Before the game a spirit walked among them, outside the team hotel. It ate with them, talked with them and sat with them through what must have been an awkward team meeting.
“Woody, you will make this run when Samu has the ball,” Thomas Christiansen would say; “Or Caleb. I mean, we have to see.”
The spectre haunted the opening stages of the game against Sunderland, when Leeds needed an exorcism. Instead they got an Ekuban.
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Chris Wood’s failure to play was much less than ideal, but ought not to be in the same bracket as Charlie Taylor’s refusal to play. Leeds didn’t have a fee agreed for Taylor when he turned his back at Wigan, and he didn’t have a medical booked in with another team. By the time Leeds were kicking off against Sunderland, Burnley’s bid was accepted and Chris Wood was booking a MegaBus to Lancashire, and it was hard to argue that he was still a Leeds United player in anything other than his registration, and his ghostly presence.
The only possible route to the starting line up for Wood was if he wanted to go out in a blaze of goalscoring glory, but as I discussed last week, Wood has never come across with that kind of Roy of The Rovers personality. Instead he went out with a flicker of dull idiocy, posting a half-arsed message on Twitter when he would have been much better off keeping his phone in his pocket and letting Thomas Christiansen handle the public.
Christiansen said later that he knew on Friday night that Wood wouldn’t be playing against Sunderland, making his pre-match involvement at the team hotel even more haunting. I don’t know what else is supposed to happen in this situation: do you make Wood sit on his own at breakfast? Confine him to his bedroom? Shift him to a Travelodge down the road? As he was with the squad, I hope he used the opportunity before he said goodbye to pass on to Caleb Ekuban whatever advice James Beattie passed on last season to make him worth £15m.
Wood’s absence put a lot of pressure on Ekuban, although it’s noticeable how quickly he has seen off Marcus Antonsson and Souleymane Doukara’s claims, which should give him confidence. He didn’t look especially confident on the ball against Sunderland, receiving it early on near the penalty spot, where he stood tapping it with either foot like a dressage horse doing a trick while his teammates stood and watched, wondering what he was doing and what Chris Wood might be doing now.
It didn’t help that Ezgjan Alioski kept aiming Wood-sized crosses a kiwi’s length above Ekuban’s head, and Ekuban looked a bit like he did for most of the game against Port Vale: useful, but not a goalscorer. Then, against Port Vale, he scored, and he suddenly looked very different, suggesting he’s got plenty more to show. Ekuban didn’t score against Sunderland but he wasn’t helped by the Wood-shaped shadow attached to him. Remove that and take him as his own player and he looks good, raw, with work to do, and the opportunity to improve once the team gets used to not having Wood as its focal point.
Whether the team really fancied having Wood up there is something I was wondering about last week, as for the second week running his teammates insisted on gifting him a glorious one-on-one chance to score from a through ball, instead of just crossing for a volley. United are a work in progress under Christiansen, with new players staking claims in new positions, so the role of striker is an in-between concept anyway. Settling Wood’s future ought to speed that process up, as now the way to play can be drawn on a blank sheet of paper, rather than carved into rough old bark.
With a mind on the future it was delightful that this game should be settled and so thoroughly influenced by Samuel Saiz and Ezgjan Alioski. The day was supposed to be about strikers, just as last season was all about one striker, but the goals came from elsewhere and the goals were unlike the goals Wood scored last season. Leeds were prickled by Reading’s suggestion that we were a one man team last year, but hindsight is a chastening thing now we’ve seen how flexible and varied we’ve become.
The game didn’t start so auspiciously. It looked like Simon Grayson had correctly calculated for doubt affecting Leeds United, and instructed his players to go hell for leather in the early stages. Leather struck hell in the shape of Liam Cooper’s head, deflecting the ball onto the bar as he ran to the goalline to fill in behind Felix Wiedwald, after Pontus Jansson had allowed James Vaughan to supply Lewis Grabban.
It was a crucial intervention, not the first from a defensive unit that is being overshadowed by the sparkle and speculation ahead of it, but is steadfast despite its make-do-and-mend feel. There wasn’t even time to dwell on Cooper’s block because within moments Saiz had put Leeds ahead, and made Sunderland’s strong start irrelevant.
Ayling took a throw-in on the right wing, ignoring Alioski who showed for the ball first, then playing a one-two with Ekuban and prodding the ball down the line to Saiz. He distracted his marker Kone and the ball ran towards the corner and Alioski, who checked his run and passed inside into the path of Saiz, who controlled with his left foot and ignored Phillips and Hernandez as they closed in on the six yard box, shooting with his right foot, snapping the ball across Jason Steele and into the furthest corner.
