Perhaps the referee dictated the kits worn in this match should reflect the mood.
Leeds United recently proposed a new third kit the colour of summer skies, with sponsors logos like gentle clouds too young to have learned yet about rain, but this was not the day for imagining Ezgjan Alioski chasing rainbows in a field of corn.
This was Sheffield, and it was raining, and while the city might be famous for its knives and forks, the great factory in Hunslet were Leeds City’s predecessors got their start has just as strong a claim to steel work of a less delicate kind, hammered into streets up and down the country to guide heavy trams full of people. Our owls are better looking, too, and backed up by peacocks, so who would dispute Leeds United’s dark grey kit beneath a dark grey sky, on a day of dark grey omens.
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Garry Monk was once strawberry blonde, but now he’s greyberry, like one found rotting in a fridge. He should not have beaten Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United twice last season: that was wrong. After this game, Bielsa was asked to speak about the political protests in Chile, where he was national team manager and is revered as a national icon. His eloquent reply will have weight in Santiago that it’s hard to imagine in Sheffield, while waiting for him to get back to nitpicking questions about starting Pat Bamford ahead of Eddie Nketiah. Garry Monk, meanwhile, is more likely to be asked about why Middlesbrough were angrily scanning his old work laptop after he’d gone, and to reply that he only wants to focus on the job, and the group, and the next game.
Whatever it is that Monk does works, though, to an extent; we saw that when he was manager of Leeds, and when he managed Birmingham City for their two wins over us last season. He set his Sheffield Wednesday team up with a mixture of practicality and witchcraft designed to thwart Leeds a third time.
The witchcraft first: he picked Keiren Westwood in goal who, true to form, made a fingertip save from a point-blank Bamford header that many taller keepers — and there are many — would not have managed. Westwood has been so good against Leeds for so long that the debate about him has matured from whether we should sign him, to save us from Paul Rachubka and his kind, to now wondering when the streak of grey in his swept back hair will make his resemblance to a David Blaine style illusionist so complete he won’t be able to look into a mirror without trying to catch out his own reflection with a psychological card trick.
The practicality was the choice of two big lads up front, Steven Fletcher and Atdhe Nuhiu, both bending as if carrying the weight of the firmament above them, or to hear Alioski’s chirruping below. Behind them was Barry Bannan, a little playmaker to pick them out with passes in the rain, like hairs plucked thickly with tweezers from his shower’s plughole.
Picking two strikers against Leeds is a Pavlovian gambit that forces Bielsa to reflexively pick three central-defenders to outnumber them; picking two big ones felt like a taunt, from the manager who signed Pontus Jansson for Leeds, reminding us that he can no longer be one of the three.
The recent preoccupation with Bamford and Nketiah — and don’t worry, I’m getting to that — has replaced the debate that dominated summer and the start of the season, until we stopped scoring. Bielsa’s response to the defensive calamities that ended last season so abruptly was to sell a goalkeeper, our best defender and most of our cover, to sign a babyface on loan, and start playing wingers as defenders. With Kiko Casilla behind all that and Gaetano Berardi as our only reserve, El Loco seemed to be locking us in for a season of defending as coached by Harry Hill. He might as well have strewn our penalty area with Lego and forced Liam Cooper to play in socks.
As all that was unfolding a game and a result like this felt unimaginable, but the 0-0 draw Leeds took away from Hillsborough was proof that behind Bielsa’s stubborn insistence that Nketiah, for example, should adapt to the team before he gets to play, is a coach who is not as ignorant of the need to adapt as he sometimes seems to be.
Yes, this was the same starting eleven as last time, and the time before that, and the time before that, but while Bielsa might often name the same team, he doesn’t always make them play the same way. And what often failed last season — dropping Kalvin Phillips deep as a third centre-back against two strikers — wasn’t tried again. The third was Luke Ayling, so Phillips stayed in midfield with Mateusz Klich, giving Leeds a solid defensive structure that they used, in typical Bielsa style, to attack much more effectively than Wednesday. Leeds should have led at half-time; Harrison’s cross, perfectly dipped with the outside of his boot, should have been his fifth consecutive assist. That it wasn’t is only because of Westwood this time, not Bamford.
Bamford was taken off at half-time anyway, and we saw more of the sense of Bielsa’s arguments about his contribution to the team compared to Nketiah’s than we have so far, because Nketiah played like he hasn’t so far. The team’s shape demanded it. The emphasis on defensive players meant that, although Klich could get forward from midfield, only Harrison, Helder Costa and the striker were devoted to attacking, and each had to double up his own position by also filling the gap we still associate with Samu Saiz.
The striker had to drop deep, or a winger had to come in off the wing, and create for the other two from there, pulling defenders out of position, leaving space for wide players to arrive into the box. Bielsa trusts Bamford with that responsibility; he ended this game pleased that Nketiah rose to the role. Eddie helped himself with an elbow smash on a defender that was hopefully inadvertent, but even without that advantage, he had a fine time drifting wide and deep, tricking a defender or two, setting up a teammate. Harrison had a shot blocked from the best of these; when the ball came back in, Alioski headed against the post. Or Nketiah made chances for himself, shuffling his feet until he had the angle to shoot.
Whichever way he did it, Nketiah showed that apart from the discussion of how best to supply him when he plays, is how much danger he can create, for himself and others, if he listens to Bielsa’s demands. That’s why Arsenal should be happier he’s at Leeds than at Bristol, and why Bielsa is right that there’s a bigger picture beyond how many goals Nketiah scores past Austrian teenagers for England U21s. Bielsa has a team structure and ethic to maintain, while Arsenal want a better player back. Playing games will help Nketiah achieve both of those aims, but being challenged to improve might, with patience, achieve even more.
Patience is an ugly word at Leeds, and we’ve not much time for ugly games like these, yielding only one point. We need so many more, and so fast. But defending is an art, too, that we’ve not had many occasions to appreciate under Bielsa. Berardi and Casilla got lucky at Hillsborough, when Fletcher got free and hammered a shot against the crossbar, that then rolled out of play off Casilla’s back; but we can consider that a sort of interim payment for the luck Bamford hasn’t had in front of goal. That moment aside, there was plenty to admire in the way Ben White won his physical battles, the way Berardi didn’t let those battles lead him into danger, the way Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas flew into blocks; and how the defence as a whole dealt with Alioski trying to wake the hungover spirit of Marius Zaliukas at left-back.
When there was trouble, here came Kiko Casilla, the Championship’s least inspiring goalkeeper, plucking crosses from the air, tipping shots over the bar, and stopping headers point-blank, showing why, while we were wanting Keiren Westwood to warm our bench all those years, Casilla was sitting so comfortably on Real Madrid’s. Kiko is a good goalkeeper. He just has a funny way of showing it.
With fifteen minutes to go Bielsa took off Costa and brought on Liam Cooper, and that change might be the surest sign of what Bielsa learned from last season’s encounters with the likes of Monk. It might also be why Leeds aren’t running away at the top of the table with every game won. Bielsa’s all-out attack on last season was thrilling — there were few prouder moments than when United’s relentlessness took them into the lead, with ten players, at Nottingham Forest — but ultimately frustrating. Leeds quickly conceded three and lost that game, and while Casilla and Cooper took the blame for losing the play-off semi-final, a gung-ho culture of going full vamos carajo even two minutes before half-time also played its part.
We’ve been preoccupied with sexy this season, waiting for Costa to sashay, Nketiah to sway. And a point in Sheffield ain’t that. But it’s a point we might not have earned last season, a point won by the only team in the Championship that has conceded in single figures. And won in a style that we might find useful as the season wears on through winter, before we see blue skies again next May. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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