Leeds United wanted (needed) a win and here was one, away from home to boot, only the second like that this season. Don’t worry how we got it just be glad that we did. That is your mantra for the next two weeks.
Maybe this chaotic anniversary of last year’s chaos was the best way to win. Keep your eye on the fixture list for next season, in case Leeds United and Wolves are becoming one of those historic battle reenactment societies, getting together once a year to dress up and go crazy on the memories of the good old bad old days. Which is, 135 years after the Football League was founded, basically what football is now anyway.
At 3-0 up on Saturday, with half an hour to play, and other Premier League scores a kindness, I remembered last season’s relatively routine 3-0 win at Watford. And I remembered watching Rodrigo and Jackie Harrison later, reviewing the season for LUTV, talking about how they thought that result meant safety was assured. And how they looked ruefully at each other across the sofas, puffing out their cheeks and rolling their eyes. They were remembering what came next. Four consecutive games of utter despair, followed by most of a fifth until Gelhardt and Struijk saved a day against Brighton.
The worst thing a team can do in a relegation battle, especially one as crowded and narrow as this, is relax. Perhaps that’s why Javi Gracia, the new coach with the soft demeanour, has been gently insisting that he is actually stressed to fuck inside. He’ll want to be careful with his new crew, during the international break, that the ‘good atmosphere’ from this result doesn’t become complacency. A few replays of Illan Meslier’s astonishing save from Raúl Jiménez should help remind them about the margins, his big right arm springing up to block a shot coming from two yards away, with a big outstretched middle finger at the end directed at the France national team coach.
Before that save, Meslier had watched the ball being volleyed over his head into his open goal, after Marc Roca turned the goalie’s headed clearance into a great chance for Wolves. After it, a shot zipped by him when Max Wöber’s attempted block deflected it t’other way. Often, Meslier is entitled to suggest the team doesn’t deserve his match-winning saves. But that’s not his way, or theirs. He does what he can, they do what they can, everybody is doing what they can.
One of the defining characteristics of this era of Leeds is fortitude. These players — enough have stayed to assimilate the new ones in their ways — have persisted through Marcelo Bielsa’s back-breaking first summer, the shock of losing to Derby in the play-offs, the dreadful winter that nearly derailed promotion, the dreadful pandemic that nearly did the same, the dismissive attitude of pundits who didn’t believe a crazy coach and a bunch of players who had, in some cases, worked up from League Two could work in the Premier League. I think their determination would have kept Leeds up if Bielsa had stayed last season. I think it would have kept Leeds up if Jesse Marsch had stayed this season. I think it will keep Leeds up this season. They almost made Michael Skubala a legend and now Javi Gracia is tapping into their attitude. I believed Marsch when he used to say he ‘likes our players’ and that he’d never met any like them. I like them too.
That means accepting their faults and this match was a great example. Luke Ayling scored at the same end of the same ground, and did the same celebration, as his last goal, one year ago; he snuck away to the back post to meet Roca’s (good! we did a good!) corner and head it firmly into the net. Bill could have scored two at the back post last week against Brighton, to make up for his toil against Kaoru Mitoma. At Wolves, he’d spent the first half being tied in knots by and/or chasing Daniel Podence, Jonny and Max Kilman, and being closed down by João Gomes — it looked like a Wolves tactic to hit him with two markers whenever he got the ball. Boy did he struggle. And then he scored a crucial goal anyway, and so much for Wolves’ plan to turn him into a weakness.
See also Jackie Harrison, often despairing in recent weeks at the product of his crossing feet and collapsing on his own goalline last week. He made a goal and scored a goal in that game anyway, then opened the scoring here with a secure finish on Wilf Gnonto’s cross. Check Wöber too, on that second Wolves goal, his eyes to the heavens after as if asking who he had upset and how. Either side of that deflection he was brilliant, and this was his reward? Well, exactly. The tale of this Leeds team is that they can’t do right for doing wrong. Without the self assurance of true elite footballers, they go out to play with their weaknesses near the surface. Being so close to mistakes means playing with bravery, and that’s what had Bielsa admiring them in his final weeks, bewildered that they would go out game after game getting hurt the same ways with only the minimum of complaining. Take Harrison’s goal against Brighton. It’s easy to imagine that shot sailing into the Kop, and the reaction he’d have heard from the fans catching the ball. Anyway, he tried.
