The Square Ball Week: Behind The Groove

In Leeds United, Leeds United Match Reports 2017/18, Subscribers by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

So that’s how it feels to lose. In a way, it’s reassuring to be reminded. For a while, there, supporting Leeds United felt like something other than supporting a football team. While watching a Pablo Hernandez through ball, it was like supporting a gallery of beautiful ancient art.

Football teams lose; they concede goals. Leeds United weren’t doing either of those things, and what they were doing might have transcended football if it had carried on much longer. And we can’t be having that: Shaun Harvey would have to invent a rule.

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Defeat was reassuring in one way but a shock to the system in another. I was more perturbed by losing at Millwall than I let on last weekend. It wasn’t the game itself; we always lose at Millwall, and they concocted such particular circumstances of bile, tactical polarity, and in Steve Morison’s case, grey-faced bitterness that it’s sensible to see the whole event as a one-off, never to be repeated, until our next trip to The Den. Even if that’s not for twenty years, I expect Steve Morison will still be lining up for a go at us, insisting he doesn’t care.

My worry was what was coming next. I didn’t fancy us against Burnley in the Carabao Cup for the same reason I don’t fancy us against Leicester City in the next round: going away to an uninspiring Premier League opponent in an uninspiring cup can easily lead to an uninspiring defeat of your uninspiring second string by their uninspiring reserves.

It all ought not to matter: we’re not expecting to win the League Cup, and we’re not expected to beat teams from the division above us, so like Millwall away, it’s a free pass. But it matters all the same, because football is rarely smooth like a Pablo Hernandez through ball; it lurches through the season as if driven by a learner getting to grips with the clutch, turning purring progress into a juddering halt with one crunch of the gearbox. Nine games unbeaten! Five wins in a row! But now you’ve been beat by Millwall and Burnley. That’s two consecutive defeats, and a cup knockout to boot. It’s Ipswich Town on Saturday, then Cardiff City on Tuesday: Mick McCarthy and Neil Warnock, who won’t give that flash little get Alioski owt but a bruised leg. Sheffield Wednesday after that, and will Thomas Christiansen’s players really fancy a Yorkshire derby after four defeats in a row?

Good form becomes bad form the way a Pablo Hernandez through ball changes defence to attack, because a few defeats can overwhelm our mood the way one stroke of Pablo’s boot can overwhelm a back line. Or at least our perception changes that quickly, because fear sets in, especially for a group of fans who haven’t known good times for so long. Because of that fear, it was difficult to prevent criticism of the performance at Millwall concluding in doom. Thomas Christiansen has been found out, and now every manager knows how to beat us. Ezgjan Alioski isn’t cut out for this league. Pablo Hernandez will never play a through ball again.

It’s irrational, but football is a game that thrives from its lack of rational events, so it’s real. And it could have grown and swarmed around us like an airborne web of migrating spiders had Leeds United’s second choice eleven not done something irrational against Burnley: won.

Our reserve team played better than our first team against a team better than the team our first team played so badly against: there’s good old football logic, for you. Perhaps it had to be that way. Christiansen said he had been looking for a response to the defeat at Millwall, and he looked for it among the players who hadn’t been responsible for it. Hernandez, O’Kane and Anita made the mess: Cibisky, Klich and Berardi cleaned it up.

Obviously it was more nuanced than that. And besides, Pablo Hernandez cleaned up his own mess, with a through ball at Burnley that could be compared to a summer’s day, if we didn’t already know that a Pablo Hernandez through ball is more lovely and more temperate. He replaced Pawel Cibisky so he could play it, but Cibisky had given all the effort he could before then to bring forth a win for Leeds. As had Jay-Roy Grot, toiling upfront and, if he was out of his depth, never succumbing to the waters; Mateusz Klich and Ronaldo Vieira, first team regulars at FC Twente and, er, Leeds United last season, denied places this year; Stuart Dallas, yet to start a league game, adapting when required to back-up left-back; Luke Ayling, playing every game, but switching between right-back and centre-back, guiding Conor Shaughnessy, his inexperienced partner; Gaetano Berardi, guaranteed nothing in the first team, giving everything to the game; Andy Lonergan, the last line behind a defence of strangers against a strikeforce of potency (and Chris Wood), not noted for strength of character last time he was a Leeds player, holding his nerve longest throughout the ABBA ranks of the penalty shootout.

I’m deliberately ignoring Cameron Borthwick-Jackson here because this is intended to be a positive article. And I’m saving Hadi Sacko until now, because he’s the example that can give CBJ hope.

Sacko’s absence from the first team was beginning to make his £1.5m summer signing look even weirder than it did in the first place, as it was rolling on longer than a Pablo Hernandez through ball. In ten minutes at Bolton at the end of the opening match, Sacko had looked like he’d been dragged from his bed straight to the pitch; a few days later, he lasted less than an hour against Port Vale, before Alioski came on and eclipsed him. Sacko’s last meaningful act in a Leeds shirt was running with the ball at his feet, desperately trying to come up with something to do with it, on a route that took him forty yards in a direct line away from Port Vale’s goal: that’s too easy for people who hunt out and use metaphors the way Pablo Hernandez hunts out through balls.

