Salford City 1-1 Leeds United: Caraboink

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Luis Sinisterra looking very disappointed after missing a chance against Shrewsbury

I didn’t want to place all our hopes on Joel Piroe’s shoulders, but it looks like Leeds United need him more than we realised, and boy were we realising. Fortunately, from his performance at Portman Road to his strong, silent demeanour, Piroe looks like he can take it. I’ve not heard him speak since he signed for Leeds, and I’m happy in my imagination where his only vocabulary is ‘goals’ and ‘score’ and ‘target’ and ‘hit’, words his new teammates seem sorrowfully unfamiliar with.

I’ve only ever been half joking whenever I’ve suggested over the years that Leeds should buy Mathieu Smith back, and this Carabao Cup match at Salford City demonstrated the serious half: Smith scores goals. The stats from this game are basically a meme, because Leeds had 33 shots – nine on target – to Salford’s five with two on target, yet both teams scored the same – one – and Salford won on pens. The goal Smith scored for Salford was far from the easiest chance of the night, but it was typical of him. He won an aerial challenge, setting up a bout of head tennis that he ended by chesting the ball down and playing it out wide. Then he got into the box for the cross, beating Pascal Struijk and directing his header to the far bottom corner, where it bounced in front of and over Karl Darlow’s dive. Will the replay make it into many tekkers compilations? No. Does the technique of this header deserve more appreciation? Absolutely. From what I can dredge up from stats websites, of 117 goals Smith has scored, at least 66 have been headers (eleven more are ‘not reported’, but we can all take a guess). Scoring is a skill and Smith has it and Leeds need it, so there’s still time in the transfer window to snap him up.

People might sniff at the idea of ‘special teams’ players who can only do one thing, but if they can do that thing very well in a way that changes games, what’s the problem? Which brings us to Sam Greenwood’s introduction, with fifteen minutes to go, when he made an equaliser for Leeds as much from his free-kick taking reputation as by the actual free-kick he kicked, which was bad. As if by his will, the ball still went bobbling around Salford’s penalty area until it was stuck away by ‘Sniffer’ Struijk at The Berardi End, saving – or at least delaying – United’s embarrassment. Greenwood almost won the game after that, which would have been a story, but a much better free-kick, disguised to the point of genius as it swung and dipped over Salford’s wall, pinged the bar.

Perhaps that was the clue that there was nothing more United’s players could do to win this game. I don’t know what Daniel Farke could have told them, a goal down at half-time, except to go out in the second half and do the same stuff again plus scoring some goals this time. What does it mean that this was still so hard? Probably not much more than we’ve known all along: that a crop of teenage and nearly-teenage wingers and creators need something, or someone, to focus their minds. A lot has been said lately about Wilf Gnonto’s decision making processes, as a boy of nineteen being tempted into becoming the next Kevin Sheedy, and we shouldn’t be too surprised when the same lack of sense is apparent in his football, and that of Crysencio Summerville, Joffy Gelhardt and Georginio Rutter. United’s front four are at an experimental age when they’re more likely to try new things to find out if they work. At Salford, it was a night of watching them doing things and learning not to do them again.

That’s why Leeds looked so disconnected in attack: nobody knew what anybody else was going to do. And that’s why Joel Piroe feels so necessary: he can remove the doubt and the need for anyone to overthink things. Admittedly Luis Sinisterra didn’t add much certainty, but by the time he was on, Leeds were already on a course that made it surprising that any of their shoot-out penalties went in. Another factor we shouldn’t ignore is that Alex Cairns, the former Leeds youth goalie in nets for Salford, played superbly, contrasting with Darlow’s night in the other goal: a little question for him about Smith’s goal, big questions about Salford’s penalties flying past and through him. Other mentions before we forget the Carabao Cup for another year for Leo Hjelde, who has shaved his head but is still playing as if he’s never heard about what a left-back is let alone how to do it; and Jamie Shackleton, who is recovering his pitch-covering form of a couple of years ago when we’d leave games marvelling at how well he played but still unsure what we’re going to do with him. Obviously he then put his critical shoot-out penalty onto the bar instead of into the net. “I really love Jamie,” Farke said after the game, and maybe that’s what we should do with him, just love him. ⬢


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