Gnonto made that chance for him, thinking quickly from a corner (twice, if you include getting rid of the stray ball that could have stopped play). He made the goal for him against Wolves, too, with three attempts in a minute at getting a cross into the box. If at first you don’t succeed, collect the loose ball, send it back to the wing, and let Gnonto try again. The early lead flipped United into a cautious mode, continuing another theme from the Brighton game of being comfortable being outplayed, as uncomfortable as it might make their fans. Gnonto never looks keen on it, either, but is concentrating on his diligent side for Gracia, pausing on the counter, looking for a safe pass instead of risking it all.
The goal at the start of the first half was doubled by Ayling’s at the start of the second, and Leeds wanted to stop it all there. It could and maybe should have been enough. But a problem with United’s patience is that, the more they think about things, the more chances they have of messing things up — part of Gnonto’s frustration is that, when he does turn carefully inside instead of beating his marker on the run, two passes later the ball gets given away. It was technically helpful for Leeds that, when Gnonto was replaced by Rasmus Kristensen on the hour to protect the 2-0 lead, the sub’s first act was to make it 3-0 by collecting a Harrison cross and driving a shot in. That could and maybe should have been enough. But there are only so many right-backs can score for the same team in the same game before the cosmos starts to comment and complain. Leeds never looked more vulnerable than with five at the back against Adama Traoré, and ten minutes later it was 3-2, Meslier’s hand keeping Leeds in the lead.
Maybe it’s just always like this at Wolves. If they will insist on starting every game with a disco in a spring storm, carrying on with their fireworks and lightshow despite torrential rain and despite these things only heralding a lower table Premier League game in the Midlands, then they should expect weirdness. Some Wolves fans think such weirdness includes FA and Premier League conspiracies designed to keep them out of Europe and maybe consign them to the EFL, but really, why would the Premier League want to do that? Few other clubs buy into the awkward glamour of the league like Wolves do. I can imagine video of their pre-game illuminations being shown to reluctant clubs up and down the land as an exemplar of fulfilling Premier League brand obligations. And, I mean, they’re called ‘Wolves’. The Premier League would give anything for a competition full of teams called things like Wolves and Tigers and Wildebeests. Their wolf logo is great, they wear gold, they have a fashion brand and a big-name eSports team. They’re one of the most marketable clubs the Premier League has, if you don’t take people too deep into the whole ‘and so what is Wolverhampton like, to visit?’ thing.
But when Leeds visit we treat the place like a playground, finding the worst (best) ways to win. We go marching in as northerners from another town over the hill, basically the same but desperate to demonstrate some difference, expressing superiority by trashing everything that looks familiar and turning the hosts into a worse version of ourselves. So, Wolves complaining about refereeing decisions, is it? This included appealing for a penalty after a blithe tackle by Junior Firpo, Jonny Castro being sent off for bending Ayling’s leg with his studs, and an injury time goal being allowed to stand and make the score 4-2. In the build-up, on halfway, Roca had clutched at Traoré’s shirt, but the true crime here was Wolves’, who all stopped and moaned instead of playing to the whistle. Summerville released Rodrigo, who swayed across the empty pitch, chipped the ball over José Sá, then legged it towards the Leeds fans, doing all his goofy celebrations at once.
Wolves had bigger problems than the referee. First, going 3-0 down to a team that had only won away once all season. Second, ruining their own momentum by replacing Rúben Neves, who was running midfield at the time, with João Moutinho, who did not. Third, they don’t look very well trained. Ayling’s goal wasn’t the only corner Leeds did well with, and jeez, if you’re making Leeds look good at set-pieces, you’ve got problems at the back. Jonny’s wasn’t their only bad foul — Harrison Instagrammed his stitched-up leg at full-time — and the way they all stopped playing when Roca touched Traoré was a bad look in the 97th minute with a goal to get. They’ve scored 22 goals in 28 games and are just as much in the relegation mire as Leeds. And we know how bad we’ve been this season.
Leeds might have something Wolves don’t, alongside the players’ determination never to go down. We might not have a pre-game laser show, but we know how to forget our faults and have a good time. We might find out this season which is more important in the Premier League. ⬢