The cardboard-lined abyss mid-pandemic football has fallen into behind closed doors threatened Leeds United’s game with Stoke City more than any of their fixtures so far.
In my youth, the hours after five o’clock on a Thursday belonged to Home and Away, Neighbours and The Simpsons; in idyllic adulthood, that’s cocktail hour. That Leeds fans still remember a UEFA Cup tie at this time in 1999 proves how unfootball it is to play like this, although Lucas Radebe’s overhead kick against Partizan Belgrade that day helped fix it in the memory.
In the first dwindling of this late summer afternoon United’s players looked ready to forget the whole thing. Fidgety, distracted, out of sync with the world and each other. Ben White, Tyler Roberts, Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich all gave up possession, passing to ghosts, looking anxiously upfield towards Stoke’s defence. They were remembering Luton’s, already rehearsing lines for Friday morning’s team meeting.
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Two good chances deepened worry. Klich took a pass from Roberts and took his time about emptying the air from Bruno Martins Indi with a goal bound shot. Pat Bamford was starting celebrations with the South Stand before James McClean cleared his shot off the line; Roberts placed his rebound but Danny Batth placed a block. The xG count went up, the scoreline did not, and Opta should start calculating the difference as United’s in-game xAx, expected anxiety.
Marcelo Bielsa didn’t need any props like tactics boards or a tickling stick to soothe his players during the first drinks break. A chat with Pat and Tyler and his presence among the others calmed Leeds for what we’ll soon, unless we resist it, be calling the second quarter.
Leeds were patient until half-time and devoted Terrier Tommy Smith was too stupid to wait, rushing his boot into Helder Costa’s shin in the least dangerous corner of the penalty area. Mateusz Klich scored from the spot the way he always does apart from that one time and the stern faces amid United’s celebrations reassured anyone watching that the game was now won. The hours might be odd but after the uncertain early stages these footballers were at work.
What work were Stoke at? The Potters travel the Championship warning others of the catastrophes that can befall complacent Premier League clubs. Every season they’re assumed worthy of promotion by the strength in their squad: Martins Indi won third place at a World Cup with the Netherlands, Jack Butland was second choice goalkeeper at a World Cup for England. But putting them at the bottom of the Championship recalls watching Leeds dropping out of the top division when we were whispering to ourselves, ‘But Roque Junior won the World Cup.’
James Chester, raised by Old Trafford’s academy, a Welsh international with three seasons of Premier League experience for Hull and West Brom, took over in defence from teenager Nathan Collins, and immediately formed a creative partnership with United’s half-time substitute Pablo Hernandez. The magician can conjure passes through concrete, but it was easier to find the gaps in Stoke’s defence with Collins assisting him like Debbie McGee with a jackhammer.
Costa couldn’t believe what was happening when Stuart Dallas gave him the ball in the six-yard box after a one-two with Hernandez that captivated Stoke into stillness. He took a touch and doubts set in — Stoke couldn’t be defending as badly as this looked, what was the catch? But he only hesitated a moment, and moments after half-time, that was 2-0.
3-0 wasn’t far behind. Bielsa might prefer powerful crosses but I welcomed this return to the rapid short corners of autumn, when Hernandez and Jackie Harrison wouldn’t give teams time before converging on them from the wing. They let Klich think about repeating his goal against Middlesbrough, then Hernandez sent the ball across the pitch to Phillips, who gave Costa a touch while he watched Hernandez meandering through the penalty area to be near him. Stoke’s defenders watched him too, politely stepping aside to fetch his slippers and a newspaper while he waited in comfort for Phillips’ pass. To make things interesting Hernandez chose Liam Cooper to shoot, and his celebration after hitting the ball in off the near post was full of grins to bring even the dourest crowdie to their feet.
Before the game Michael O’Neill had tempered his hope that Leeds would be missing their ‘ferocious’ home support by observing that the players could generate enough ferocity of their own. It was never quite that, because it didn’t need to be. Stoke were so beaten that Leeds opted for puppy gums on their arms, gripping not biting.
Harrison strolled through one counter attack as if having his belly rubbed, although when the ball was blocked Hernandez slammed into a tackle to reclaim it as if to remind Stoke that this was playtime at United’s discretion.
The fourth goal was gentle, Leeds passing 26 times in their own half but never without purpose, advancing and retreating in their search for space, until it was found behind Stoke’s left-back and Klich took the ball from White so Luke Ayling could put Costa there. He rolled the ball across the edge of the penalty area and Bamford stepped over it so Hernandez could finish. The ball was here and then it was there, and the fun of it all is how easily Leeds find such brilliance.
Bamford had hit the bar since his first half effort and scored the Peacocks’ fifth in stoppage time when Ayling, with a shrug as if Stoke were leaving him no choice, drifted a long pass into the penalty area that Bamford, counting the bounces, hit first time across Butland and in off both posts.
He deserved the goal, and I wonder how many more he might have scored had Leeds not been so kind to Stoke. After the exhaustion needed to score one against Luton, United conserved their strength through these five. Substitutions and drinks breaks have lengthened stoppage times but the referee blew up at the restart, and could have sounded the whistle any time after the 50th minute to get everyone home in time for Eastenders. O’Neill must have been relieved when it was over, and that social distancing removes the obligation Bielsa feels to cheer up opposing coaches at the end.
Brentford’s coach, Thomas Frank, might be enjoying his attempts at applying psychology to the promotion race, but as his smirk subsides he ought to have a quiet think about the quiet nonchalance Leeds used to dispose of Stoke. He’ll need to think of another way of increasing the pressure at Elland Road, where Leeds are playing as if promotion is now only a matter of time. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)