Striking Partners

In 2018-19, Issue 08 2018-19, Leeds United, Subscribers by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

There’s never a good time to lose your top scorer to a serious injury. Kemar Roofe might say he’ll be back for the end of the season, but Izzy Brown was going to be back for Christmas. Rob Price, the head of medicine, has worked wonders painting the Forth Bridge of this season’s injuries, but he must yearn for players with the recovery powers of Rudy Austin, back from a broken leg in about a week. Rudy didn’t even have any treatment for it; he just refused to believe he was injured.

It’s not hard to believe that fate would be so cruel as to cut Kemar Roofe down; the fates have always used Leeds United for fun. Roofe’s fourteen goals and two assists equate to being involved in almost a third of all United’s goals this season, but his performances have been about more than raw numbers. They’ve been about raw potential, shown in a successful season in League Two and brought to Leeds for a large fee, finally being realised.

At Leeds, at first, Roofe languished. Wearing seven, a positionally non-committal squad number, he didn’t make himself vital as a striker, a winger, a playmaker, an attacking midfielder, or even a first team player for a while. Just when you thought he’d cracked it, scoring a hat-trick against QPR, he’d fade again. Roofe looked surly and occasionally brittle in response to criticism, but he was easy to criticise because we didn’t know what standard to hold him to; we couldn’t work out what he was supposed to be doing, what aim he was driving at.

Marcelo Bielsa excels at giving players identities and simple aims. Kalvin Phillips, and Gaetano Berardi before he was injured, adapted quickly to their new positions and the new style of play because Bielsa made it easy for them. Their roles were given to them as a basic set of principles that made it simple to understand how to be a central defender in a Bielsa team. Identity is confusing, as Garry Monk or any teenager will tell you. Bielsa clears the way.

When he plays for Bielsa, Kemar Roofe knows who he is

That’s how it has been with Kemar Roofe. Bielsa values his flexibility; he can use him as a nine, a ten, a winger. But there’s no ambiguity about what’s required. Taking to the pitch as a number nine, Roofe is clear about how to play. Switching mid-match to play number ten, he adopts a new set of principles and embodies them completely. When he plays for Bielsa, Kemar Roofe knows who he is, and goals and work rate have followed. He even had the confidence, earlier in the season, to offer Bielsa a high-five when he was substituted in one match; Bielsa, normally concentrating so hard on the game that he even ignores his own players, appreciated Roofe enough to accept.

Bielsa famously saved one of his few excesses of this kind for Patrick Bamford, running forty yards to embrace him after a volley in training emphatically declared Pat was back from injury. Pat wasn’t, though, and it’s only in the last few games that he has taken up the job he was signed to do, playing up front for Leeds in the position reflected in the number on his back.

In football we talk about finding players for big occasions

Bamford was supposed to fight Roofe for that place, and he wasn’t winning the battle before a freak fall in an U23s game left his ligaments looking like he’d been in a car crash. In his own way, Bamford has also struggled to discover his identity. The most expensive Leeds striker since Robbie Fowler had a simple set of tasks ahead of him: score enough goals to make the fee look like value, and justify Leeds passing on their other targets in the summer. As a former member of the Chelsea Lost Boys Club — they loaned him to Derby County, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace, Norwich, Burnley and a fake team in Buckinghamshire — Bamford, like Roofe, was suffering from not quite knowing he was, although unlike Roofe he hasn’t been short of people who think they have him all worked out.

He clashed with Sean Dyche at Burnley, who felt that Bamford’s privileged upbringing meant he’d never had to work for anything in his life. Bamford’s defence — that he’d known hardship through being forced by his parents to stick with learning the violin, long after he wanted to give up, until he reached grade seven — probably didn’t help his case, but it was honest; that’s who Pat is. Wealth has almost overtaken goals or medals as the currency of football, but it has to be earned and ostentatiously spent; inherited land ownership and received pronunciation make you a target in football changing rooms, or for football fanzines, who will draw you for their front cover wearing regal uniform holding a violin.

Bamford could thrive in the security and the identity Bielsa is giving players at Leeds, but he hasn’t got long left this season to do it. Roofe’s injury now means he doesn’t have a choice. Bielsa showed his faith in Bamford, telling him in training that he didn’t want to see him in the U23s, moving Roofe to play as an enganche so Bamford could play as the nine. But there’s no prospect of easing into the season now, because Roofe is gone. Now is the time for Bamford to make his mark.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fans have been wondering what Bamford can do in the time left, and asking whether Izzy Brown will make any impact at all during his loan season from Chelsea. The games are going by and Brown is yet to play a first team minute. But while the number of games left is reducing, their importance is increasing with every passing week. In football we talk about finding players for big occasions. The remainder of the promotion race is a twelve-game occasion in which any player, no matter what they’ve done earlier in the season, can make a decisive difference.

We also talk about football being a squad game, and although Bielsa has kept his squad small, injuries are dividing responsibilities between the players in a way he might not have expected. Kemar Roofe scored fourteen goals to get Leeds to where they are. Patrick Bamford has twelve games left to score goals that will get Leeds to where they ought to be going. That’s how a team works, and they know it. Kemar talked about Pat, before his injury, encouraging him to keep scoring. When Pat replaced him and scored against Bolton, Kemar stood up in the dugouts, applauding his first goal after injury. We think about strike partnerships as two players playing together; this season’s crucial strike partnership might be about two players supporting each other, while only one is on the pitch. ◉

(artwork by Rhys Lowry)