Unusually on a trip to Millwall, Leeds United used this game to make lots of good assertions about themselves, fulfilling expectations we hadn’t even thought of yet. This was the team’s post-international break unveiling and their proper post-transfer window debut, a tightrope decorated with obstacles courtesy of our opponents in south London and ourselves not just being from Beeston but from within. And it was fine. Everything about this was fine. Even Djed Spence’s injured knee is, overall, fine. Luke Ayling will play forever.
It seems like a long time since Leeds last used a break to actually refresh themselves. Even during last season’s half-a-season of pre-seasons, the time to train and improve only seemed to make the team worse. But now Leeds have come back from a couple of rounds of international fixtures looking like a normal team, making pleasant work of playing football instead of insisting on hard, losing ways. This wasn’t a spectacular 3-0 like last season’s demolition of Chelsea, or a game to leave you gasping like the wins over Liverpool and Bournemouth; it didn’t have the tension of our wins over Southampton or Nottingham Forest, or the helter-skelter tripping at Wolves or more recently at Ipswich. The better team played better and won, and it was Leeds.
The Den, in theory, is a tough place to go, but Millwall being Millwall makes them predictable, which is useful. United’s problem, dating back to 1985 when our club lowered itself to playing Millwall on the regular, has been not making enough use of that obviousness. Daniel Farke, however, knows the division and knew how to get his team through the first fifteen minutes, a storm of noise and Millwavian attacking that previous Leeds teams, regardless of quality, have struggled to withstand.
This team, with its enviable front four plus more on the bench, is supposed to be all about attacking, but its strength here began at the back where the biggest risk to Pascal Struijk or Illan Meslier was their memories playing tricks on them. Sometimes they look like they still think they’re under pressure from Mo Salah or Harry Kane, when actually it’s just Tom Bradshaw and some guy from Hibs. When Leeds could get out from under, they aimed down the left with Wilf Gnonto and Sam Byram, discovering faults in Ryan Leonard’s game – mainly that he thinks he should be blocking off the ball like in gridiron – that any normal referee would have given a yellow card for, giving an early advantage to Leeds. Chris Kavanagh was not that normal referee, booking nobody in the end, but Leeds were finding the weak spots anyway.
United’s opening goal ended Millwall’s quarter-hour of optimism. We’ll come back to it. Scoring first had one obvious effect – Leeds took the lead – but that’s been rare enough that it’s worth mentioning. But this goal also gave Leeds a script for the rest of the match so all they had to do was follow it. It wasn’t exactly a dynamite, action-packed plot: long before half-time, Meslier was spending as long as he could with the ball at his feet, faking pickups to waste a few more seconds. This iteration of Farkeball, without the inspiration of a Pablo Hernandez or Emi Buendia, feels utilitarian through necessity becoming design. With the lead, the manager was content to watch Leeds going through the steady motions involved in keeping that lead – keeping the ball as much as possible, keeping it away from goal when Millwall got it. Farke looked confident that, thanks to what United’s attacking players are capable of, patience would be a virtue bringing rewards to this team.
Millwall, trying to win from losing at home, got giddy. Gary Rowett took breaks from agitating the fourth official to make an attacking triple substitution, then another change for good measure, and while I can’t confirm Farke was licking his lips when he responded by replacing his two young wingers with two fresher more experienced wingers, I can easily imagine him thinking, well, let’s see. Within a little more than ten minutes the game was won. Ethan Ampadu was vital to the second goal, tempting Millwall’s midfield towards him then releasing the ball into space for Dan James, who fed Georginio Rutter out wide and sprinted into the six yard box, where he stumbled instead of scoring – I swear I’ve seen him do that before – leaving Joel Piroe to tap in at the back post. The third was more of Millwall’s instigating, their attack collapsing on the edge of the area, Ayling playing a simple but effective pass over halfway to James. He aimed his cross in front of Rutter for a first time finish, but it deflected a little behind Rutter instead, meaning a touch to control and a rocket into the roof of the net. Well, let’s see. Well, we saw.
These thrilling moments are the reason why football is sometimes enjoyed better from highlights – just gimme the goals, and the replays of the goals, and save the bits where our keeper is taunting someone into trying a tackle for the clock-watchers and Paul Heckingbottom. There’s a risk, and I’ll just whisper it, that Farke’s Leeds might be shaping up to be, at times, in a tiny voice, a bit boring. But that’s okay.
Because now we go back to the opening goal, because I want to explain it as the goal that made everything else in the game worthwhile. It was a goal worth waiting fifteen minutes for, and after the match, a goal worth rewinding through the mundane bits to watch again. Millwall were still in their first rushes of attacking but this time Ayling was too clever to be beaten, stumbling in his own penalty area but with his feet in the air and his head on the ground somehow still pixieing the ball away from danger. Piroe did not foul Kevin Nisbet, despite Millwall’s claims, and from there everything was perfect for Leeds. Rutter, leaving his caterpillar days behind him, ran through the middle at his own unpredictable rate; he played wide for Gnonto, who passed it back to him as Piroe ran between them; Rutter, having moved across to worry the defenders and create the space for his partner, tapped the ball into Piroe’s path and now he was one on one, unmissably one on one, finishing with confidence we’ve missed up front, panache that is glory, technique that is goals, a striker’s finish even if he was playing behind Rutter again. That worked – all of this worked. Rutter was doing Millwall a concern all game, setting Piroe up to score twice then getting his own.
The thing about this goal is that, on the morning of the game, I’d watched the highlights of Brighton’s win at Old Trafford, and it had left my heart heavy. I keep thinking that Roberto De Zerbi, a maverick disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, should not be managing Brighton, he should be managing Leeds United. And their opening goal – a swift outbreak of passing and overloading down the right wing that tangled the Trafford defenders up with, of all things, space – was a beauty. The sort of goal Leeds used to score, when we used to play like that. The sort Uruguay were scoring last week, now they’re learning to play like that.
I didn’t have to spend long feeling blue. Perhaps there’s some truth in the fact that Erik Ten Hag is turning his team into nothing much better than an expensive Millwall. But I’m not here to believe in them. I’m here to believe that Leeds United’s opening goal was as beautiful as Brighton’s, more beautiful because it was scored by our players, not theirs or anyone else’s, and even if these moments are going to be separated by long spells while there’s not much more to watch than our team keeping control, I think we can find a way to celebrate that, rather than bemoan it. Leeds at Millwall gave us a match like a duvet of just the right thickness for an autumn day, decorated with a bright trendy pattern to keep us cheerful as well as snug. ⬢