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leeds 2 – 1 bournemouth: not quite

leeds 2 – 1 bournemouth: not quite

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Photo by conorvarley

It’s not easy to watch Leeds United playing like this. It can’t be easy to play for Leeds United playing like this, either.

United seem to exist at the moment in a permanent state of ‘not quite.’ Passes don’t quite reach their man, shots don’t quite hit the target, teams aren’t quite finished off. In the end last night, the players deserved credit for coming away with three points, and they also deserve to take a breather this morning, because you can only really appreciate the pressure on them to win if you pause and imagine what the reaction would have been like if they’d lost. 

The three points are important, but the players can’t feel totally satisfied. So many passes seem to hit an opponent first, even if they reach a Leeds player; when a player runs into space, the ball goes just slightly too far ahead or too far behind; our strikers draw their foot back, visualising a pile driver into the very top corner, and instead their shot clips off a defender’s ankle and goes out for a corner. Then the referee gives a goal kick. If frustration breeds hunger, our players must be famished.

At one point Rudy Austin played a pinpoint cross-field pass to Ross McCormack, who had loads of room on the left wing, and who was nearly knocked into the East Stand concourse by the power Rodolph put on the ball. It was close, but not quite right. Even when we won a penalty, which Noel Hunt celebrated as if it was a goal, we didn’t get a goal out of it – Ross McCormack’s penalty not quite disguised enough, not quite hit hard enough. That’s before we even get to the bewildering goalmouth scrambles where Leeds players seemed to be taking it in turns to swing and miss, leaving heads in hands all round.

None of the above, incidentally, should apply to Alex Mowatt. Kept in after looking like the only one with an idea at Millwall, he seemed more willing to try things, and more able to make them work, than anyone else. Last season it was Sam Byram who made an early season debut and soon looked a cut above the rest of the team; as long as expectations stay reasonable, it looks like Mowatt can make a similar impact this year, and when Byram returns to full fitness we’ll have two very assured and very talented young players to watch.

Back to this not-quite-rightness. It might be a confidence thing, although if confidence comes from the top, the players couldn’t ask for more from Brian McDermott, whose blend of calm honesty always make it seem like we’ve got reasons to be positive. It might just have needed the win to put things back on track, a win which should have come at Millwall but which needed a touch of home simplicity to secure. In which case, last night was hopefully a step forward.

The formation was definitely simpler than on Saturday. After the flat back four plus six-others-looking-confused that faced Millwall, McDermott made things easier with almost a 4-4-2; there were still definite signs of diamond, especially when Green and Tonge stood at opposite ends of the centre circle wondering what to do about the Bournemouth players in between, but at times it was more like a flat four. Austin and Mowatt pushed out to the wings, and according to LUFCData the latter made 11 crosses; Rudy seemed to be pinging plenty in from the right too, especially in the first half, a winger-less attempt to solve the width problem.

It worked, too. With more emphasis on the wide positions, Stephen Warnock – who had a really good game – was sent away down the left by Mowatt, and crossed Ben Parker-style for McCormack well placed to score from close range. This was a proper winger-striker goal, from a team that seemed to be making a conscious effort to get towards a winger-striker style; Noel Hunt hasn’t made the most of his Leeds career so far, but playing up the top with McCormack like an old-fashioned front two put us on more of a front foot than when Ross has been patrolling midfield behind Varney. 

Despite Bournemouth being down to ten men after the penalty, and despite the return of Tom Lees’s anticipation in defence, Leeds couldn’t quite hold on to the lead; looking distracted by the entrance of Dom Poleon, our defenders let Bournemouth have a couple of headers from a free kick and left Lewis Grabban unmarked to equalise. 

Fortunately Bournemouth’s own marking was just as lax, and they left Poleon free in the box to volley the winner after more wing-stuff – Mowatt himself this time, with a deep cross – turned the Bournemouth defence round about and Pearce headed back across goal. Murphy’s late winner against Brighton on the opening day was the prelude to a party; Poleon’s goal was more like the relief you feel when you fix the scratched coffee table after said party before your parents get home.

That might have something to do with it being our first home league win since the Brighton game. The fixture list has had a lot to do with that, with international breaks stopping any momentum and preventing the establishment of a McDermott-inspired fortress at Elland Road. It’s off to Derby at the weekend, then another two weeks before returning home to face Birmingham. 

In this case, and with fingers crossed for a good result at St. Andrews, the break might be a good thing. There’s an element of getting over the line about getting to this fixture gap; of picking up the points until we’ve got a chance to take time and take stock. In that respect, Millwall was a failure; but last night was a success. It’s not quite the football we want, and I think it’s not quite the football the players want to play. But it’s two goals, a win, and a Mowatt, and that’s enough for me.

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