This season we’ve seen surprising Leeds United, when they shook off a skittish preseason to take a commanding early lead against Bolton, and we’ve seen delightful Leeds United, in the Carabao Cup.
Grinding Leeds United showed up for the two home nil-alls against Preston and Fulham, followed by against-the-odds Leeds United for the trip to Sunderland. Although the odds shift caused by the prematch striker sale kerfuffle was balanced out by the presence of Agent Grayson.
Now we welcome efficient Leeds United, a team with a strong defence and attacking flair to spare, who sternly picked Nottingham Forest apart, and look like they’re here to stay.
Forest’s season so far has been that of most Championship promotion hopefuls, mixing wins over Millwall, Brentford and Middlesbrough with a league defeat to Barnsley and a Carabao-fuelled victory over Premier League Newcastle. That’s about as good as form gets in this division, and with goalscoring midfielder Andreas Bouchalakis joined by halfway-shy tackler Liam Bridcutt in the centre, they could justifiably claim to be one of the Championship’s topper sides.
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It was inevitable then that within four minutes Samuel Saiz would be on the floor, shaking his head sadly and giving Bridcutt a pitying look, after Liam tried to show who was going to be boss in midfield. It wasn’t going to be Saiz — that’s not his game. But Bridcutt took a move to Nottingham Forest rather than try to dislodge Kalvin Phillips from Leeds United’s midfield, so it was no wonder he started by picking on the one guy even littler than himself, rather than the tigerish fella with the ‘fro looming over him in the centre circle.
My stat of choice here is tackles attempted, which for Bridcutt shows three, two at left-back and one at right-back; for Phillips it’s seven, in every area of the pitch between the two penalty areas, backed up by Eunan O’Kane with five in a similar pattern. And this in a game that Leeds controlled and won 2-0.
There are two reasons for that. First, Leeds United’s midfield was fighting harder for possession than Nottingham Forest’s; Bridcutt’s midfield partner didn’t try any tackles at all in his hour on the pitch, whereas Phillips and O’Kane were in hard everywhere. Second, Forest couldn’t get near enough to Saiz or Ezgjan Alioski to even try to get the ball.
They could get close enough to foul, and Alioski took some severe clatterings, fair and foul, from Armand Traore. One late tackle left Alioski on the floor and Traore accusing him of making a meal out of it, so Alioski got up, got the ball, and left Traore looking for his breakfast, inviting him to foul him again and then zooming past him up the touchline. There will be fewer more beautiful sights this season than Championship wannabe hardmen being embarrassed by our Macedonian Pop Idol contestant on the wing.
Speaking of beauty, at one point Pablo Hernandez tried to backheel a volley to Saiz, and if that had come off Leeds United should have been awarded the trophies for all three divisions of the Football League straight away, and the Carabao Cup to boot. It didn’t quite, and there was a lot of not-quiteness from Leeds going forward, Saiz and Alioski’s one-twos and long shots not quite finding their mark, meaning their performances were merely very good instead of bloody great.
But even when he finished Traore, Alioski wasn’t done. Leaving Traore flailing on the right wing, he crossed to Saiz, but it didn’t quite find him; so Alioski sprinted over to the left to get the ball again, firing a cross into the six-yard box that Kemar Roofe was too deep to meet. So Alioski ran all the way back to the right wing again, trying desperately to keep the move going. Those tackle numbers again tell a story: Alioski’s six split Phillips and O’Kane, only Ayling — nine — doing more.
Defending needed doing, and a major part of the attraction of Alioski and Saiz is that they’re not content to be passengers when Leeds aren’t attacking. Forest’s main tactic was to give the ball to Barrie McKay and let him do what he could down the wing. At one point he was boxed in by four Leeds players, with two more on hand should he slip by, and Forest’s possession was never a match for United’s work rate.
Leeds were content for Forest to have that possession, because it never amounted to control: Leeds had taken that. It wasn’t always comfortable, even after the lead was taken too. That came from a very good goal involving two very underrated players. Matt Mills headed away a free-kick, as he often does, but Liam Cooper headed the ball precisely across goal to Roofe, who headed it into the goal, as he often doesn’t.
Cooper’s liking for a defensive mistake has led to past accusations of brainlessness, but here he was, with the vision to play a killer attacking pass with his brain-container. Roofe’s finish showed the value of confidence after his midweek hat-trick, three goals that ascended in difficulty and bravery of attempt goal by goal, culminating in this fourth at Forest. Had this chance come to Roofe last Saturday, he’d probably have tried to bring the ball down and ended up passing lamely to the keeper. Instead it went straight into the goal, and Roofe went straight behind it, doing a celebration straight off the Premier League on telly.
The goal prompted more life in Nottingham’s attack, but Leeds soon shut that down, Cooper and Jansson passing the ball between themselves at the back until Forest gave up and went away. Felix Wiedwald made some rare appearances without the ball at his feet, sprinting off his line to deal with through balls, and staying on his line to save a tame header from Mills.
