There were so many ways that this could have gone so wrong for Leeds United.
Start with the opposition, which was ‘only’ Wigan Athletic. Down in mid-table, but disguising a formidable home record, undefeated at the DW Stadium since February. The DW is named after Dave Whelan, and this game was his valedictory, a last chance to regale crowds with the story of how he broke his arm before the Charity Shield or whatever it was, and for them to thank him for the last twenty-three years of what they’re calling success at Wigan Athletic, while nodding politely and pretending they’re listening to him. Whelan is departing due to a takeover, meaning players and staff would be raising their game to secure a good result for his farewell and secure new contracts from the new bosses.
Then there was Leeds United’s own situation, with injuries to key players so bad already that every time Pablo Hernandez falls to the floor, a million Leeds United hearts fall with him. Barry Douglas was back, which was good, but Stuart Dallas was right-back, which has usually been bad. Pre-match preparation was disturbed first by Adam Forshaw being ill on the eve of the match but recovering to play, then by a road accident outside the DW Stadium, delaying United’s team bus as the police chased a suspect into a drain and the fire brigade came to drag him out. From the drain to the gutter: Sky TV, choosing to broadcast a Leeds United away match at lunchtime on Sunday, had their sound technicians hovering over the mute button to protect the nation’s ears from the merest hint of Yorkshire accented profanity.
Everywhere you looked was a way for Leeds United to lose, but experienced observers of our often dysfunctional football club know that most of that stuff is unnecessary: when it comes to defeats, we only have to look to ourselves. And so, with five minutes played, Liam Cooper felt the blood dripping from his centre-back’s conk and chased the man with the arm that caused it, Joe Garner, catching him and kicking him a few yards outside United’s penalty area. I’m not qualified to say whether Bailey Peacock-Farrell put his wall in the wrong place, put it in the right place and stood in the wrong place, put it in the right place and stood in the right place but the wall failed, or if Reece James just did a very good free-kick, but the ball went into the bottom corner of United’s net, and Leeds had a goal deficit on top of everything else.
In recent weeks conceding a goal has been the Peacocks’ cue to unfurl their feathers, display a magnificent plume, then use their surprisingly strong neck muscles to viciously peck and bite their opponents until an equaliser is achieved. In that sense, conceding so early worked in Leeds’ favour, because after going behind, all the worries about this game fell away, an initial lack of surety in United’s play disappeared. Leeds attacked, and Douglas played a through ball behind Wigan’s defence to Mateusz Klich, taunting them by being inside their penalty area and taunting Ezgjan Alioski by being onside. He pulled the ball back to Hernandez, Leeds United’s most trusted, who equalised before nine minutes were played.
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Almost an hour had been played before Wigan got another touch of the ball in United’s penalty area, something they only managed five times in the entire game. Leeds were 2-1 up by then, after Kemar Roofe was given some free touches of the ball on Wigan’s goal line by goalkeeper Christian Walton, who confidently dived over the top of Hernandez’s low cross. This was forty seconds into the second half, promising forty-five minutes of goalscoring action from Leeds until the end of the game.
Well, action was right. When Josh Windass left Pablo Hernandez upfield on the floor and broke forward, eight Leeds players pursued him, overtook him and brought him down, like a gang of Kop Cats taking down a goat in the wilderness. “Last year we looked at each other and expected the teammate to run home,” Pontus Jansson wrote on Twitter after the game, one of many people sharing the video clip. “This year if you don’t run home you gonna hear it from everyone!”
The moment stood out partly because it’s such a contrast to last year; as proud as the team should be of chasing and taking Windass, they’ve shown the same determination all season whenever they glimpse a reference to their past; the bones of our memories of the months with Heckingbottom have been crunched in the jaws of Leeds United’s new workrate.
But it also stood out because it was so rarely necessary. Leeds had two-thirds of the possession, completed almost three times as many passes, had around seven times as many touches in their opponent’s penalty area, took twice as many shots as Wigan. The game after the equaliser had a steady rhythm of attack, chance, recover, attack, chance, recover, with very few opportunities for Wigan to get the ball and try to do anything of their own. Moves regularly clicked into double figures of passes, the ball zipping among the white shirts much more crisply than against Nottingham Forest last week. This wasn’t due to the opponent; against Forest Leeds had possession and were blunt. Against Wigan Leeds had possession and were sharp. Our business.
In a way it’s also our failure, because out of all that, Leeds created one goal from open play; we can hardly claim the second, as Wigan created it for us. The opportunity count was yet again high, averaging a shot about every eight minutes, but the return was yet again low. Efficiency remains the big question mark about this team but the answers aren’t easy; Roofe looks sharp and lively, Alioski frustrates but creates, Klich was doing his favourite thing, playing beyond the defence in dangerous areas. Samu Saiz or Jack Clarke might have added something by coming from the bench, but nobody on the pitch was doing anything wrong enough to justify being taken off.
The reasons for that might be defensive as much as offensive. “When we have possession it increases our self-esteem,” Bielsa said after the game, like a motivating yoga teacher on Instagram, “because one of our goals is to prevent the opponent on the ball.” While the failure to turn possession into clear chances and then into goals has been frustrating lately — the draws with Sheffield Wednesday, Brentford and Forest were all a cutting edge away from becoming victories — concentrating on the frustration has obscured the benefits of constant attacking, even when it doesn’t lead to constant scoring.
The last goal Leeds conceded from open play was Adam Reach’s absurd lucky punt at Hillsborough six games ago. In that time they’ve let in three from corners, a penalty (that never was) and a direct free-kick, hinting at fragility around set pieces. Forget that fragility, and embrace the sheer dominance of going seven games — I’ve decided Reach’s goal doesn’t count anymore — without letting anybody score, because we’re not letting them have the ball. One of the truths at the heart of Bielsa’s philosophy is that he embraces attacking football because it’s the best form of defensive football there is. “If we can prevent the opponent from making too many passes,” he said after this game, “and recover the ball from the third or fourth pass we feel safer and the opponent loses confidence.”
– And Leeds get a much needed win, away from home, when if not the odds — Leeds are a better team than Wigan, who were missing key players — then the circumstances were ready to conspire against Leeds, the way they have so often in the past. Efficiency is the problem, but it’s also the strength, because Leeds United at Wigan were a team ignoring the opponent and the occasion and their own weaknesses, and concentrating on just getting the thing done. They did it. They move on. And up. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)