Leeds United want promotion to escape games like Reading away which, no matter when it’s scheduled, always feels like the distant 46th of the Championship’s eight games too many.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Premier League will be more of the same. Luton Town aren’t there; but there are plenty of these new-built half-empty stadiums, with their desperate singing sections drowned out by sad drums, and dirge concepts like giving ‘the fans’ a squad number and replacing the club badge with a cartoon of a fans’ salute. Ah, no, not that last one.
What should change in the Premier League — and on this dreary November morning, let’s allow ourselves to pump it up and assume the whites are going up — is the pattern of play. This week Luton and now Reading have, like many others before them, worked hard to stifle and squeeze Leeds, denying the space to play that could make Marcelo Bielsa’s football not just effective but annihilating. Middlesbrough are likely to do the same on Saturday, I just don’t think they’re going to be very good at it.
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That’ll change in the Premier League, but Bielsa won’t. Even against elite opponents, he won’t throw away his lifetime’s working philosophy and take up bus parking. And he shouldn’t, when those teams are unlikely to alter their own attacking styles against a newly promoted team, Bielsa or no Bielsa. That might actually allow Leeds to play; in the Premier League, we might see Bielsa’s style at its best in ways his time in the Championship has only hinted at. Or the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City will absolutely smash us, and even with six points taken from Manchester United we’ll soon wish we’d never pumped anything up in the first place.
We have to get there first, and that means more nights like this, although if it’s the last time we play at the Madejski Stadium, the frustration and the tedium preceding Jackie Harrison’s winner will have been worth it.
Reading were missing Andy Yiadom, who is important to them the way he used to be important to Paul Heckingbottom; they had one good midfielder, John Swift, and one wildcard, Ovie Ejaria, who was cheered for making some of our players look silly when he applied his skills at twenty minute intervals. A bigger problem for Leeds was the quicksand mundanity of the team packed tightly around him.
Reading were narrow and compact, leaving no space through the centre and making it difficult for Leeds to look wide. Whenever the Peacocks did have the ball on the wing, Pat Bamford in the middle looked like a distant monument on a far-off hill; they could see him, but how to get to him?
Whether it was the stifling opposition or the boredom of their surroundings, Kalvin Phillips, Pablo Hernandez and Tyler Roberts, until he went off injured, were off their game. Rhythm and creativity were absent with them, replaced by Helder Costa’s willingness to try anything to get into the box, Ezgjan Alioski’s frantic energy as a substitute, and Stuart Dallas’ willingness to cut out the fancy stuff and try firing rockets from range. One smacked off the crossbar; in games like this, I wish others beside him would have a go, too.
Instead Leeds stuck to their challenge of trying to play through the blue-hooped block, and failed. Reading should take some credit: their plan worked.
But Reading couldn’t shut down Leeds United’s collective alertness, fitness and dedication. The Peacocks have a defined method in possession, but they also have an instinct for opportunity that their physical condition allows them to seize.
With three minutes left Reading’s free-kick was cleared to United’s left-back position, where Jackie Harrison secured the ball for Stuart Dallas. Then he set off running. This was not, by any ordinary measure, a chance to score. But all over the pitch you saw Leeds players snapping to their front foot, starting runs upfield with power and purpose. Dallas sent the ball across the field to Alioski, Costa took a pass and crossed from the right wing, and even before a deflection it was a great ball. Over Bamford, who had made a clever run to the near post, dragging defenders with him, and dipping, to meet the end of Jackie Harrison’s ninety-yard run. Even with Bamford’s help the way was not without obstacles, but Harrison had run too far too fast to let two defenders stop him heading the winner.
If Leeds looked disappointing for most of this game, while scoring this goal they looked determined, calm and intent. We’ve seen teams bundle late winners against us; I much prefer this team, that keeps its cool until the last moments give them a chance.
Bielsa said before the game that he doesn’t spend much time training the players now. He taught them everything last season, so his job now is to stop them forgetting. This was the goal of a team that has matured under his guidance, celebrated by Bamford in particular with the immature fan-baiting joy that makes Leeds fans love them. As promotion anthems go, you can’t get much more childish than ‘Don’t you know, pump it up,’ or much more perfect. While the team are getting seriously good, the fans can get seriously stupid, and that’s an intoxicating combination starting at just the right time. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)