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leeds 4 – 0 birmingham: only bliss

leeds 4 – 0 birmingham: only bliss

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Blissful ignorance was what I asked for before the weekend. A chance to imagine, hope or just plain pretend that everything about Leeds United is fantastic, and a chance to just be happy for a while.

I can’t speak for the ignorance part – after all, how would I know? – but Sunday’s game was as close to bliss as anything I’ve experienced with Leeds for a long time.

How long? The last time we scored four was at Huddersfield in December; the last time we won 4-0 was against Shrewsbury last August; the last 4-0 in the league was at Forest in November 2011; the last time we won 4-0 at Elland Road in the league – and the last time we scored three times before half time – was against Scunthorpe, on January 15th, 2011. 2 years, 9 months and 6 days since Leeds scored three in the first half; 1010 days since a 4-0 home win in the league. 

It wasn’t just the result that has been a long time coming. It’s hard to remember, after the murk we’ve peered through since Grayson started to slide, the last time Leeds United so completely dominated a game against another Championship side.

One reason why I didn’t panic about Leeds’ loss of form before the international break was that I suspected Brian McDermott would use the time to do something about it. When the team plays every weekend and most midweeks, it’s difficult to make significant alterations, and the games against Millwall, Bournemouth and Derby were about just getting through to some breathing space. McDermott has used the free two weeks with real intelligence, ripping up the formation and starting again, getting it ingrained into his players in training and a secret practise match against Rotherham.

The proper return of Sam Byram can’t be ignored either. The hip injury hasn’t only held him back, it’s held us back; Sunday was a reminder of just how good Byram is, and how important he is to the team. He was our best player last season by an easy distance, not only because he was individually capable, but because on several occasions he effectively ran the team from right-back. His control, range of passing and pace down the wing means that a ball to the right full back isn’t a defensive manoeuvre when Byram is in the team; it’s the start of a new and promising attack. 

Moving him forward to wing-back, as McDermott did with this 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 / 3-2-3-2-1 / however you want to write it down, takes advantage of that playmaking ability, and immediately increases our attacking options. The ball wasn’t constantly getting lost in the diamond anymore; it was going wide, where it could either go down the line for McCormack, or inside where Mowatt and Austin were ready to burst forward.

The width helped Mowatt, Austin and Murphy, too; reducing the number of bodies around the centre circle seemed to remove some of the uncertainty and lack of personal responsibility that had crept into the midfield. Rudy improved to the extent that McDermott subbed him off just so he could get a standing ovation. He deserved it; playing Austin further forward seems to be the key to sending him all over the pitch, as he put in one of his dominant performances where no area of the pitch was unguarded by Rodolph. He scored a midfielder’s header, too, the kind of goal we used to associate with Lee Bowyer back in his best box-to-box days.

Murphy and Mowatt won’t burst their lungs like Austin, but they go about their business in a different way; Murphy by receiving the ball and setting up his team mates, Mowatt by hitting the attackers with pinpoint through balls and sublime crosses. Smith didn’t look offside for his disallowed goal, but the pass from Mowatt looked excellent; and all you can really say about Mowatt’s cross for the fourth is that it’s worth watching over and over.

Mathieu Smith might be the most significant player to have stepped up in this game. The search for someone on loan to stick the ball in the net has been paralleled by the question of why Matt Smith isn’t out there doing it, and he answered three times on Sunday, even if only two were given. They were three different goals, too, which is a good sign for a player people like to pigeonhole as lanky – if you can find a pigeonhole big enough – and not much more. He didn’t have much of the goal to aim at when he scored his first, but he found it; the disallowed goal was a thumping shot when put through on the goalkeeper; and his last showed what he can do with his Lee Chapman-like head when a quality cross goes near him. 

One for McCormack, one for Austin, and two for Smith is just about the perfect division of striking labour: one for the little striker, one from midfield and two from the big striker is the ideal ratio of goals for any team. If Jason Pearce can add one in every ten we’ll have something like an attack. I should mention that we suddenly seem to have a defence, too; Pearce, Wootton and especially Lees, with his goal-line clearance, were solid as a three, keeping a good clean sheet after conceding in the last six games.

Amid all this gushing, we should get the caveats out of the way at this point, because there are a few intrusions on the blissfulness: Birmingham were awful. Lee Clark threw them on the pitch in some bizarre imitation of three at the back, and watched with increasingly glumness as what was left of the back line messed up the simplest of defensive tasks. The news that Neil Warnock is being considered as Director of Football should tell you a lot about how bad Birmingham are. Never mind the first half, Leeds could have had three in the first twenty minutes. At the other end, what mistakes were made by the Leeds defence could have been punished by a good team; and in the middle, while Murphy and Austin were excellent, the one thing we know about them both so far is that they’re inconsistent. Smith had a good day but one good day doesn’t make you Gary Lineker; Byram was excellent as ever, but we shouldn’t be relying on two youngsters, in him and Mowatt, to never have an off day while they’re still learning.

If I was to be truly miserabilist, I’d scowl and say that being 3-0 up at half time was the worst thing that could have happened to our new formation; the second half was essentially uncontested, meaning the 3-5-2 was only really properly tested for half a match. Against Huddersfield on Saturday I expect the same team, in the same formation, and I expect they’ll have to work much harder for the points; and a tougher time from Birmingham might have been better preparation.

But these are shadows on a sunny day. (Don’t look out the window; just trust me, it is a beautiful day.) What we had before the international break was anxiety, because everything seemed to be going wrong and nothing seemed to be happening to put it right. We wanted signings, and unless you count Byram’s return from injury (‘It’s like a new…’) we didn’t get one. Without a signing, it was hard to see what McDermott could do; but he saw it. I guess that’s what those Dolce & Gabbana glasses are for. And I guess that, even if this season should dip again into difficulty, we should remember this game, and that we have a manager who can do the right things, and lead us from panic to bliss.

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