No getting away

Preston North End 2-1 Leeds United: Swing the mood

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Illan Meslier looks calm but miffed, while Joe Rodon can't help flinging his arms up in despair, as the ref shows a red card at Deepdale

Festive blessings to Illan Meslier, because it’s a while since anyone did something this idiotic in a Leeds United shirt. There has been plenty of stupidity at Leeds over the last couple of years, but most of the time we could point to someone in a suit, or a duffel coat, or stressfully tight jeans as the instigator. Some of the management fixated crowd among modern football fandom will still make corporate complaints after this defeat, arguing from among key performance indicators that resources should have been better allocated to mitigate risk in the club’s goalkeeping department. But they’re looking in the wrong direction. This was personal. Happy Christmas Illan, you daft sod.

Meslier’s fractional loss of temper when he was challenged for a high cross was spotted and seized upon by Preston’s players, and the television replays break it down like a nature documentary. Let David Attenborough talk you through it: the moment when Ben Whiteman, forehead to forehead with United’s goalie, betrays himself with a grin of satisfaction for drawing Meslier into his trap; the drum of Milutin Osmajić’s hooves beating on the turf as he runs in to shove Meslier away; Osmajić’s choreographed fall and roll, and roll, and roll, when Meslier’s reaction, from the textbooks, is to shove him back. This was a performance as old as the game, rehearsed for more than a century on fields wherever football has been played. Could Meslier have got away with falling for Preston’s goading? Perhaps, if like Osmajić, he’d aimed his shove for the chest. But the face is no go, especially when your big goalie’s hands are enlarged by bright gloves at the end of lime green sleeves. There was no getting away with this.

Meslier is one of this season’s most interesting players. The club – and perhaps Meslier himself – seemed to think he’d be leaving last summer. After Sam Allardyce finally mercy-dropped him in May, parting made some kind of sense, to net a big profit for Leeds and a fresh start for Meslier. But it would have been a reluctant separation. Even with his youthful flaws, United would struggle to afford a new goalie with Meslier’s talent, with his fit for Daniel Farke’s style. And Meslier seemed sceptical about leaving for a bench somewhere, knowing that playing is his best chance of improving, and happy enough with his life in Leeds to try reversing last season’s slides. A new manager, a new goalkeeper coach, a new back four and a new challenge; the fresh start Meslier needed was right here for him in Leeds, and he has looked dourly concentrated on making the most of it.

While Georginio Rutter’s turn towards joy has been easy to read, it’s been hard to tell whether Meslier is enjoying himself this season, with few saves to make – his last minute matchwinner at Leicester possibly 2023’s only example of the talent he has – to distract the attention on his every pass, catch and punch that comes with being the player on the pitch on whom its easiest to concentrate. Fans miss things in open play, like stray passes, mistimed runs or lost markers, because there are so many things to look at while the ball is moving. But when the game pauses at the goalie’s hands or feet, every fan in the ground or watching on telly focuses attention on their next move, so every fan can form an easy opinion on it. The apparently indecisive keeper is easy to see when he’s trying to pick a pass; it’s harder to spot, off screen or upfield when an outfielder isn’t moving into space, or when someone is failing in a rehearsed movement unless we’ve been down to training to find out what’s supposed to be happening. Amid all this, Meslier has looked serious this season, barely cracking a smile until full-times, when with air-punching pleasure he seems almost relieved that another test is over. He frowned through the 4-0 win over Ipswich, but celebrated with the South Stand and with hugs for all the backroom staff after the ref whistled it over. At Deepdale, perhaps we got what his demeanour has been suppressing; a tense young player, trying to live up to being the diamond Daniel Farke has described.

