82 per cent

Plymouth Argyle 1-4 Leeds United: Soft skills, hard rain

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Rutter in the rain at Plymouth

If it comes down to the ugly equation made from wanting it more or less, it being winning the FA Cup, then Leeds United’s performance in this replay at Plymouth put Leeds on the right side of the draw for the next three rounds and the final.

Wembley – Wem-ber-lee, even – and an open top bus? Okay, it isn’t likely. But it won’t be for want of trying. As landfall rain tumbled and whipped across Home Park and the prime time BBC One commentators pleaded with their viewers to believe that these two teams, under regulation Champo conditions, love to play exciting football, it would have been understandable for anyone there, player, staff or fan, to feel like packing it in. It’s not in the FA Cup’s nature to be easy, no matter how much the FA try smoothing it for the benefit of the Premier League’s major moaners, but through a meandering first half it was hard to justify it being this difficult. Then came Argyle’s equaliser, a lousily defended free-kick knocked across goal and chested in, taking the whole business – the distraction, the travel, the expense, the weather, the sheer effort – towards extra-time and a thought that, if Joe Rodon hadn’t made that goal-stopping block at the end of the first game at Elland Road, everyone could be tucked up warm in bed right now. We’d all have been nearer sleep if he’d let a couple of things go in this game, too, but when Liam Cooper deflected a ball into danger in the first half, Rodon threw himself at a shot with a Cooperesque block from 2019 to stop it. Promotion was on the line back then, though. And it is now. And here Leeds were in Plymouth, in the cup, passing sentimental batons and striving so hard to win for no other reason than –

– Than it’s the chuffing point, isn’t it? Daniel Farke’s counter intuitive argument, whenever he is asked about resting players, has been that players love to play and that playing is as good as a rest. He was at it again after this game, which to observers was 120 gruelling, exhausting minutes, but which Farke said was, “not too much load today, it’s not bad”. Ethan Ampadu did get a rare rest, but Farke seemed like the one person glad for extra-time and the way it stretched Junior Firpo nearer to match fitness, gave Archie Gray fifty minutes in midfield, put forty minutes in the legs of Pat Bamford and Georginio Rutter plus half an hour for Crysencio Summerville. In a fortnight when travel will be time consuming, Farke was happy in the rain, presiding over a late night training session that will keep his lads sharper than working at Thorp Arch.

This was no light session, though. As they have been twice at Elland Road, Argyle were a determined match for Leeds, and while Ipswich Town’s rise from League One has grabbed headlines, Plymouth should be happy with comfortably hitting their target of taking a firm and fast grip on their new Champo status. It took some Green foolishness midway through the second half, and good tracking back by Joel Piroe, to let Sam Byram, Joe Gelhardt and Glen Kamara set up Wilf Gnonto, who with the new confidence of scoring at the weekend wasted no time with an early shot precisely into the bottom corner. He even helped repair his relations with doubtful fans by helping them back over the barriers when the celebrations were dying down. United’s own fooling gave up the equaliser from a free-kick, but Farke was prepared to tolerate that in the midst of 82 per cent possession in the second half – “It’s literally not possible to have more than 82 per cent,” he said – all being well that ended well.

The story of the win is really about extra time, and Farke had reckoned on his bench being a match-winning difference as the hard conditions became a drag on Plymouth’s hard work. Bringing on Bamford, Rutter and Summerville was not in itself a guarantee, though. Perhaps Summerville’s settling goal seven minutes into extra-time owed a lot to quality: he inched in off the wing, cut inside Ashley Phillips and picked a succulent spot in the far top corner. But with ten minutes to go, goal three was won from hard work, the three subs pressing Caleb Roberts on halfway until Bamford won the ball and gave it to Summerville, who passed it on so Rutter could scuff it in. The fourth, an own goal by Ryan Hardie, came from a corner that Leeds had seven players up front for. Ilia Gruev swung that ball in, after his night of passing and tackling contributed a great deal to Farke’s night of glowing keepball (I can imagine the manager resting his head on his hotel pillow later, whispering ’82 per cent’ to himself and chuckling). Joe Gelhardt had hit the post, Farke suggesting this was for the best as his shots have enough power to kill cows stone dead. He gets the same sympathy as Mateo Joseph, getting a rare steak – sorry, rare start – and getting a shot of his own tipped onto the bar.

Overall, every player who took their coat off in the rain did so with purpose, and if it took 120 minutes to win it took 120 minutes to win, and that was no problem. Farke said he was happy with the performance, “but even more with the soft skills today, that in difficult circumstances we wanted to have this win and we gave everything in order to win this game.” This game was played a year to the day since Jesse Marsch was sacked by Leeds, and if he was watching, perhaps he was wondering how Farke could bring on so many important players in such awful conditions and escape without Rodrigoing any of their vital ankles. The answer ought not to be a mystery to Marsch, because I think it’s psychological, but where it always seemed like Marsch replaced all he learned from playing with stuff he’d seen TED Talks about, Farke has the knack of reminding players why he and they wanted to play football in the first place.

“You started once to play football because you want to play football,” Farke said in the build up to this replay, “and when we all were younger we wanted to play each and every day. No one, our parents or grandparents or aunties and uncles, couldn’t tell us, no, you’re tired, you can’t play football. Each and every football player loves to play football … I’m never (too) tired to be involved in a football game, because this is what we’re all about. We love this sport, we’re addicted to the sport (and it’s not like) football would be the nicest thing without playing games.”

I suspect some version of that has been the message to United’s players as they travel from Leeds to Bristol and back, and Plymouth and back, and play Rotherham, and travel to Swansea, and travel to Plymouth. It’s true that, after giving his shirt away to the fans, Archie Gray walked off in his baselayer looking cold, shivering, soaked through from an hour outside in the ceaseless coastal rain. But he knows from his boss, and his dad and his grandad and his uncle, that this is exactly what he signed up for, what any of them at their age would give anything to swap with him to do. Kick a ball, win the game; cold bones, hot shower, exhausted, go to sleep. Dream of winning the FA Cup, or just dream that when you wake up you’re a professional footballer, loving what you’re lucky to do. Leeds don’t have to dream that because they’re doing that. Well, maybe not the winning the cup part. But then again, maybe. ⬢

(Photograph by Adam Davies/PA, via Alamy)

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