Sacko disappeared, not only from the team, but from the squad, and then not only from the squad, but from life; there were promises to raise his name at press conferences that went forgotten or unfulfilled, and conspiracy theories suggesting there was more to it than absent mindedness. Were Christiansen’s press conferences running like White House briefings, where anyone asking about Hadi Sacko would be shouted down as fake news?

Obviously not. Cats go missing for weeks and then saunter back in through the catflap, demanding a full food bowl, before settling down on their usual cushion and insouciantly refusing to give a clue where they’ve been. Not so Hadi Sacko, who couldn’t insouciant anything if he tried. At Burnley, Charlie Taylor had already been terrorised by Berardi for crossing the halfway line. Now Sacko was terrorising him on his own turf, as confident and direct as he had been shy and diffident against Bolton. A moth escaping from Bolton Wanderers’ bank vaults could have knocked Sacko over at The Macron; now he was sending Taylor sprawling as he tore into the box.

Can he cross it? No, he can’t. Although as he broke faster than his teammates, he was short of targets in the middle. There were no simple square balls for him to miss, but some awkward passes for him to try. And then came the chance to score. ‘Sacko Shoots Wide’ has never had the meme virality of ‘Square It Hadi’, but it has been just as frustrating. This time, through one on one with the goalkeeper, he finished with all the panache and precision of a Pablo Hernandez through ball. “Kept his composure, hit it true,” said the TV commentator, over a replay of Sacko staring into the centre of the net, then snapping the ball between Nick Pope’s legs to put the ball there. The commentator didn’t seem surprised; to Leeds fans, it was like Sacko had just nutmegged Pope Francis himself, in his Popemobile, all the way from space.

That doesn’t happen by accident, and if we don’t know exactly where Sacko has been, we can at least take an educated guess at what he’s been doing. Improving, not only through hard work — because it seems like Hadi has been doing plenty of that, without much reward — but hard work properly applied, which is how you get results.

Caleb Ekuban, within a few weeks of arriving at the club, was talking about how Thomas Christiansen was giving him specific instructions on attacking runs; in the Yorkshire Evening Post, Phil Hay described how Ekuban is a “project” for Christiansen, a player he can use his experience as a striker to improve, much as Garry Monk and James Beattie improved Chris Wood last season, one by showing him how easy he was to play against, one by showing him how to be harder. Christiansen doesn’t have the positional experience to share with Sacko, although putting Sacko straight through the middle might solve the problem of those square balls. But looking at the rawness of the new players at the club this season — Grot and Cibicki, but to an extent Saiz and Alioski — and at the improvements in the performances of Phillips, O’Kane and Cooper over last season, and Shaughnessy over everything, player development seems to be a part of the first team coaching staff’s responsibility the way it never was when the first team coaching staff was Neil Redfearn and a pile of cones and bibs.

The example of Chris Wood shows that there was at least some of that at Thorp Arch last season, and also showed what the results can be, even when development principles are applied to a player with two million pound plus transfers behind him already. In terms Sean Dyche values, it made Leeds £15m; in terms Leeds United value, it got us thirty goals.

In terms Leeds United fans value, the apparent focus on taking players like Sacko and Shaughnessy and concentrating individually on making them better gains Leeds more than transfer fees or goals. It gets results like this week’s, when Leeds United had reasons to be fearful, and the reserves stepped up and, without being too dramatic, saved the day. After a month out of the side, still only making the bench, Sacko could have sulked. Instead, he nearly won the game, and was an integral link in the chain of events that did win the game, and looking at the photos and the videos of the celebrations after the shootout, winning the game meant everything to Sacko, and all the seconds.

Part of that will be personal; a desire to play their best to get into the first team, and Sacko certainly has people talking about him as a potential player again. But that’s not automatic, as Mateusz Klich said after the game: “Probably we won’t play on Saturday, but I hope everyone who does manages to do good and do their jobs, and that we’re going to win as we lost the last game. I hope I’ll play but it’s a tough decision for our coach because we not only have eleven, twelve or thirteen players, but twenty who want to play. I think it’s good.”

It is good. And what’s better is that the twenty who want to play look dedicated to earning their places the right way, and willing to behave the right way if there isn’t room for them. Players don’t just need technical instruction to get better; they need a positive environment and a culture of improvement, and to enjoy what they’re doing: you get better faster when you’re having fun. If you’re resenting the player who has ‘your’ place in the team, you’re not having fun, and you’re not getting better. At Leeds, this season, we’re seeing fast improvements everywhere.

Hadi Sacko is undoubtedly still a long way from the finished article, and one cool finish does not make him a dead-eyed Pablo clone forever. But as well as banishing the post-Millwall clouds before they could fully gather, this week showed us that just because a player is out of our sight, doesn’t mean he’s out of Thomas Christiansen’s mind; and that just because a player isn’t a regular in the first team, he’s any less committed to the first team’s success than someone starting every match. If having a first eleven good enough to be top of the league wasn’t enough, it looks like we also have backup players improving fast enough that they can slot in and help out, and we’ll hardly see the difference, until we see what a difference it’s made.

A difference like a Pablo Hernandez through ball, hard work hidden by artistry, impact disguised by beauty, second sight implemented first before anybody. Proving that football, even in its rational moments of cause and effect, training and games, can be transcendent after all. ◉

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(feature image by Jim Ogden)