Two number nines and a microphone

Spurs 4-3 Leeds United: Where it’s at

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Rodrigo celebrating his volley at Spurs with Wilf Gnonto on his knees grabbing his waist

Okay. What’s going on? It’s not only Marvin Gaye who wants an answer. As season 2022/23 breaks for its mundial interruptus, a month after our previous unplanned pause, Leeds United fans are reeling from weekend to weekend, 4-3 to 3-4, late winners to late losers, blindfolded trying to pin a tail on this donkey of a season. Are Leeds good? Are they bad? Is Jesse Marsch good? Is he bad?

It won’t stop anybody asking, but there isn’t an answer. It’s a football fan’s failing to treat games like cups of tea to be slurped down hot, taking no time to find a flavour beneath the burning taste on our tongues, hurrying to read the tea leaves and find out our fate. A match ain’t just a match, it’s a plot device with implications not only for our futures but our pasts. Will we be happy, 24 games from now? Or will we be cursing the people who brought us pleasure three years ago, for the sins we could never then foresee? Only occasionally, briefly, luxuriously, do we remember to live in the present. An exciting week. Lots of great moments. 7-7 on aggregate. Imagine explaining the three hours you spent watching Leeds’ last two Premier League matches, but to a sane person. Tell them how miserable so much exciting football made you, how angry and upset. Look in their eyes, but don’t let them look into yours.

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It’s hard to avoid the bigger picture right now because FIFA have put this season onto an unnatural cliffhanger that invites summaries and assessments, and because Leeds went eight games without winning, and Jesse Marsch went right to the edge of the sack, and the dazing events in Liverpool, Leeds and London since have made him safer on the precipice instead of pulling him back from the cliff. Marsch said that this match at Spurs “encapsulated our sixteen-game season in one match”, and he was right, and that would be easier to take if only Leeds had 18 league points now, instead of 15. If even had this Spurs game been a defeat, a win had been picked up to lighten that long run of two points from a possible 24. In autumn Marsch took us wandering, out on a pitch-dark and stormy moor. He has started leading us back to safety, but we can’t be sure yet that he has found the right direction, or if the moon’s brief appearance from behind the clouds let him see just enough of the landscape to guess at the path.

Determined to confound, Leeds played one of their best games for Marsch at the new White Hart Lane. A lot of it looked like good building on the foothold from wins against Liverpool and Bournemouth. Tottenham were in their miserabilist shell, a team of good players playing as if contemptuous of their living. Leeds had plenty of the ball and after ten minutes, in full RB x gegenpressing style, Brenden Aaronson seized on a mistake by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg to put Crysencio Summerville through on goal, and he controlled and finished in the box, continuing his hot streak of form.

Summerville scored, like he did in the last minutes against Bournemouth, by darting through the middle and striking like a devastating number nine, following his poacher’s effort at Anfield. He had another good go in the same place, Hugo Lloris preventing 2-0. This raised an interesting question: where was Rodrigo? He did have one go in that area, hitting the post while offside, but was absent a lot of the time, stalking the fringes of the attack while the much younger winger dominated. Until, and albeit, and even so, there Rodrigo came, into the picture twice, scoring two great goals. We’re getting used to Rodrigo notching from the midst of underwhelming, but not twice, and not normally so well. First, when Leeds kept a corner kick going just before half-time and Rasmus Kristensen nodded into the box, Rodrigo span and volleyed, smash van Basten under Lloris, a great goal. Then midway through the second half, as Rodrigo Bentancur lay on the ground crying for a non-existent foul by Tyler Adams, Leeds revelled in the shot-clock countdown drilled into an RB team, working the ball to Rodrigo on the edge of the box, and he hit hard and low across Lloris, scoring off the post and celebrating off his mind, his big grin stiff arms silly run that only comes out on special occasions.

These were two great finishes. They were not typical of Rodrigo, which is bloody typical. With Joe Gelhardt labouring, Pat Bamford malingering and Rodrigo out of Spain’s World Cup squad, Angus Kinnear’s claim that Leeds only need their “two proven international number nines and a player widely regarded as the best emerging young striking talent in the league” this season (which keeps giving me a ‘two turntables and a microphone‘ earworm) was turning into an epitaph of shame he’d have to lug with him into the January transfer window. Now, in one of the last few chances to convince, Rodrigo gave Kinnear the chance to echo his former employee, Thomas Christiansen. “You say you want a striker?” TC once said, under pressure. “Here you have a striker, two goals.” That striker was Pierre-Michel Lasogga and the two goals were in a 3-4 home defeat to Millwall, but the details aren’t important right now.

The main thing is that you can, if you like, use Rodrigo’s enigmatic season as an emblem for those sixteen games Jesse Marsch was shaking his head over. He’s scored nine goals. For Premier League scoring frequency he is now second only to Erling Haaland. But is he good?

Likewise, Jesse Marsch and his Leeds. What’s the true form? The part where Leeds lose four in a row, or the part where they beat Chelsea and Liverpool? The bits when they fight back into it after underperforming against Bournemouth, or when they’re getting less than they deserve from Arsenal? The times when they win by scoring four, or lose by conceding them?