Leeds saw out the half then showed Forest some more stuff when the second started. Within ten seconds of the restart Leeds were on the edge of Forest’s penalty area, and within a minute Roofe was inside it with the ball. The substitution of Bouchalakis improved Forest’s prospects, but any grip they had on midfield was tenuous. Bridcutt was either going to score or be booked on his debut; he went for a booking, cleaning out Saiz’s ankles as he slid behind him. Soon after, Bridcutt had the ball on the halfway line and chipped it straight through to Wiedwald, who didn’t have a Forest player within thirty yards of him. I’m sure Bridcutt was good at some stuff once, but I can’t be bothered remembering what it was.
Leeds’ preferred method of defending their lead was keeping the ball, patient attacking a more effective form of protection than last ditch tackling. If Forest didn’t have the ball, they couldn’t score, and if Leeds didn’t score every time they had the ball, they were at least prepared to wait. That was supposed to be Forest’s attitude too, but the home fans weren’t comfortable with their slow chase for an equaliser, grumbling at sideways passes, while Leeds fans lapped them up from Jansson and Cooper. This fixture looked and felt very different from the days when it was Brian Clough versus Howard Wilkinson.
McKay did manage to create a chance, running diagonally from halfway into Leeds’ box before being crowded out. It was a reminder that while controlling the game was very nice, scoring a second goal would be nice too, so Hernandez and Saiz took the ball up the other end and had a go at doing exactly that. Thomas Christiansen gave them some help by sending nature’s magnificent beast, Jay-Roy Grot, on for his debut, with plenty of words of advice and encouragement.
I’m not sure if Christiansen specifically told him to batter Traore at the first opportunity, but that’s what he did, gently shoving the defender and watching as he flew towards the Trent. Before that, Grot had already headed two Forest corners clear at the near post — something I think he’ll be doing a lot — and in attack had controlled a high ball on his chest, somewhere in the stratosphere, brought it down to earth, and then tried to flick it not only around the corner to Alioski, but round the corner, down the street and over the main road to the next estate, it was that audacious.
Later Grot nutmegged Traore, did some stepovers and flicked the ball to Saiz. God help us all if he can actually play football with those feet, as well as banging the ball really hard at the goal, which he did here too, although it was blocked by some poor bruised soul.
Christiansen responded to speculation about Stuart Dallas last week by saying “I need a player like Stuart,” and to prove it he brought him on for the last fifteen minutes, perhaps to balance the exuberance around him. Alioski had a go at winning the game by running the length of the pitch with the ball, but the nearer he got to goal the more excited he became, and all that giddiness was wasted in a tame shot.
It wasn’t comfortable watching Leeds with only a one goal lead, but Saiz seemed very comfortable with the space available when Leeds counter attacked. With one pass he bypassed nearby Dallas and poured the ball over the pitch to Alioski, who should have done better than trying to go around Traore. Then, profiting from another Alioski break from deep, Saiz took the ball on the right and curled a pass all the way across the pitch, dropping it onto Dallas’ foot and giving him a chance to shoot.
I would happily marry either one of these passes, but they didn’t seem the marrying kind, sending pages torn from the Kama Sutra fluttering across the City Ground pitch behind them. Forest were as entranced as I was; Saiz was able to roll the ball around under his foot ten yards from their goal, dribbling this way and that, searching not for the most earnest goal, but for the opportunity that, when it opened up, would be the fastest route to pleasure.
That Saiz wasn’t involved in the second goal seemed almost unfair, but that it came from Kalvin Phillips’ brutal intervention was poetic justice. Tendayi Darikwa tried to run with the ball into midfield, so Phillips tackled him, which only tells a sliver of the story of perception, timing, opportunism and ruthlessness that explains how Phillips took the ball. O’Kane won the race as the ball ran loose and tapped it to Alioski who, on a day when his feet seemed to be outrunning his brain, combined them perfectly for a shot from twenty yards, straight and low into the corner.
Alioski had controlled his feet but nobody in the away end was controlling their limbs, which were all over the shop as celebrations with fans and players combined went on for hours, without anybody needing Sergio Aguero to intervene on behalf of happiness. 1-0 would have been a third solid away win of the season. 2-0, with a goal that combined power, imagination and cutting edge, was ecstasy. There was still time for a try at 3-0, Alioski bouncing a pass from O’Kane off his heel to Saiz, who shot over.
Power, imagination, cutting edge; strength, flair and ruthlessness. They describe the second goal and they describe the team performance, and while it’d be daft to suggest that one game equals any kind of perfection, what this game did was emphasise how the first few weeks of the season have shifted Leeds United’s minimum level to a place high above anything anybody expected. Things have been coming together in pieces, building up game by game, as we watch and learn about the new coach and the new players, and the rejuvenated players, and the ones who have left. This game was everything that has been good so far, at once, a triumphant moment to break for the internationals.
There’s loads left to do, and a lot of it needs to be done before the first two games after the break, quick home games against Burton then Birmingham. Leeds haven’t scored a home league goal yet, and that can’t become a thing. But they haven’t conceded either, which is very welcome to become a thing, and it’s that sort of platform we’ve seen Christiansen building over these first few weeks.
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But instead of concrete foundations, he’s made his platforms from high-diving boards way up in the sky, and even if we topple off them now, we’ll do some lovely acrobatics on the way down. The feeling is, though, that Leeds United can go much higher still before anybody needs to think about falling. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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