One of the few things that made sense about this game was the Leeds United starting eleven. Thomas Christiansen made some practical changes, and then things stopped making sense.
Newport County’s hard, bounceless, bobble-filled pitch was no place for the delicate feet of Saiz, Hernandez or Alioski. Felix Wiedwald, under long balls and set pieces, with backpasses bouncing towards him, was not going to be the one. They were wisely left out.
And besides, other players have, we thought, been chewing the changing room pegs at Thorp Arch, desperate for an opportunity to prove themselves, especially now the transfer window is open and Leeds fans are clamouring for replacements. Pierre-Michel Lasogga. Jay-Roy Grot. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. There were some without double-barrelled names, too: Vurnon Anita, Mateusz Klich, Hadi Sacko, Pawel Cibicki, Conor Shaughnessy, Matthew Pennington. Players with enough quality and experience to be too good for Newport, but who haven’t been able to establish themselves in the Leeds United first team.
Well, this was their chance. Take Borthwick-Jackson, for example. Luke Ayling was injured in the last game, and if Gaetano Berardi has to spend a few weeks covering for him, the left-back spot is there for the taking, and perhaps never for giving back. This was the opportunity that must have kept Borthwick-Jackson working hard through the fruitless training sessions of winter.
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Berardi was actually alongside him, because Pennington missed the game with a knock, and Thomas Christiansen presumably didn’t want to use Cooper. Berardi was captain and went to centre-back alongside Shaughnessy, and then he went to heaven, and took us all with him.
“My last goal? I’ve never scored!” Berardi told us when we interviewed him for TSB. “I’ve tried to! I’m trying to score. But I need a good moment to score.”
Getting the ball in space thirty yards from Newport’s goal, Berardi must have weighed everything up — Trump, impending nuclear war, climate change, Mourinho vs Conte — and decided this was the moment we needed goodness the most. He kicked the ball, it went through and past player after player, it swerved away from the keeper, and it went into the net. And then Berardi went into the crowd. And then the world was illuminated by the empty clarity of true light radiating from a goalmouth in Wales.
It obscured all evil, and the rest of the first half passed in a luminous purity, from which the only things I remember are Berardi’s goal, Berardi blocking a shot on the goal line, Berardi blocking another shot from a narrow angle, Berardi winning headers in the box, Berardi controlling play on the halfway line, and replays, glorious replays, of Berardi scoring a goal for Leeds United.
If this was the moment for goodness, then we had it. But the world is not ready for goodness, as the second half proved. Perhaps Berardi, in that pure clarity, foresaw it, and hoped the light of his goal would last long enough to render it invisible. Perhaps we’d wake up on some other day, and see the result, but be spared from being conscious of the details.
Instead darkness began puncturing the light. Eight players in this team were there to earn their right to play every week, and Berardi had shown them the stars. One by one, they turned away, making for the gutter.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, with the greatest opportunity, was first to drain away. In his last two Carabao Cup appearances, Borthwick-Jackson had been substituted: on the hour at Burnley, at half-time at Leicester. This time he again lasted an hour, but he was bound for the sewers long before that. One of those towering Berardi defensive headers had fallen towards Borthwick-Jackson to clear in his own box; instead he let Robbie Willmott have the ball and shoot over. I remember seeing Borthwick-Jackson do exactly the same before. No improvement, no concentration, no attention, maybe even no interest in the game.
Far from guaranteeing the shirt for himself, Borthwick-Jackson guaranteed that this will be the last game he plays for Leeds United, and he has nobody to blame but himself. He was given a chance to play ninety minutes, but he couldn’t even manage an hour.
Bad for Borthwick-Jackson, but frankly, I don’t care about that. More worrying was that our only alternative for left-back, Vurnon Anita, was being beaten again and again, slowly, by Frank Nouble, Newport’s tall and lumbering winger, given no trouble by Anita, who played like he doesn’t want the trouble of playing, which means trouble for us.
