The Square Ball Week: The Essence of Defence

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

The most exciting season at Elland Road in ten years continues to weigh dread heavy upon anxious supporters. Not since 2009 have Leeds United come through a summer expecting to be promoted by the next one, and rather than joy at the prospect of spending a season winning thrilling matches while top of the table, the general mood is fear.

If we could compress this campaign into a Championship Manager timeframe and play the whole season through by teatime, I think a lot of fans would take that right now.

Liam Cooper’s injury is the latest disaster. Just when Leeds were on the brink of a fully fit squad, down went Adam Forshaw, Pablo Hernandez, Jamie Shackleton and the captain. Marcelo Bielsa thinks Forshaw is our best player; the fans think that’s Hernandez; Shackleton is the thinking fan’s Jack Clarke and Liam Cooper is the only player standing between us and playing Eddie Nketiah at centre-half. Arsenal do want him to get games.

The sale of Pontus Jansson was the summer’s most angst-stricken moment; now injury has struck Cooper’s groin, and we’re praying Pascal Struijk is ready to step up. Come back Aapo Halme, all is forgiven.

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Leeds aren’t quite down to their defensive bones yet, because they have Gaetano Berardi, a quietly diligent convert to Bielsa’s philosophy; he replaced Cooper against West Bromwich Albion, one of the division’s most dangerous attacking teams, and even after they were riled by conceding Berardi was a seamless substitute, rarely more troubled than Cooper might have been. “The substitution of Berardi was positive,” said Bielsa.

But the perception persists that Berardi is an unpinned grenade at the back, or a landmine Kiko Casilla is fated to step on, no matter how far he is from goal. One of the mementoes of Tuesday night was a screenshot of Casilla out of his goal in front of Bielsa’s bench, the ball at his feet as West Brom players closed in from all sides, like a full-back picking his pass upfield. There was nobody guarding the net, but, when you finally took your hands from your eyes, the ball wasn’t in it.

Leeds faced West Brom’s talented attack and kept their fifth clean sheet of the season — more than any other Championship team — and so far they’ve only conceded five, also better than any other team. But when you look at the way Leeds conceded to Charlton, and at most of the other four, all you see is the chaos. Next comes Millwall away, a team that has scored eight this season, whose long-devoted manager has turned-tail and scurried back to the riverbank, whose devotion to ex-Leeds strikers is such that they’ve upgraded from Steve Morison to Mathieu Smith; and the predominant fear is that Smith will channel Nikola Zigic and score four goals off his neck past our feeble defence.

We’re worried because we’re looking at the wrong things. First should be those stats: five conceded in ten league games. Keep that up and Leeds will concede 23 this season; the best defences in the Championship last season belonged to Sheffield United and Middlesbrough, conceding 41 each, then us, conceding 50. Leeds have yet to let in more than one in a match, and teams can only enter their penalty area through set-pieces. While so much attention has focused on those set-pieces and on the forwards’ inefficiency, the Peacocks’ defence has had an extraordinary start.

The other direction to look is directly at Ben White. Let the modern world fade away to silence, and just watch him. Before the game settled down on Tuesday I gulped my heart into my mouth watching West Brom testing a flustered Stuart Dallas at right-back. Then my heart swooned whenever Ben White appeared, like Ursula Andress coming out of the sea in an all-white kit. If self-assurance is sexy, Ben White is the heart throb for Leeds United’s troubled times.

His anticipation is such that he was seeing Dallas’ mistakes before he made them; his control is such that even a hard struck forty yard pass to nobody was a carefully thought through clearing of his lines, Ben White’s daisy-cutting equivalent of a hoof, giving Patrick Bamford a chance of chasing it. When West Brom counter-attacked his positioning runs looked mistaken, until West Brom played into his path; in his own penalty area, he could sense exactly when to mark and stop a pass, and when to join Berardi, backing up his blocks. One fault: in the first half he played a pass out of defence straight to a West Brom player. I think it might have been the first dangerously misplaced pass of his Leeds career: ten games, then, until the next one.

White’s birthday is November 7th, a day before Rio Ferdinand’s, and on his next one he’ll turn 22, the birthday Ferdinand had just celebrated when Leeds paid £18m to buy him from West Ham United. Thinking through all the defenders we’ve seen at Elland Road since — Steven Caldwell, Sean Gregan, Darren Kenton, or even the good ones, Richard Naylor, Patrick Kisnorbo, Pontus Jansson — none has come close to replicating the composed brilliance of Ferdinand at Leeds, who became captain at 22, and an unforgivable bastard aged 23. His transfer to Old Trafford overshadows what it was like to watch him play for Leeds: as if he was playing a different sport to Michael Duberry, as if he’d come from another world.

Ben White looks like that, because in the years since we had Ferdinand at Leeds the Premier League has become science-fiction; so far his loan from Brighton has been like a benign alien visitation. He didn’t arrive in peace: all the summer noise was that Leeds couldn’t possibly be selling Pontus Jansson so that some kid with the physique of a trainee lifeguard could get his first games above League One. On social media fans analysed him pixel by pixel to decide if he would measure up, as if he was a controversial candidate for a K-Pop boy band. Then we saw him play. He might look no more substantial than Andrew Ridgeley, but in performance he’s as dynamic as George Michael.

He’ll probably break our hearts the same way; Last Christmas was written for every loanee we ever wanted to keep. White plays like a visitor from the Premier League’s planet and, one day, he’ll go back there; even if Leeds are promoted, Brighton won’t let go easily in a tug of love. It’s hard to invest our dreams in White knowing he’ll be gone; but then, one Christmas, we wrapped up our heart and gave it to Pontus Jansson, and now he’s realising his ambitions elsewhere. Last week Pontus tweeted that he has, “had a dream for many years to run a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive-team and finally I’m there,” so at least he’s putting his hours away from Bielsa’s training regime to good use.

Millwall will be a test for Leeds. They always, painfully, are. Matt Smith will test White and Berardi right where they’re least comfortable; and Casilla, by making every corner a potential circus. But the weird dichotomy of this season’s Leeds, the terror we’re struck with while watching the Championship’s best defence, can be soothed by tuning out of the injuries, the calamities, the bad memories and the eccentricities, and meditating instead on Ben White. Concentrate on your breathing, and watch, as he sees the ball, gets the ball, passes the ball; sees the ball, gets the ball, passes the ball; sees the ball, gets the ball, passes the ball; until he either goes back to Brighton, or a wellness guru finds a way to distill his essence into a calming essential oil, and the Elland Road shop stocks up on soothing Ben White candles. ◉

(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)

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(photo by Lee Brown)