Cunning

The right moment

Written by: Flora Snelson
A graphic featuring photos of Leeds United Women players, including Olivia Smart and Carrie Simpson

One of the hardest things about scoring goals is working out what to do with the goalkeeper. The goal is big, but ‘keepers can get about it quickly with their agile feet and long arms. Jess Rousseau has it figured out which is why, as Peterborough’s digital matchday program put it, the Leeds United striker is in red-hot form.

You could practise shooting at an empty net or even at a goalkeeper for hours, but when you’re bearing down on goal on matchday, no repetition can prepare you for the experience of anticipating this particular gloved person. They could react in any number of ways and, as soon as the ball is out of your feet, it’s out of your hands. You just hope it stays out of theirs.

Rousseau’s solution: bait the keeper until they commit themselves out of the standoff. It’s a cool, calm head, on young shoulders. I’ve checked on frozen pizzas cooking with less patience than Rousseau when she’s waiting for the right moment to shoot.

I thought she was a bit mad when I first saw her do it at the LNER Community Stadium last month. With a dodgy backpass, York City’s Jessica Heald inadvertently gave her the best kind of challenge for a striker — beat the keeper and a goal is yours. This keeper filled quite a lot of it by rushing out to remedy the bad pass but, with a few defenders lurking, I would have probably wellied it at the target.

It was a free hit, after all. A chance to shoot worked from front to back with an elegant series of tiki-taka passes would warrant a delicate finish, but by pouncing on an opponent’s error Rousseau had given herself licence to do with it as she pleased.

But she didn’t want to put her laces through it. I shook my head when she darted to the side. The keeper seemed unphased, at first, but another sideways shuffle disguised as a shot sent Rousseau’s final obstacle to her knees, the net clear for the young striker to dink into at will.

A couple of weeks later she had toppling on the mind again, against Durham Cestria. It’s amazing what you can do with a rapid change of direction. But when Rousseau seated the keeper with a sharp turn, outfield players arrived on two feet. Few players have the nerve to pick wit over pace and power, but thunderbastards are over in seconds, while cunning has an expiry — with successive drops of the shoulders, I reckon she could have had the whole team floored, but by the time the 11th bottom hits the ground the first may well be climbing to their feet again.

If I were playing in a team against Leeds United I would simply stop letting them put Rousseau into one-v-ones with the goalkeeper. Peterborough had a right to ignorance when they welcomed the Whites to Abbey Lawn for a first round FAWNL Cup tie on Sunday. Last week, Sarah Danby described the Division One Midlands side as a ‘completely new test’ and promised Leeds would find out as much as they could about Boro before making the trip south.

With centre-backs like gazelles, you can understand why Peterborough looked at the shorter stature of Rousseau and felt like gunning for offsides was a safe bet. But the striker’s pace surprised Peterborough in the first half. At York, Rousseau had picked the lock delicately, but her first goal at Boro was a rapid downhill slalom, swerving the keeper on the way to a goalline wipeout, taking the hosts’ clean sheet and Niamh Connor with her.

Connor and keeper Neive Corry were left thanking Harriet Jakeman for not releasing the ball earlier. The linesman called it offside, but the damage was done — Rousseau had shown she could find the extra yard on the Posh’s back line. By the end of the first half, Rousseau had done it again, but was denied a second time by the linesman’s flag.

You could imagine Boro’s half-time talk amounted to ‘more of the same, please’, as long as the flag kept going up. But they didn’t bank on Rousseau finding the ball in a land where offsides don’t work — her own half. I don’t think Izzy Elliot meant to provide an assist when, just outside her own box, she stepped in front of a blue shirt to clear her lines, but the Abbey Lawn pitch was kind to Leeds. The ball just ran and ran and Rousseau kept up, holding off the bullying shoulder of Connor and galloping goalward. There wasn’t time for tricks, but in the short window between the dispatching of Connor and the advance of Corry, Rousseau slotted in to give United the lead and leave Corry splayed out like a disappointed gymnast.

Peterborough’s media team kept it safe by limiting the highlights package to the two goals which crushed their hope of lifting the FAWNL Cup, leaving all the efforts which came close to the archive. These included United keeper Skye Kirkham’s refusal to look silly with a player progressing toward her at pace, any hope of Renai Bennett doing a Rousseau was swiped from under her as Kirkham stole the ball on the slide.

Get Flora Snelson’s women’s football newsletter by email every week. It’s an ongoing celebration of 31st July 2022, when the Lionesses won the Euros and Flora’s head fell off for sheer joy. Get the latest on the Lionesses, WSL and the world beyond.

Ellie Dobson fancied a go at beating the keeper. I’d want revenge if my 25-yard wondergoal had been denied by a shot-stopper on the stretch. Corry’s defenders made it too easy though, standing idle with hands aloft as Dobson stayed onside. Running toward goal at speed, Dobson invited the keeper to meet her then pushed the ball past her, into the net. Dobson’s late goal squashed the chance of a Boro fightback, relaxing them for the final minutes of a win that gave United a second round tie at home to Halifax.

“It was nice to keep it chilled at the end,” Dobson told LUTV, describing her first goal since joining from Newcastle as “lovely stuff” and fending off an autumnal bee. Rousseau now has seven in eight games this season, going into Sunday’s visit to Hull City, and their 100% home record. ⬢

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