For others there may still be hope. Scoring the own goal that darkened the sky between the galaxies shining to salute Berardi was, completely, Conor Shaughnessy’s fault. He should have easily cleared Newport’s low cross, but instead he did a Bambi shuffle and shanked the ball off his left leg, off to his left, and past Andy Lonergan. Otherwise, he played like what he is; a young midfielder recently converted to centre-back who has shown enough in the Championship to suggest he might have a future. This game shouldn’t derail that.
Likewise Mateusz Klich, who when he had the ball at least played like he was a level or two above Newport. They tried to kick him and drag him but he was strong enough to keep possession; he spent the second half sending positive through balls into the channels, mainly towards Sacko. He never controlled midfield, but wasn’t helped by Kalvin Phillips, coasting alongside him, playing as if he had nothing to prove, and in so doing joining the ranks of those who have.
There’s not much room down there. The forest animals who had come to gaze on Berardi’s glory turned their fluffy tails and ran back into the woods, as shadows drew frightening shapes across the pitch. Long shapes, wide, oval and pudgy. Following the lines of darkness that obliterated the light took you to the four hooves of Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Jay-Roy Grot.
Thomas Christiansen played them side by side as if allowing them their own contest for United’s usual single striking position. The judges’ marks will show that on this evidence the best player for the role is Berardi, only we need him at the back.
The faults in these two have been clear in the Championship, but allowances have been fairly made. Lasogga, to his credit, started at Leeds with goals and assists. Grot is young, and dealing with a step up in playing level. Leeds, previously, had beaten Newport 5-1 in the Carabao Cup, and a repeat score, with Lasogga and Grot adding two each to Berardi’s opener, would have justified the sympathy given them so far.
They couldn’t have asked for more, and they couldn’t have given any less. Not only in terms of the chances they’ve been given previously in the first team, or the chance they were given to shoot a few fish in a barrel over this Sunday lunchtime, but in terms of the service they were given from the team. I am, out of necessity, excusing Sacko and Cibicki from this report; we know all about Sacko anyway, but it’s impossible to judge how either of them delivered given they were aiming crosses and passes at two heavy-gravity masses that sucked all the light from the game.
From wide, from midfield, from defence, balls were aimed at Grot and Lasogga’s head, feet, and everywhere in between. They either couldn’t control them, or couldn’t run towards them, but they certainly weren’t doing anything with them. Grot’s main contribution was to lose a ball he actually had under control, and as if he had no idea what to do when a Newport defender came in to claim it, hanging out an uncertain leg that meant a certain yellow card. Lasogga’s main contribution was to lose interest or ability to run into the box, and try shooting from further and further out.
Grot’s replacement by Saiz ought to have restored some order. It meant a return to something like a first choice attack with Saiz behind a lone Lasogga, Sacko and Cibicki either side. But Shaughnessy’s equaliser came almost immediately, and the so-called magic of the FA Cup took over; a League Two team with momentum bombarding a makeshift defence, with a barely warmed up substitute Liam Cooper unable to bring any stability. From a second successive corner, substitute Shaun McCoulsky rose to head straight in, climbing easily above Phillips, the two of them watched by Lasogga.
Saiz had been on the field fifteen minutes and not touched the ball; he was ready to touch it to take the restart, but referee Mike Dean sent him off. Robbie Willmott was pointing at something on his shirt, and pointing at Saiz; Saiz was pointing with his elbow, and jabbing a finger at Paul Hayes; soon Berardi was pinning Saiz’s arms to stop him making things worse, then Cooper was marching him towards the tunnel. It was confirmed later that the red card was for spitting, and now we wait for it to be confirmed whether the red card was correct — it sounds like it was — and how long his ban will be.
Earlier in the season Saiz was accused of “spitting in Joe Davis’ face in the 40th minute” of our Carabao Cup game by then Port Vale manager Michael Brown, but the FA cleared Saiz of the accusation, and I personally spent more time than I care to remember watching the match footage to try to find the incident. The camera is on Saiz and Davis in the 40th minute, and certainly doesn’t show anyone’s face being spat in, nor Davis reacting as he might if it had. In the five minutes either side there was no other opportunity for spitting to happen, or for it to happen off camera — their positions didn’t bring them into contact.
