Do teams get knocked out of the Carabao Cup, or released from it? The draw for the quarter-finals won’t be any of our concern. Upon the final whistle at Leicester, we were able to yank the Carabao straws out from our throats where Shaun Harvey had stuck them, and chuck them back in his ever increasingly circular face. One less Harvey scheme held over us; pity those poor souls still stuck in Checkatrade purgatory.
That word though — quarter-finals — Leeds were close enough to dream. We know from APOEL what Thomas Christiansen can do in the Europa League; imagine the players we might attract in the summer, whether we go up this season or not, if we could promise them European football and the chance to train with Samuel Saiz every day.
We’d probably sign better players than many of the players we signed this summer, who with our departure from the competition will disappear from view for a while now. The other reason to regret the end of our interest in this competition, apart from the end of the chance to win it, is the end of the opportunities for some of our mysterious reserves to impress, or otherwise.
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We’ve seen more of some than others. Pablo Hernandez is not new, or strictly a reserve, but he is mysterious, more and more. His penalty against Reading defied any sense; his peaks and troughs throughout a Championship season that demands consistency are impossible to predict. Here, in a Premier League stadium, wearing the armband and wearing the responsibility of clear seniority to those around him, he was back to his prowling best. All midfield was his, and he roamed the spaces, considering his next moves, relieved that no Sol Bamba equivalents were getting in his path.
Pablo’s best moment was our best moment, as he collected the ball on the edge of the box and chucked his legs into a Charleston like a flapper girl from the jazz age, dancing away from a lecherous gang in a silent movie. Once he’d got away from them, he recovered his poise and grace, and stroked the ball onto the underside of the crossbar. Penalty? Nobody needs to talk about that penalty anymore. We’ll still talk about Saiz, but when we do, we’ll have this from Pablo to chew on, too. Hernandez isn’t dead, baby. Hernandez isn’t dead.
If Pablo made a confident declaration of his continuing readiness for the first team, the other player recently dropped, if you’ll pardon the possible pun, Felix Wiedwald, gave another feeble meow. Wiedwald can’t catch anything these days, let alone a break. Soon after Hernandez had scored, United’s defence was broken by a diagonal ball between Jansson and Shaughnessy; a gap opened up that a goalkeeper could fill, but Wiedwald thought twice, leaving him with only one decision — to slide towards the ball and the Leicester attacker with his feet. It was a mess, but in a crude way, it worked; he would have got away with it, had Jansson and Shaughnessy not reconvened their partnership yards away from the ball, and allowed Iheanacho to shoot around Wiedwald into the corner of the goal.
I take no pleasure in punching Wiedwald’s performances, almost as little as he takes in punching footballs, especially now that this latest chance to change plunging perceptions of him turned into another fiasco. He’s been a goalkeeper for years now, so he can do some of these things, but his confidence now looks officially shot in ways it didn’t at the start of the season. We’ve definitely made him worse, and it’s not the first time Leeds United has done this to a player. He’s also not getting any help. Pontus Jansson loves a heroic clearance; he could have dealt with the original through ball before Wiedwald had time to get foolish, he could have stuck himself in the way when Iheanacho was getting ready to shoot. He could have been a bit more circumspect with some of the hospital backpasses he span towards his fragile keeper. But Wiedwald, first, has to help himself.
Around and between Pablo and Felix, Berardi’s suspension and the depths of his display at Turf Moor in the last round made Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s reputation the next needing repair work, which was achieved up until a point. Firstly, his lack of concentration still meant simple balls were bouncing off him out of play. Secondly, he was taken off injured at half-time. Apart from that, he was steady value, much better than against Burnley, no longer to be feared, but not likely to replace Berardi for the next two games: Vurnon Anita was playing too, looking fit and ready again.
Completing the back four, Conor Shaugnessy impressed again, winning balls in the air, blocking crosses into the box, and generally being much busier than Jansson. He was shown up for Leicester’s second goal, when a through ball went behind him and left him spinning and confused; Iheanacho crossed and Slimani couldn’t miss from close range, although he had done exactly that with a header a few minutes earlier. But it was a moment when Premier League pace and ability told on more than just Shaughnessy, and he coped well the rest of the night.
