leeds united 2 − 1 middlesbrough: big game playersBack
Leeds United is a massive football club. That’s a given; it’s been proven by science and experience. What is hasn’t always had, in recent years, is massive players.
The last truly big side at Leeds was Dennis Wise’s, and perhaps that’s why we’ve been plotted our course so far the other way: nobody really remembers the shadows cast by Paul Butler and Sean Gregan all that fondly. Gary McAllister set the standard, that Simon Grayson followed, by creating a team in his own spirit; apart from the odd Trundle here and Showumni there, McAllister preferred the slight, willowy talents of Delph and Howson; Grayson raided the minibar for miniatures, putting Kilkenny, Doyle and Gradel out on the pitch.
The cookies have been cut at the academy, too; Tom Lees looks grizzly but fragile, and Sam Byram has a slender elegance that looks like it belongs in the midfield ballet rather than at full back. There’s no room for him in midfield, though, because Alex Mowatt and Chris Dawson are already there, teenagers who look like they’ve been left behind by the primary school kids who lap the pitch before games these days.
This preference for grace over brawn has had several effects. For one thing, it stumped Neil Warnock, who must have looked around in despair for his ‘big man’ up front, before deciding he’d stick with what he knows and just have everyone boot it forward anyway. It has also, on occasions, left Leeds open to being blown away in the breeze; physical stature doesn’t necessarily translate to mental toughness, but the sides that lost and lost big to Blackpool, Watford and Forest in recent seasons all looked very small by the time the fifth, sixth and seventh goals were going in. And we hardly ever scored from corners.
Into the breach, then, welcome Marius Zaliukas. And welcome too a rejuvenated Jason Pearce, and a suddenly as-tough-as-he-looks Tom Lees. Marius was immense against Middlesbrough, and while that must come with an advisory warning – all our defenders always look amazing on their debuts – this time really was different, because Zaliukas wasn’t just immense on his own. He made the whole team seem bigger.
This wasn’t a great overall performance by Leeds. McCormack and Blackstock both fluffed early chances; Murphy, another wisp we’re hoping will blossom into a McAllister, couldn’t get a grip in midfield; and if Middlesbrough had pinged the ball around the way they did for their goal more often – or kept eleven men on the pitch – we could have had problems. I got a sinking feeling as soon as they strung the first few passes of the scoring move together; you could see our players being cut out of the game one by one as Boro moved with increasing purpose towards our goal. They looked at that point like they had twenty players, not ten.
But what did stand out was the work that was put in to get the result. McCormack, apparently not as enamoured with the Smoggy fans as they were with him, back when they thought they were buying him, flung himself into his second chance at a close range header, determined to get the ball over the line; Jason Pearce, the unlikely match winner, put so much effort into heading the ball home that he didn’t seem to have anything left for the celebration, other than to run back to his position with a massive grin on his face. The whole keeping the ball in the corner thing started way too early, but it was a sign that Leeds, even with a lead and a man advantage, were determined to keep working to keep the win.
In the middle of it all was Zaliukas. As a pairing, a lot rests on relatively young shoulders when Lees and Pearce play together; chuck Marius in between them, and you’ve suddenly got someone with experience, willing to take the majority of the responsibility and to direct the others when they need to be directed. Lees never looks like he wants to say anything, while Pearce looks as if he’d like to say something if he could only think of the words; it must be a long time since they’ve heard as much conversation on the pitch as they got from Zaliukas on Saturday. He gave them leadership, and with that came confidence, and stature; not to mention an assist for one and a goal for the other.
That’s all without even mentioning Zaliukas’s own game, a medley of blocks and interceptions, a study of how to be in the right place at the right time and how to do the right thing when you get there. At six feet and two and bit inches, he’s not actually all that massive, but he seems to stand a clear head taller than those around him, and the short sleeved shirt over the long sleeved vest make him easy to spot on the pitch, assuming you don’t just pick him out as the one who looks like he knows what he’s doing.
In the weekend when one big attitude left the club, Marius Zaliukas showed Ryan Hall how it’s done. Middlesbrough at home is a big game at Leeds, and it was matched by a 30,000 crowd; chuck in the lovely atmosphere of Elland Road in autumn, when a game starts in sunlight, is played beneath brass skies, and ends floodlit but not too cold, and what you want is to see a player rise to meet the challenge of playing for our massive club in one of its big games. It was tough going, but I enjoyed watching it. I reckon our players did, too.
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