Or maybe he was just bored. I’ll give Meslier credit for at least livening up a dour post-Christmas, but more importantly post-Ipswich afternoon. Away from Elland Road this season Leeds have struggled against densely packed defences, but Preston gave them a different challenge by filling up the midfield and blocking routes in or out. Farke felt that his forward players “were not willing to invest more” in the first half, that they should have been trying to buy more time on the ball in attack with individual movements, but they “were a bit lazy” and he “half expected this because our offensive players were so much praised” after beating Ipswich. Essentially, Farke was willing to overlook Meslier’s red card, and Archie Gray letting Liam Millar run off him to score the winner, because the bigger crime was his forward line’s complacent play despite him speaking to them for “two days just about this topic”. After Alan Browne gave Preston the lead just after Meslier left – a long range header off a cross by Millar – those attackers found their motivation, with Pascal Struijk leaving defence to help by frightening off North End’s midfield, and Dan James won a penalty as easily as Osmajić got Meslier sent off. Struijk scored that, but with less than ten minutes left both teams felt like they should win, and the side with eleven players did just that, Millar beating Gray and whacking a shot into the top corner with all the confidence he’d gained from putting a teenage wonderkid on toast all day.

There was more to losing this game than some forwards lazing in their fluffed egos, or Meslier messing up. Farke might have felt his attackers weren’t working hard enough in possession, but Preston’s dominance in midfield meant the possession being given them was messy and infrequent. As Struijk showed when he led Leeds upfield with ten, it wouldn’t have taken much to put Preston back in their shell, and an obvious suggestion for doing that spent all day being tortured at right-back. Archie Gray may not be an attacking no.10, but he’s not a right-back either, and he could have been more useful to Leeds if, as they did after the red card, they struck the idea of a no.10 from their plans and put three in midfield, Gray going box to box with the ability to put better, more imaginative possession at the feet of a front three. That would have saved Gray from being twisted round by Millar, whose dribbling was more than Gray or James could cope with together and, after creating Preston’s best moments in the first half, led to both goals in the second. It’s a truism that United have a paucity of full-backs and need a new one for the left, but Djed Spence was on the left side watching with what must have been professional concern as Gray struggled in Spence’s natural position on the right, while Sam Byram – experienced on both sides – and Junior Firpo viewed it all from the bench. On Preston’s right, Brad Potts wasn’t offering much neither Byram nor Firpo should have coped with, meaning Spence could have been dealing with Millar; instead, at 1-0 and one player down, Spence was taken off and Gray was put on the right of a defensive three. There are reasons for all this. Perhaps the fitness of Spence, Byram and Firpo meant they couldn’t be more help. Maybe it’s good for Gray to learn a few lessons in different positions. But for the sake of half an hour, it might have been worth Gray bunking off from a hard schoolday, risking some full-backs’ fitnesses in their proper positions.

As games like this stack up away from home, it feels like Farke needs to be heeding some lessons, sooner than Gray or Meslier. If he warned his forwards against complacency, why were they, in his words, still so lazy on the pitch? Can so much of this season be allowed to rest on the moods of these enigmatic youngsters – or their equally moody and enigmatic elder, puzzling Pat Bamford? When Farke promised rotation through the festive period, was removing Ethan Ampadu in the 90th minute – his first time off the pitch all season – all that he meant? Is sticking with Gray and Spence the only possibility until – if – a new left-back arrives in January? With such a clear difference in results – unbeaten at home, but beaten five out of twelve times away – and the struggle to find the space our players need whenever opponents create congestion in their half, can a new approach be found beyond adding to the congestion with a desperate 3-1-6, more like a 2-2-5 in this case?

Some of this might not only be about performance. Farke, like many managers, probably has underlying data he can grip to prove his ideas are right. He has the overlying data, too, of a points total that in normal seasons would etc etc etc. But one cause of that etc etc etc, Ipswich Town, recovered from being beaten by Leeds – “cut into pieces” as Farke described it, referring back to that game after losing at Deepdale – by coming back from a goal down to grab a deflected stoppage time equaliser against Leicester. With their five point cushion over 3rd place, Ipswich might value the morale-boosting exhilaration of that goal even more than the point it earned. Leeds should have been carrying their own adrenalin to Deepdale and back, but there’s a moody, discontented wariness surrounding them as they set out to play West Brom at the Hawthorns. ⬢

(Photograph by Actionplus, via Alamy)

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