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leeds united 0 − 0 barnsley: the anxiety of momentum

leeds united 0 − 0 barnsley: the anxiety of momentum

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Photo by topping1990 via Instagram

When Brian McDermott said last week that he isn’t thinking about promotion this season, it might have seemed that he was just playing our chances down. Saturday’s draw with Barnsley, though, showed that he was actually making a very sensible point.

We were only the width of Jack Butland’s fist from a very different kind of day – that’s what he used to block Mathieu Smith’s early chance, and with it, he put a first but significant block in the way of our chances of winning.

If Smith had scored then, Leeds would have had a confidence boosting lead, and Barnsley – bottom of the league and fragile – could have collapsed the way many had expected. The momentum would all have been behind Leeds. Instead Butland blocked what was a good effort from Smith, and when Smith was through again a few minutes later, his shot this time was seriously miscued and trickled meekly into Butland’s arms. 

From confident strike to weak scuff: the positions were similar for each chance, but perhaps Mathieu’s mind wasn’t in the same place the second time around. With the first he’d done everything he knew that was necessary to score, but it didn’t work; the second time, he didn’t know whether to trust in the same technique or try something different. He didn’t really do either, and that never works.

Smith’s contrasting chances set the pattern for the game; United kept finding that everything that has worked for them so well in recent weeks wasn’t having the same effect, and were unable to come up with a solution beyond banging their collective heads against the same brick wall. It’s not that Leeds are one dimensional; but the core of this team lacks experience, and in games like Saturday’s it shows.

The momentum stayed with Leeds for much of the game, but with momentum comes anxiety. The more Leeds tried to command the match and score a goal that surely would have led to victory, the more they raised the expectations of the 31,000 crowd, all of whom were buoyed already by cheap beer, mince pies and pre-match prizes, and were waiting for their Christmas present. The more that expectations were raised, the more frustrating became the failure to meet them, and the increasingly desperate efforts of the players reflected the anxiety in the stands. Elland Road became a feedback loop of anxiety, and Leeds needed a cool head to switch off the power at the source.

But Alex Mowatt is 18, playing through his first few weeks at a high level; Luke Murphy is 24, still adapting to life at club where the surroundings and the expectations are very different to those at Crewe. They both got themselves booked after some childish shoving between Mowatt and Jacob Mellis was brought to a halt by the referee, although both Leeds players should have been able to avoid cards. A lecture from the ref led to a handshake between Mowatt and Mellis, then as they lined up again to receive a throw in, Mellis nudged at Mowatt again, right in front of the ref. That was a booking for the Barnsley player, and that should have been that, but the verbals continued and the crowd was keyed up; when Mellis raced forward with the ball a minute later, Murphy was booked almost before his avenging foul had brought Mellis fully to the floor. When three minutes later Mowatt himself chopped Mellis down, a card was inevitable, and somehow Mellis’s self-inflicted booking had led to two thirds of our midfield seeing yellow.

Mowatt was subbed off at half time; say what you like about Michael Tonge, but what he lacks when compared to Mowatt in terms of creativity, he makes up for in terms of steadiness, to the benefit of the team – who became more likely to keep eleven on the pitch – and to Murphy, who now had a more experienced hand on the tiller alongside him. The benefit to Mowatt, meanwhile, was that he learned his lesson on the bench rather than with an early bath.

If steadiness is the antidote to hotheaded inexperience, it’s also the Kryptonite of invention, and the second half suffered for the lack of Mowatt’s playmaking. Toil rather than sparkle became the order of the afternoon, our glitter lost in a stupid squabble with some Barnsley non-entity. Leeds’ first eleven is good, but it’s brittle; it can produce great quality, but it doesn’t have the buffer of experience that would keep it out of trouble. Behind that first eleven, too, is a second eleven that doesn’t offer a breadth of options.  

This is all only to be fretted about if you put your house on Leeds to be promoted this season. If you’re Brian McDermott, though, you thank your Christmas stars that Mowatt and Murphy and making these mistakes and learning from these experiences this season, rather than next season when there might be considerably more at stake than an outside shot at the play offs. And if you’re a fan, and you haven’t placed any reckless bets, you realise from all this that McDermott is serious when he says he’s not thinking about promotion this season. 

Leeds are in an excellent position this Christmas, especially considering from where and what we came. But the forward momentum we’re enjoying at the moment, like the momentum Smith had at the start of the game, can produce anxiety as easily as it can produce positivity. And as the Barnsley game showed, anxiety can be counter productive at a time when, really, we have nowhere near as much to worry about as we once did. 

Follow the beckoning finger of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and imagine how good Mowatt and Murphy might be a year from now. Imagine Smith with another year’s worth of confidence; imagine McCormack if this form continues for another twelve months; imagine Zaliukas, a collosus at the back yet again – I didn’t care whether Tudgay walked for his foul on Marius, just so long as our new god was not hurt – imagine all this a year from now, clicking into place. 

It hasn’t clicked for this Christmas, but there’s no reason to be anxious about promotion this year, or about only taking a point from Barnsley, who never give us anything anyway, even if it was teeth-itchingly frustrating. The momentum is with Leeds, and if we keep this up, it’ll take more than Butland’s fist to stand in our way.

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