We know from experience that the EFL Championship can be a land of contrasts but this was ridiculous. United’s trip to Stoke ended with a sorrowful inversion of Saturday’s jaunt to Norwich. Instead of Crysencio Summerville galloping over halfway to win the game with a late counter attack, stoppage time in Stoke had Summerville hacking a striped shirt down to stop them carbon copying. On Saturday Summerville cramped up from over-celebrating. On Wednesday he stayed face down hurt from dealing out the clattering, and instead of Liam Cooper there ready to massage him, it was the referee with his notebook to book him.
Leeds played as if haunted by the weekend’s joyful performance. Pushed back by Stoke’s pressing and short of new thoughts, Leeds kept pinging the ball towards Georginio Rutter, as if hoping to get him turning and recreating Summerville’s winner himself. But the passes were too early, too frenetic, and found him too far from goal. Rutter was typically brave in possession but from frustration rather than exuberance, every stepover and feint in the middle asking his teammates, what was he meant to do with this thing they were giving him?
It was as if the players around Rutter had only seen a video of Leeds playing from Saturday and were trying to simulate the magic show without knowing how the tricks worked; trying, and failing, to mimic themselves. But Leeds were not themselves because Daniel Farke’s three big changes in the ideas zones turned this into a totally different team, with different players in prominent places blending in when we wanted them to stand out. Wilf Gnonto and Jaidon Anthony never got going on the wings. Ilia Gruev, the debutant in centre midfield, hovered around the action with his arms out, asking for the ball, not getting it much. Glen Kamara fluffed a big chance to score on Saturday, but at least that meant we noticed him. There was no sign of Gruev asserting himself at Stoke, and I’d have taken something bad from him just so he wasn’t anonymous.
Anonymity brings us nearer to the night’s turning point. It took more than seventy minutes to get there. The Peacocks’ failings were matching up to Stoke’s basement fears for a game of 43 throw-ins and not much else, and while Farke didn’t exactly go for it with his changes, he brought on Summerville and Dan James to give Leeds some of Saturday’s real deal, and Pat Bamford, for that unreal element. It was almost enough to make up for what had gone wrong.
There was a moment of magic and some gorgeous individual skill, as Rutter controlled the ball and passed it through for Bamford. But the nearest thing to a cure for United’s troubles came from Ben Pearson losing it with Dan James. This was close to perfect. Pearson is so completely fixed in my mind as ‘Preston – midfield’ that looking on Wikipedia now and seeing he played seven games for Bournemouth in the Premier League last season is rattling my assumptions about the knowable world. We faced him seven times with Preston in the Champo – plus once in the Carabao Cup – and you may remember him getting a second yellow for bringing Bamford down at Deepdale in 2019, ahead of Pat scoring both in a 2-0 win.
I couldn’t imagine Pearson playing for a team other than North End, let alone in the Premier League. I could imagine him, though, doing what he did for Stoke – getting so boisterously annoyed by Dan James’ scurrying around him that, when trying to shove him over off the ball only got him barged into again and beaten and in his mounting aggravation he gave the ball to Rutter, his next angry act was to leap across Bamford’s path when Rutter put him through, and bring him down for a penalty.
This story, then, should be a morality tale about a workhorse midfielder paying the price for his temper. Instead, a few minutes later, Pearson was up on the right wing laying the ball off with a fancy backheel, and not long after that Stoke scored their winner, flicking a near-post corner towards goal, where it bounced down off the bar and in off Pascal Struijk.
That’s because the story ended up being about Pat Bamford’s temperament. One aspect is how his mood interacts with his technique, because the penalty he took was, technically, dreadful. Footballers will tell you there is a lot in play when they’re trying to score from twelve yards, but the replays distil this one to a skill issue. Slow motion shows the ball was destined to go high over the bar from the moment Bamford drew back his kicking leg.
The main aspect, though, is how Bamford came to be taking this penalty in the first place. This was his third attempt, after two high profile, costly misses last season. If one is misfortune and two is carelessness, should it even come to three? Summerville, who came on the pitch looking as hot as he was at Carrow Road, wanted to give this pen the full force of his confidence. Rutter would have cheerfully gone for it, Ethan Ampadu looks trustworthy, Sam Byram has always been a good finisher and Archie Gray has a golden touch. It’s not over the top to suggest Illan Meslier could take a good penalty, and if Joel Piroe had been on the pitch, Farke said, he was designated.
But Bamford took it upon himself to take it, as he did last season against Newcastle. There is an argument that, when on the pitch, he is, technically, United’s no.9. That’s the number on his shirt, anyway. But it’s a long time since Bamford has been United’s no.9. It’s getting to be a long time, in fact, since Bamford has been anybody in a United shirt, and that’s the pain he must be trying to overcome in these moments, trying with one kick to reestablish himself as something close to what he once was. It must feel like a nightmare for Pat, as if he won an England cap, fell asleep, and now he’s locked in this dream forever where his feet always hurt and he keeps fucking things up and people are always screaming at him and he can’t wake up. Please, someone, anyone who can help, please kiss him.
Or, if you care about him, don’t let him take any more penalties. No.9s don’t always have to! Lee Chapman tried and missed once when he wanted a hat-trick and Howard Wilkinson angrily put a stop to that. If Bamford wants to rediscover his old self it will have to come the natural way, by scoring goals in open play, not forced under pressure like rhubarb from the spot; or it won’t come at all, which will also be natural, because that’s life. One of the themes of this season is that it’s a new team, hopefully another promotion team, and the roles of the old guard – Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling, hopefully Stuart Dallas – have changed. As Farke pointed out at the weekend, Cooper and Ayling are adapting to their current lives, coaching and supporting their replacements, taking to the pitch as late reinforcements, ready when required. Maybe as defenders this role is forced upon them – Ayling can’t demand to take a penalty just so he can rediscover the feeling of that volley against Huddersfield – but they’re wearing it well. Meanwhile, it’s bringing Bamford no good if he thinks that one penalty, a free-kick, or one matchwinning shot will restore his former glories, make him first pick in the next match ahead of Joel Piroe. Bamford is not the main man anymore, and he’s not going to be the main man anymore, because Leeds don’t need him to be the main man anymore. We just need him to play well when he plays, score some goals, and let someone else take the penalties. It might not be glory but glory is nobody’s by right, and it would be enough. Asking a little less of himself might help Bamford deliver on what Leeds actually need from him. ⬢
(Photograph by Actionplus, via Alamy)