Likewise Mateusz Klich in midfield, playing a role that offered few chances to be eyecatching, unless he was screwing up as badly as he did in Cardiff. There was none of that, just satisfying midfield competence, alongside Kalvin Phillips, who took all the confidence of his weekend performance and channeled it into a defensive midfield hustle.
It’s up front where the praise runs out, like an underfunded church forcing its few parishioners to share hymnbooks. The charitable attitude to take is that, against Premier League opponents, with Leeds doing most of the defending, it was always going to be difficult for Kemar Roofe, Jay-Roy Grot and Pawel Cibicki to shake Leicester’s strong defence out of its comfort zone. Unfortunately, Leeds played well enough to justify more pressure on that defence, and that the pressure never came was largely down to the lack of application from the forward three.
Roofe was, as ever, effort and hustle. He always looks to me like a player who knows what’s required, he just isn’t always capable of delivering it. Grot and Cibicki, though, have yet to make a convincing case for being here, and didn’t offer many arguments at Leicester.
Grot did have a couple of moments in the first half. He seemed to be swapping with Roofe for right-wing duties, and on one of those excursions he held off defenders on the halfway line, played a long, controlled but rapid one-two with Roofe inside him, and got into the box, shooting powerfully and trying but failing to catch the keeper out at the near post. The second time, Phillips won the ball on halfway, and Grot ran for goal, getting within about twenty-five yards of it and shooting hard, low and wide. Save for a few backheels and flicks, though, efforts to convince that he’s what Saiz would be if he’d been fed on compost since birth, that was pretty much that from Grot.
Cibicki? I don’t think he did anything. So in that sense he at least maintained his performance from the Burnley game. Sometimes, when a camera catches Cibicki waiting for a corner to be taken or something, it can look like you’re watching a game from the group stages of the World Cup Finals; he looks like an unknown international footballer from one of the smaller UEFA nations, destined not to score in any of their games before heading home. There must also be a reason for the nickname, revealed in the in-flight SnapChat videos of United’s perilous flight home from Bristol, of ‘Baby Zlatan’, and hopefully it’s not just the Alice band. It’s certainly not the confidence.
These two are attracting a certain amount of ire, and accusations that Victor Orta has signed a load of rubbish that’ll never amount to anything at Leeds. But I’ve already invoked Wilko’s Ratio this season, Howard Wilkinson’s belief that if a manager signs ten players and six are a success, that manager has done very well. Leeds brought in thirteen in the summer window, not including the random assortment in the Under-23s, meaning 5.2 aren’t going to be up to scratch.
The figures may be skewed if we decide Samu Saiz should count as seven of the 7.8 successful players on his own. But right now, the only points in favour of Grot and Cibicki is that they were the last in, signed after Chris Wood finally got the transfer he’d waited his whole life for, and were almost afterthoughts after Lasogga. If Caleb Ekuban can recover from his broken foot the way Bristol City’s Matty Taylor has recovered from his broken nose, Grot will drop back down the pecking order; I dread to think what would have to happen to Saiz, Hernandez, Alioski, Dallas, Roofe, Phillips and the rest for us to be relying on Cibicki for the first team. But if they never do more than appear in cup games we don’t mind losing, and make up the numbers for eleven a side in training, we’ll not be any poorer for giving them a go.
Which is about the best that can be said for our Carabao adventures this season. It’s a shame, because once upon a time the League Cup was a destiny worth night sweats and rapid eye movement; dreams that died for Leeds fans at the end of March 1996. It’s also hard to dream when you’re full to the brim with Shaun Harvey’s favourite energy drink. We’ll take the good memories, of our last glimpses of Brown, Tonge and Pugh, and our first glimpses of Alioski and Saiz; of Tournament: Turf Moor, Pablo’s through ball in Burnley and his goal in Leicester. And we won’t let Grot, Cibicki or any of the others disturb our dreams of Saiz. Leeds United’s one to eleven are capable of heaven. Twelve to twenty-two will just have to do. ◉
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(feature image by Jim Ogden)