts. Marsch was saying before this match that Leeds have option A, B or C in attack, from A “being the most threatening, most vertical action” to C “being sort of a third most vertical”, and that by too often choosing the first most vertical instead of the third most vertical Leeds are giving the ball away too much, before the defence has time to get set in case of a counter. And yes, we could see this against Bournemouth. What I couldn’t really see was a benefit to choosing a “third most vertical” because as well as giving our defence time, it gives the opposing defence time too. What I’d maybe like is an option D, D standing for a second dimension.

The fightback did actually begin with a successful application of Marsch’s option C. A good attack down Bournemouth’s left was taken over to their right for Kristensen to cross. That fell for one of Marsch’s signature moves, the other full-back, Pascal Struijk, taking a powerful shot inside the penalty area. It was blocked — such are crowded boxes — but the ball rolled outside the area to where Sam Greenwood, on as a substitute, was transforming all his youthful promise into a picturesque snapshot of pure technique. His first time shot into the top corner was perfect and looked effortless because Greenwood, after realising one teenaged day down a Sunderland rec that he could do this, has practiced it for hours and hours until, on a Premier League stage, he can knock it off as easily as nothing at all.

The pinpoint swing of his equally well practised corner made the equaliser for Liam Cooper. He has never had the skilful advantages of a Greenwood, but he’s continuing his weekly fight to ensure that coming from League One Liam is not his constant curse but his constant pride. If top level football had come more easily to Cooper, would he have attacked this cross with such commitment? He powered his header under the goalie’s dive with all the force of the seventy games he played in League Two to earn his 53 so far for Leeds in the Premier League. He didn’t even celebrate. From 3-1 down, to 3-3, Liam Cooper was determined to win.

There’s a feeling, easily expressed on a day when Summerville, Gnonto and Greenwood grabbed the headlines — while Charlie Cresswell’s face was getting a proper Champo redesign on loan at Millwall — that Leeds need to move on from players like Cooper. Sure, one day. But he — and Luke Ayling on as a sub, Mateusz Klich involved from the touchlines, Stuart Dallas hugging the players on their way down the tunnel — are not nostalgic waxworks to commemorate promotion. They’re the institutional memory of the pain and work that went into those seasons, the haunted crew who remember the club adrift under Massimo Cellino, the difference in team spirit that can make newbies around them learn how to give a damn about Leeds United in particular.

With a Liam Cooper on the pitch, you can wind up a Wilf Gnonto and watch him go. There will be time for Gnonto to hear the old battle stories, maybe once he’s moved the rest of his stuff after his surprise move from Switzerland. If 1st September 2022 had been a different sort of day, Gnonto would not be here at all. But what he’s becoming in less than two halves of first team football is a player who, on his 19th birthday, combined all the youthful energy of his age with the skilful matchcraft of a player ten years older to win the game for Leeds and keep it won. From ex-Leeds wunderkind Lewis Cook’s wayward free-kick, Gnonto took the ball and sprinted over half-way, pushed by Bournemouth defenders but weebling away from them while Summerville dipped his run across and away from Cook’s chase. The timing and the weight of Gnonto’s through pass were so good it almost seemed to catch Summerville by surprise, and it took all the thinking away from him, leaving him to concentrate on pure finishing, blasting the ball over Mark Travers’ dive into the back of the net. Cue chaos, as Gnonto finally unbalanced himself in front of the Kop, and cue calm, as when he was invited to repeat the run in stoppage time, he took the ball across the pitch at a slow jog pace to run the clock down. What is Wilf Gnonto? I’m not at all sure. But he looks like a joy to play football with.

These moments are the best adverts the Leeds board can wish for the way they’re trying to run the club. They believe players like Gnonto, Summerville, Greenwood and Gelhardt can take this club into European competition along the way to earning hefty transfer fees. On days like this, it’s easy to think they’re right. But it’s also easy to see how that could all fall apart. Whatever has held things together over the last two games seems to have little to do with long-term strategic planning, meticulous tactical design or a well executed match plan. It feels more to do with exuberant youngsters, Liam Cooper’s will to win and Leeds doing what Leeds always do. Whether by accident or design Jesse Marsch has got this combination working for him — the players playing for him, the crowd rooting for him (at full-time, at least), the ball at Anfield and Elland Road falling for him — and getting him out of a hole that looked too deep dug ten days ago.

The last thing I’d do, if I was him, is try to change that. “I’ve heard this is the Leeds way, but I’m not buying into that,” he said, last season, as supporters at Brentford and beyond checked their minds and marbles on another day in the life of being a Leeds fan. Staggering around the pitch at full-time after beating Bournemouth, swaying and shouting like a teenager finishing his first four-pack of Stella, Marsch looked as powerless as any other Leeds fan to resist what this club is. Buy into it, Jesse. Live a little. ⬢

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