Everything Thomas Christiansen said about having confidence that his squad could finish in the top six this season was gathering to roost around him when Caleb Ekuban went off injured in the first half.
In his place came Pawel Cibicki. The waist of an underfed supermodel, the face of a fairytale witch, the expression of a fairytale princess about to be kidnapped and sent to sleep. But then, suddenly, he produced a powerful cross, that mesmerised the QPR defence.
“Kemar Roofe scored a hat-trick today,” said Ian Holloway afterwards. “But did you see him out there?”
QPR’s defence didn’t see Roofe, firing Cibicki’s cross in from close range, his second sharp finish of the afternoon.
But then, even Leeds fans didn’t see any of this coming, or the third goal he added at the end, after a year of Roofe, a few months of Cibicki, and forty-five minutes without Samu Saiz.
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I don’t want to make this one of those ‘five things we learned from the match’ things, but we learned a few things from this match, or at least, we saw a few things that defied our expectations. First of all, we now know what it looks like for Saiz to have a bad game. What did we learn from it? That he still leaves the pitch with an assist.
Saiz was awful in the first half. Stats show that he missed his target with half of his passes, but the eye made it look like all of them, as he gave the ball to QPR over and over again. He wasn’t much better in the second half, demonstrated when he made a late chance for himself on the edge of QPR’s box, and with options to either pass to Roofe or leather the ball past Alex Smithies, tried a chip that screwed uselessly out for a goalkick.
Samu was far from godlike, but that didn’t stop him thinking he was god. Poor in possession, he constantly sought it. Unable to pick a pass himself, he loudly complained about mistakes being made around him, insisting on standards. Unable to work miracles, he restricted himself to a high level of mundane. In his own way, he was still one of the best players on the pitch, working hard and demanding the same of others.
Those demands were met by the defenders in the first half, mainly because they had no choice, given the pressure Saiz’s misplaced passes kept putting them under. But Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson were wise, either letting Mathieu Smith win his headers if he must and blocking Conor Washington, or gently easing Smith to the floor, leaving him complaining loudly that he was fouled.
Then in the second half they were met by the attackers. Leeds had actually improved in the last minutes before half-time, after Ekuban, fearing a new break of the same old foot, was replaced by Cibicki. It would be harsh on Ekuban to say that was the difference, so it’s better to give the credit to Kemar Roofe.
Roofe through the middle as a striker is the lesson Leeds keep turning up to school for and then sleeping all through, no matter how loudly he bangs the chalk dusters on his desk. The hat-trick was the headline, and they were three good goals. His first was his best; the ball was moved wide left to Ezgjan Alioski, who sized up his opponent, then whipped a cross past him and across the six yard box. Between two defenders, Roofe rose, and headed powerfully back across goal, into the big empty space to Smithies’ right.
It was a move Leeds had been trying, and although this time it was Saiz and Kalvin Phillips that had given the ball wide to Alioski, either side of the goal it was often Roofe, dropping deep with his back to goal, laying off a pass to send the attack wide, then sprinting into the box to get on the end of it. In the first half Leeds had been trying to go wide through Luke Ayling — Gaetano Berardi, not so much — but with Roofe in attack, the ball was reaching Alioski and Cibicki more quickly, and QPR’s centre halves were chasing him in and out, always in his wake.
It suited United’s attackers, especially Cibicki, who surprised everyone who watched him vaguely haunting our Carabao Cup tie at Leicester with an eyecatching performance on the right wing. Working the overlaps with Ayling, he proved himself skilful and fast enough to beat the full-back, and when the third corner of three was cleared but pushed wide to him, Cibicki’s guillotine cross was as clean and quick as a veteran executioner. Led by Saiz, as many of the team ran to celebrate with Cibicki for the cross as with Roofe for the finish, until they all came together in front of the away end.
Roofe said later that he knows from training what Cibicki can do: “I know that when he gets the ball, he’s going to whip in a fast cross.” Roofe knows, and I guess Thomas Christiansen knows too, but we don’t; all we’ve seen so far has been a waste of a signing, not even languishing in the reserve team, because we don’t have one anymore. But what we’ve heard more and more lately is of improvements in the training at Thorp Arch since last season, of more intensity, better preparation, increasing fitness levels, acting in particular on players like Roofe, Cooper and Phillips, who have performed better this season than last. Perhaps Leeds United’s rhetoric about signing players like Ekuban, Cibicki and Grot as ‘projects’, to be brought here and improved, has some truth.
Thomas Christiansen was typically blunt about Cibicki: he wasn’t surprised. “If he’s here it’s because he has the quality to be here,” he said, “but perhaps in the previous games he hasn’t showed what we expected from him. But today he delivered what we expected and made a very nice assist in the second goal.”
Those different expectations lie behind what looked before this game like blithe confidence about the strength of his squad, when Christiansen said he wasn’t thinking about transfers — mainly because that’s Victor Orta’s job — and believed this squad has enough about it to finish in the top six.
Perceptions persist about some of our players — Roofe isn’t a striker, Cibicki should be sold straight back to Sweden — but those aren’t the perceptions at Thorp Arch, where the view of the squad is different, and where the work on the training pitch suggests greater involvement for the fringe players than the first elevens have given them. “We have had Cibicki always in the training sessions, most of the time on the outside,” said Christiansen. “He could be left, he could be right because we have Samu in the middle, so this is obvious that he should play here” — when he gets the chance to move it from the training sessions to the league, that is.
Not all perceptions are wrong, though, and not all players deliver what is expected of them. At least, not in the right way. Thomas Christiansen was midway to managing the game to a secure 2-0, first exchanging Alioski for the more solid Eunan O’Kane, then taking out Ronaldo Vieira so Matthew Pennington could be part of a five-player defence, when Felix Wiedwald made the mistake we’ve learned to expect at some point.
I’ve replayed it over and over looking for a way to defend him, and even if the bounce is dodgy, even if he’s distracted by a player to his left, even if he ran over a black cat that morning, he still should have been able to organise his feet and catch the ball that was moving tamely towards his hands. After that, though, I have also replayed his superb save to keep the score at 2-1, when he defied another kind of expectation by showing proper goalkeeping bravery, spreading himself to block a shot, then diving into flying boots to grab the loose ball.
If Jansson and Cooper despair at playing in front of Wiedwald, they didn’t show it after Roofe scored his hat-trick goal a minute later. QPR were caught at the back by Saiz, and after embarrassing himself the last time they’d broken through together, Saiz recognised his day’s limitations and passed sensibly to Roofe, letting him twist inside the defenders and shoot under Smithies. At the other end of the pitch, Jansson and Cooper celebrated with Wiedwald, who probably wanted to run the length of the pitch to kiss Kemar himself.
Christiansen was asked what he’d said to Wiedwald after the game. “Congratulations!” he replied with a meow. “What should I say? Thanks for saving two or three opportunities. Okay, he made a mistake, but it didn’t cost us the three points.”
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But another day it might. And on another day some brutish troll might snap Cibicki in two like an enchanted twig the moment he leaves the forest for the pitch. On another day, Roofe’s inferno might be smothered by Championship rain and snow. Can we count on them? We can’t even count on Saiz, now that we’ve seen him looking mortal.
All we really know, is that we don’t know, so that’s the five things we learned from this match: nothing, five times. Except that, there might be more to know about some of these players than we’ve found out so far, and more improvements to come. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)