The Port Vale Three had hooked up again, but what really set this goal apart was a finish worthy of any £15m striker. Saiz didn’t break stride once he had the ball under control, but everything slowed down as he adjusted his body to shoot in his own time, in his own way, his ball, his game, his goal — ably assisted by Ekuban and Alioski.
As at Bolton, a goal was the making of Leeds, and if Hernandez had been Chris Wood when Saiz crossed soon afterwards it would have been 2-0. (It’ll be a while before we can stop looking at chances in those terms.) It was Hernandez’s last contribution, as he was struggling following a heavy collision with Leeds United hard man Eunan O’Kane, and he was replaced by Roofe.
Ekuban followed him in the second half with an injured foot and was replaced by Stuart Dallas, as if the gods had decreed that not only would this game be a test of how well Leeds could cope without Chris Wood, but of how well Leeds could cope without any strikers at all. Roofe went up front, where he’s probably been itching to play since he signed, but he couldn’t get much joy out of Kone, who was twice his size. He settled instead for making Kone miserable by not giving him a moment’s peace.
Sunderland had started the second half by changing shape to get a grip of midfield, where O’Kane and Kalvin Phillips were assertive, but that gave them less hold than before; after being dominated for ten minutes, Grayson went for a double substitution, but it didn’t do them any good. Sunderland, whose shirts had too many stripes on the front but not enough on the back, were vulnerable, something Saiz and Alioski love.
Saiz went first, breaking upfield through the middle of the pitch, passing Lee Cattermole slowly, slowly, and then quickly and leaving him on his backside, passing to Alioski then joining him in the penalty area. The attack didn’t end in a goal, but it did make Cattermole look like a chump. He was promptly subbed.
Then it was Alioski’s turn to sprint up the pitch as if Sunderland weren’t there, pinging a pass wide to Saiz that stuck to his boot like glue. Saiz looked at the back post, ran to the byline, looked again, and chipped to Dallas, who rose and headed in for two-nil.
No strikers? Fast counter attacks? Back post headers from inward wingers? This was not the Leeds United I fell in love with last season. We thought things were good under Garry Monk; this was better. There was even time for Jansson to celebrate getting whacked in the face by a Sunderland shot, that sent his head spinning as if he was a Sunderland full-back trying to deal with Alioski.
Cooper and Jansson’s headed blocks were as emblematic of the effort as the post-match victory huddle organised by Cooper: Sunderland weren’t going to score against Leeds in this mood. It was a mood of togetherness, necessary in the wake of Wood-gate, but not something that happens automatically.
“As I said in the changing room, there is no one above Leeds,” Christiansen told Adam Pope from BBC Leeds after the match. “Everyone works for the same goal, and we have to work for each other. And today was proof again that we are not winning the games because of the individual players, but as a team.”
If Saiz, Alioski and Ekuban were unknown quantities this summer, at least we had YouTube videos we could go and watch to make ourselves familiar. With Thomas Christiansen all we had to go on were glorious photos of him in turquoise Kappa as a young player at Barcelona, and perhaps footage of APOEL, if he hadn’t said he was leaving their style of play behind in Cyprus. The talk of him being a holiday Hockaday was unfair, but the sense of mystery was reasonable, although I’m not sure there was ever much mystery about the Hock other than how he got the job.
This weekend, following last week’s events in Barcelona that Christiansen admitted had affected him personally, was a test of Christiansen’s coaching; and the commitment shown in victory — especially when compared to some of the listlessness from the end of last season — was a vindication of his suitability for Leeds United. Elland Road might have been dressed up with slogans and banners — one of which, featuring a certain number nine, will need to come down now — but that talk needs walking, and TC so far has put a lead on it and taken it all the way up the Dales and down again.
“Are you disappointed about Chris Wood, or are you over it?” asked Pope. “I’m over it,” answered Christiansen. There’s a quiet ruthlessness to the way he’s talked about Wood, and the way he got the team playing without Wood, that we could all learn from, especially as we near the end of a match report that contains far too much discussion of a player who didn’t play. It’s easier said than done, because not only the banners with his face need replacing, but his place in the team, and that means good decisions quickly.
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But it’s the right attitude, and we can be confident it’s more than just words, and if the attitude and the actions continue to be as good as they have been from Leeds United, together they can take us far. ◉
(feature image by Jim Ogden)