Leeds suffered some VAR misfortune in north London, Harry Kane being given a goal after Illan Meslier became the only Premier League goalkeeper not given mollycoddling protection at corners. He was barged into the back of the net by Clément Lenglet, the ball followed courtesy of Kane, and everyone waited patiently for the video assistant referee to award a free-kick to Leeds. Everyone is still waiting. Admittedly, Spurs might have got their equaliser sooner had Emerson Royal, given the usual space Leeds allow at the back post, not blazed his shot over an open goal. The second equaliser came five minutes into the second half, five minutes after Marsch had brought Sam Greenwood on in place of Wilf Gnonto to play 4-3-3, when Leeds switched off at a throw-in for neither the first or last time and, as Liam Cooper and pals worried about conceding penalties if they tackled, Kane’s shot was blocked and Ben Davies’ powered his in. Leeds had another good spell after that, culminating in Rodrigo putting them in front for a third time, but the worry throughout was that whenever Spurs needed to level, they found another gear and some easy chances to do it.

Marsch didn’t help attempts to decipher this game, claiming that mistakes, not tactics, were the reason that despite leading three times Leeds went home 4-3 losers. His work on the training pitches has, he says, “created more flexibility and more clarity, and that’s the reason why at 2-2 we’re in control of the match — because tactically we were on top of things. And then when it slips we tactically are not.” A mistake, Marsch went on, “stems often, for me, from the fact that we’re not fully committing to, tactically and behaviourally, what we want to achieve.”

In other words, when Leeds are playing well it’s because the tactics are good and the players are good, and when Leeds are playing badly the tactics are still good but the players are not. That’s a convenient way for a head coach to remain blameless, but it’s not how Spurs’ last two goals, to turn this match from 2-3 to 4-3, looked. As soon as Rodrigo put Leeds ahead, Marsch sent Luke Ayling on so Leeds could play 5-4-1, to “double down on the wing and still have numbers in the box”; but he says failure to apply his tactics properly meant it was too easy for Spurs to put crosses in, which they did plenty, and too easy to win the second balls they scored from because those crosses were cleared to the wrong place. What’s not being factored in here, though, is that Ayling replaced Marc Roca, leaving Leeds with Tyler Adams as a lone defensive midfielder among a clutch of young and tired forward-thinkers, allowing Spurs to move their game thirty yards forward and put Leeds under pressure that no amount of tactical concentration was going to withstand for fifteen minutes. The player trying to stop the cross for the equaliser was Summerville; Cooper headed clear but nobody in midfield was stopping Bentancur. For the winner, Spurs simply played through the gaps to the byline and Bentancur popped up from midfield again. Adams, in the end, took a second yellow while trying to stop Spurs breaking away to score a fifth.

I’m dwelling on this part because, as we reach the season’s timeout, it feels like a symbol of the confusion around Marsch. We have seen, in lots of his games, both action from the bench — like here — or inaction, as in the heat of Southampton, inviting pressure and difficulty onto Leeds. Heck, last season we even saw Leeds substitute Luke Ayling by mistake, Marsch only realising when he spotted him on the bench. There have been good changes, some just a week ago, to turn the game against Bournemouth back in our favour; but changes were required because fifty minutes of Marsch’s match plan had Leeds 3-1 down and floundering. Marsch’s tenure is carrying a growing list of late, ecstatic match-savers: last season gave us Gelhardt against Norwich, Ayling against Wolves, Struijk against Brighton, everything about Brentford on the final day, including Harrison’s 94th minute winner; this season, supposedly away from the stress and into the calm, has been the Summerville show, winning in the 89th minute against Liverpool and the 84th against Bournemouth, after doing his best in the 91st while losing to Fulham. Eight months in, it’s impossible to say for sure if Marsch is masterminding these backs-to-the-wall fightbacks, or getting bailed out over again by players who are determined not to lose, whatever the tactics.

And that’s only a big question because Leeds under Marsch simply haven’t won enough games to make the future feel like anything other than a threat. There’s much to look forward to after Christmas. The two American signings returning cock-a-hoop from the World Cup. The rest of the squad, apart from World Cup bound Kristensen, refreshed from a second shot at pre-season. A clutch of young players vying to turn their cameo heroics into Premier League careers. January, the transfer window, and maybe even a left-back, maybe even one with a twist — Kai Wagner, heavily linked from Philadelphia Union, is happily married to Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s sister, a family reunion we can all get behind. Maybe the ol’ Storm Tank could come too and have a second go at striking. But despite good reasons to be optimistic, in his eight months so far Marsch hasn’t managed to free the present from doubt, to make us sure of the sources of last season’s victory over relegation, of this season’s good moments, and of its too-long bad months. Which is Leeds, and how, and why?

The margin for judging that is, give or take, one or two wins more. With them on the board, the bad wouldn’t inspire such dread, the good could be more readily hailed. Sometimes it feels like Marsch is a million miles from succeeding at Leeds, but changing that measurement only needs another handful of league points. Leeds will start 2023 by playing West Ham, Aston Villa, Brentford and Nottingham Forest. There’s still a long season after January, but it could be an easier road if Leeds make that month a good one. ⬢

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