If only all encounters with Millwall could be reduced, like this one, to two minutes, their presence in the Championship might be tolerable.
The match was settled like this. With two minutes of the game left, the ball bounced into Millwall’s dugout, where their staff knocked it around a bit, keeping it away from Ezgjan Alioski like playground bullies stealing his schoolbag. I’ve written previously about how little time Marcelo Bielsa has for off-the-ball rucks and arguments with referees — it’s not how you score goals — and as Leeds players converged to do battle, Bielsa rose from his bucket, marched across the technical area and shooed them all away. They responded instantly, as transfixed by his power as a flock of geese encountering a border collie, turning and running back to their positions.
That left Bielsa among the Millwall — well, I’m loathe to call Neil Harris and David Livermore ‘technical’ staff. He said later that he felt embarrassed by his behaviour, that he’s old enough to know better, but as he turned to each talking tracksuit, he pointed and yelled at them one by one, as if telling them all to grow up.
This minor ruckus, emphatically finished by Bielsa going full dad, didn’t cause Leeds United’s goal, but the goal came so soon that we can wrap the whole lot up together like a delicious order of fish and chips to take home, ready to eat when the vinegar has soaked through the paper and the newsprint has transferred to the chips: we can read ‘Jack Harrison late equaliser’ off a slice of fried potato while licking our salty fingers. It was a goal to savour. A clearance out of Millwall’s penalty area dropped onto Harrison’s chest, his second touch moved him into space, and his third angled a left-foot shot low inside the far post, as if drawn using Bielsa’s own set-square.
It came so quickly after the argument that, while three or four Leeds players ran to get the ball and restart the game, Samu Saiz held his celebrations in United’s technical area, right where the Millwall bench could see him. This was some effort, given the chance had come from his original cross aimed at Liam Cooper, from the far side of the pitch.
But a bit of aggro can go a long way in a game like this, and a season like this. Bielsa is wise to ward off distractions, if only for the sake of keeping his own temper under control. But as he said in his first press conference, management is about, “Getting players to play [by] appealing to their emotions and inspiring them to play,” and that, “I think the biggest factor that gets players playing is emotion.” Hate is an emotion; you’ve all seen Neil Harris’ face. Bielsa ushered his players away before they could become too distressed by that pale, mouldering strawberry, but not before their determination to bloody get some bloody thing from bloody Millwall for bloody once was renewed for one last push.
Leeds bloody deserved something. We didn’t really need the other 88 minutes (plus stoppage time, which we really really didn’t need, least of all Tom Elliott hitting the post) of Millwall lumping high balls at Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson, reducing the terms of battle so that corners and long-throws became the crucial factors. As Bielsa pointed out, Leeds still aren’t good at defending those, as we saw when a throw-in was flicked on at the near post and scored at the back post by unmarked Jed Wallace. Jansson and Cooper were good at defending everything else, though; they made 30 clearances between them, winning 26 out of 37 aerial duels.
And what of Steve Morison, and his Zlatan Ibrahimovic pyjamas, or whatever he said? Neil Warnock’s Legacy was playing his 299th game for Millwall, was beaten eleven times out of 22 in the air, had one header on target, and moaned a lot at the referee before he was taken off in the 70th minute. The actual Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, scored his 500th career goal this weekend with a balletic spinning volley, and celebrated by sending his lawyers to Bermondsey to discuss various infringements upon his brand’s intellectual property. They already sent letters, but Steve couldn’t make head nor tail of those.
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Morison is almost exclusively motivated by hatred for Leeds United, his ego permanently bruised by our failure to appreciate all five of the goals he scored while playing for us. Motivation can extend ability, but it can only stretch it so far. No player looked more motivated, more stretched or more able to back it up than Saiz, the eventual tormentor of Millwall’s technical area, after a hard afternoon tormenting Millwall’s defence, sweating out the torment of his last visit to Millwall. That day, as everything Thomas Christiansen believed in crumbled around him, Saiz was the last to fall; he stuck relentlessly to his own frenetic playmaking style, refusing to give in as easily as his teammates. He was the same again on this visit, but propelled to greater influence by his bitter memories, and by the self-belief that deserted him between then and now, but that drives his best performances: his belief that he’s better than the players marking him, and his refusal to be dragged down to their level.
Saiz only had limited success, but his dedication to art while all against him smashed with hammers was fascinating to watch. I don’t know what a defeat would have done to Samu, but the draw filled his frustrating afternoon with reward. Saiz, and Leeds, created enough, but much as we might wish they hadn’t, they missed Kemar Roofe and Pablo Hernandez. Tyler Roberts didn’t annoy the defenders like Roofe, and he annoyed the Leeds fans like Roofe used to, missing four decent chances. Afterwards Bielsa borrowed from Howard Wilkinson’s line about Lee Chapman, that a good striker has to be in position to miss and nobody misses as much as Chapman, declaring he was happy with Roberts for having those chances at all. But if Roberts’ cutting edge isn’t sharpened up soon, Ryan Edmondson might be following Jamie Shackleton as an early season graduate from the Under-23s.
Hernandez was missed the same way he was against Middlesbrough, to add his intelligence to Saiz’s bustle; but where Saiz increases his commitment against Millwall, over the years Pablo has found The Den a difficult place to play, so we can’t say for sure what we were missing: good Pablo, or the shadow. Adam Forshaw’s late appearance as substitute was a reminder that Pablo doesn’t have the monopoly on brains at Leeds; Forshaw didn’t look match fit, but his mind was sharp enough to change the pace of United’s passing, while quarterbacking some smart forward balls. Unfortunately they went to Alioski who was having one of his days when if he wasn’t offside, he was aiming thoughtless crosses towards the Thames; but his mind was on defending, which might be just as valuable in the end.
The ultimate value of the match is one point, which doesn’t seem like much once the celebrations have died down. But the last time Leeds got anything from The Den — or even scored there — was March 2012, and progress comes from gains, however small. This gain also gave us a gap — only one point, but a gap — at the top of the table.
Bigger than the point, though, was the way it was taken. Bielsa might claim shame about marching around in front of Millwall’s dugout, shouting the odds, with memories of intense Rosario derby days and their insults, bottles and spit all he needed to handle these young punks. But the moment brought the match back to Leeds’ favour, by raising the stakes of Millwall’s preferred tactics: if they insisted, as they had for 88 minutes, on fighting, then Leeds would start a bigger fight, and win it.
There’s a misconception about Bielsa’s history, because of the glamorous players and teams he has been associated with — Hernan Crespo, Pep Guardiola, Argentina, Chile, Athletic Bilbao — that his advanced, attacking football requires swift and preferably expensive technical players to succeed, a mixture sure to dissolve in the heat of venues like The Den. It’s not so. As well as ability, Bielsa will use emotion, because either tool will work if used with total commitment, and one enhances the other. And if the game gets hot, he’ll turn the heat up, because by working his players harder — physically and emotionally — he increases their boiling point beyond wannabes like Millwall and Steve Morison. Leeds United might burn out this season, but they’re not going to wither away. ◉
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(feature image by Paul Kent)