But even without specific previous Saiz does have a reputation as a hothead, a side of his character we’ve not experienced much of at Leeds, because he’s outgrown it in the last two seasons. Aged 24, he was regarded in Spain as a talent wasted, more concerned with partying than playing, lurching from B-team to B-team in Segunda Liga amid arguments, controversies and club suspensions. Think John Sheridan as a Madrid millennial.
In 2015/16, Huesca hired Juan Antonio Anquela as coach, and Saiz found his mentor; two seasons of magical play followed, as did fatherhood and a health scare for his wife, all of which seemed to give him the focus, desire and maturity to perform with such brilliance and influence for Leeds so far.
A six game ban for spitting, if that’s what Saiz ends up with, ought to give him plenty of time to rediscover the recently improved Saiz, and make this a one-off visit from an old devil that no longer sits on his shoulder. Then he can come back and concentrate on being good again.
For others in this game, six games wouldn’t be long enough. I never want to see Cameron Borthwick-Jackson in a Leeds shirt again. I’m not very keen on another look at Vurnon Anita’s Mobo Awards outfit. We can get a loan player as good or as bad as Pierre-Michel Lasogga from anywhere, and I’ve lost interest in watching him trying to get up to speed in the Championship now he hasn’t even shown the pace for League Two. Jay-Roy Grot is young enough to reform, but he needs to do it out of sight and for a very long time.
And Thomas Christiansen needs to take a harder line. He said that he didn’t speak to the players after the game, because they already knew what they’d done; an old Don Revie tactic, who started leaving analysis of errors until the calm of Monday morning after Jack Charlton threw a cup of tea at him during a half-time argument. In a way, if any players need Christiansen to tell them where they went wrong in this game, they’re not likely to hear what he’s saying anyway.
What he needs to do is end the chances. There was a more than fair opportunity here for certain players, and they ruined it. This game has immediately been compared to the defeat at Sutton United last season, but this was slightly different. The mystery in Garry Monk’s selection that day was the presence of Paul McKay and Billy Whitehouse, players nobody had ever suggested should be anywhere near the first team. The mystery of Christiansen’s selection at Newport is that it was very similar to the sides that played in the Carabao Cup this season, with no problems and a small amount of glory, but this time there were only problems, and no glory but Berardi’s.
This ought to sharpen the focus. In a way, looking at the wreckage of this match, you can understand the club’s reluctance to try buying its way to promotion this January; I suspect they know, deep down, or rather shallow down, that the squad is further away than the league table suggests. That doesn’t mean spending shouldn’t happen. There are strong rumours about signing left-back Laurens De Bock from Club Brugge, and Borthwick-Jackson and Anita just made that transfer a priority.
Of the players we already have, Kemar Roofe now picks himself as striker until Caleb Ekuban is fit. Pablo Hernandez will revert to number ten until we see Saiz again. Cibicki has shown he’s better than this game; Ezgjan Alioski too. Kalvin Phillips is good when he’s awake, but there were enough glimmers from Klich to suggest he could partner Ronaldo Vieira. Pontus Jansson, Liam Cooper and Felix Wiedwald can cope with most of what the Championship throws at them, as long as it doesn’t bounce funny.
Play them, and hope they stay fit and eligible; then, while I’ve never been an advocate of ‘sticking the kids in’, I’d give Lasogga’s place on the bench to Jack Clarke, and make room next to him for Oriel Rey, Tom Pearce and Liam Kitching. Because one of the worst things about today was seeing the bench filled with genuine prospects who, had the game been put away as it should have been by the wannabes that started it, were ready to make valuable debut appearances. Their opportunity was denied by the incompetents on the pitch, and it shouldn’t be denied by them again.
For now, though, it’s going to be a long, long week before the next game, a cycle of Saiz, saliva, Christiansen, Orta, transfers and Grot. Or, a cycle of Berardi’s goal on a loop, because I want to remember what it felt like to know that football can be pure. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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