January feels early for a chaotic meltdown at Elland Road, but if it follows that, by definition, all Leeds United fans are masochists, it’s another aspect of last season — like promotion — that we were denied.
The play-off defeat to Derby County came too late for us to really revel in the misery. The players had gone before our hangovers; the season was finished, so it was easy to avoid replays of the match, ignore post-mortems, to forget about it all and move on to the hoping, ready for the next disappointment.
This match at Loftus Road, although it lacked the dramatic frenzy of May, made a bold attempt at speeding up the entire process. It had a little bit of everything: not just one big self-destruct button, but a whole bank of little ones, that the Leeds players pressed frantically like children trying to operate an old-fashioned phone.
The events of every Leeds game can usually be summed up by saying they tried constantly to score but didn’t, so we’ll take that as read. Add a penalty not given to Leeds; a goal given to QPR when a free-kick was deflected to Nakhi Wells, who controlled with his hand before scoring; then a penalty given to Leeds, but taken by Pat Bamford, etcetera; and a big chance for Leeds, that fell to Bamford, etcetera; rather than deflected onto anybody’s hand and in, Pablo Hernandez’s free-kick was deflected off a post and wide; finally there was a red card for a tackle so basically grim it could only have been carried out by our talismanic England international in waiting, for whom we have no adequate replacement during his three game suspension. It was a script so overloaded with overturns you’d question its believability, if you hadn’t seen Leeds United before.
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It didn’t feel like Leeds were getting all this out of their system so much as injecting it all in, faster than before: why wait until the end of the season to damage your promotion aspirations, when you can break them now, and spend months in a manic struggle to repair them, rather than mere weeks?
None of what happened at QPR ended with the final whistle: Kalvin Phillips’ red card will have repercussions for three games, Bamford’s performance will resonate when he’s named in the next team and misses his next chance, screenshots of Victor Orta slumped in the directors’ box will be posted on Twitter every day until he signs someone.
The players were sprinting and scrambling in their search for a result when there were still twenty minutes left to play, their will to win blurring into desperation to equalise, and they can’t sustain that panicked energy: Leeds can’t play as if they’re trailing in the last four minutes of a cup final for the next four months. But the jolting effect of the last month has been to speed up the film of the season as if a repeat of last time is inevitable, so we might as well get straight to Wigan at home sooner than later. The swiftness of last season’s collapse was its mercy. What have we done to deserve a slow motion replay, starting now?
That can’t be our fate. This is the season that Leeds are going up. But for that to come true, change has to come. The problems at Leeds look deeper than just lacking a striker who scores goals: the vim and swagger have gone from front to back. But fixing those problems could be as shallow as signing a striker who scores goals.
Marcelo Bielsa’s methods place a heavy burden on his players, a small squad working long hours at high intensity. The load is easy to carry when it’s working and games are being won, but even when it is working — and against QPR, as Bielsa pointed out at length, it was still working — it becomes intolerably heavy without games being won.
What’s heavy is a sense of frustrating impotence because there is nothing to fix. Bielsa can’t introduce fresh ideas because the old ideas are producing the patterns he expects. What more could he ask of the defence in this game than to keep a clean sheet in open play against QPR’s line of dangerous attackers, when the goal they conceded came from a deflected free-kick and an incompetent referee? What advice can he give to Bamford other than telling him to score rather than miss? What is there for Helder Costa and Jackie Harrison, other than the promise that one day a cross will find a player and the ball will find the net?
After the game Bielsa said, “We need a lot of chances to score one goal,” but you knew he would. He can’t change that record, though, until he can change his number nine. Pat Bamford operates in a world beyond Bielsa’s control: finishing is one thing Bielsa doesn’t believe he can coach. And it’s the one constantly broken point that is blunting the whole elegantly crafted pencil. The missed penalty felt, for Bamford’s Leeds career, definitive: he’s not a player afraid of taking responsibility, but he is acutely terrified of wielding it once he has. Until Leeds have a striker who can be as effective with the ammunition being given to him as the team are at setting him up, the scorelines and the season will continue their trend to blank.
A lot of this is mental, and there’s an atmosphere of deathwish fulfilment around Leeds United at the moment: perhaps we wouldn’t feel doomed to repeat last season if we didn’t look so obsessively for that pattern. There’s a popular wellness practice called ‘manifesting’, about making art out of your aspirations to focus your intentional energy on making them come true. Perhaps if we all glue glitter letters spelling ‘Che Adams’ onto a big piece of sugar paper we might get the picture we really want, of Orta’s hand on his shoulder as he manifests his signature on a contract.
But however it happens, if Leeds score goals, they’re golden. There’s an old precedent in the lessons of John Charles, a centre-half who helped the defence more when he became a prolific centre-forward, because with his goals on the board, opposing attacks were demoralised before they began. Defending is easy when you know you can score more than them; the whole game is easy when it’s played that way. Leeds have replaced confidence with desperate urgency, and right now that’s on Bamford, spurning too often too much of what Leeds give him, that should be too good for this division, in the right hands — if you’re Nakhi Wells — or at the right feet of the right number nine.
It’s not on Bamford to fix it, though. Victor Orta needs to sign somebody else and Marcelo Bielsa needs to play them, and the new player needs to score goals. There’s your optimism: that it really could be that simple. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)