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blackpool 1 – 1 leeds united: stepping up

blackpool 1 – 1 leeds united: stepping up

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Brian McDermott wants to spread the presents around this Christmas, even if he did have the players in to train on Christmas Day. But he has his own reasons for inviting players like Danny Pugh and Michael Tonge to step up to first team duties.

In part, he doesn’t have much choice. The squad didn’t just stand still under Neil Warnock, it regressed; and the damage done won’t be repaired overnight, and won’t be repaired simply by getting Max Gradel back. Diouf is hoovering up wages by the week while doing nothing. David Norris has disappeared. Nearer the first team, Michaels Brown and Tonge make intermittent appearances; Danny Pugh would have been sold in the summer if only someone had wanted him. 

They’re all still here, and with Blackpool the first game of four in ten days, they all have to play their part. Well, all apart from Diouf, but it’s always the exception that proves the rule. 

So McDermott must have been pleased that United’s goal at Blackpool was created by a player who has been left on the sidelines while million pound signing Luke Murphy tries to catch up to his new role in the Championship, and an aging player cursed with the job of ‘utility’ for whom the club will technically accept any offer; and scored by the demoted club captain who, if any teenage girl in West Yorkshire had her way, would just, like, piss off, right, and let Little Sammy B. brood handsomely up and down the right wing.

None of them, at the start of the season, looked like first team picks; yet here we were, on Boxing Day, celebrating as they exploited McDermott’s 3-5-2 formation to its fullest, Pugh released by Tonge in the left corner, Peltier charging in between Smith and Austin at the back post to score.

There is, however, a flip side to the way the squad members step up. The Blackpool result was, ultimately, a bit disappointing. They’re no mugs, and should be nearer the play-offs than they are; they also had the referee to help them, keeping Kirk Broadfoot on the pitch until he was able to take a decent crack at breaking Marius Zaliukas’s leg. But Leeds had most of this game, and while there weren’t many chances for either side, a 1-0 or 2-0 result in Leeds favour wouldn’t have been unfair.

Instead it was 1-1, and at that point one looks at Tonge, Brown, Peltier and Pugh and wonders, if their first choice equivalents had been available and at full capacity – Murphy, Mowatt, Byram and Warnock (or rather The New Dorigo™, if only we could find him) – whether Blackpool would have been overcome more easily.

It’s an age old problem of form and reward. I’ll get it out of the way now and say I didn’t think Brown brought anything to the side against Blackpool, and when he tried to imply Tom Ince had elbowed him at the end, I yet again wished Betty Spencer was around to drag Frank home by his earlobe so he couldn’t embarrass us further. But Peltier and Pugh have both played more than well enough to earn their place in Leeds’ starting line up, and Tonge was the natural choice to replace the suspended Murphy, and is a natural choice to stand in for him on the still quite regular occasions when this level still seems a bit much for Murph.

The problem is that while they’re playing themselves into the first team, they’re keeping the overall level of the first team somewhere below its potential. As good as Peltier is, Sam Byram is not only way more peng, he’s just a better player all round, and he isn’t getting his form back from his seat on the bench and occasional substitute appearances. Byram might not have got in where Peltier got for the goal, but who knows what having Byram in the side might have done to bring the unusually quiet Ross McCormack into the game? 

Likewise with Danny Pugh. He’s in great form at the moment, creating goals and scoring goals and linking the play down the left; but the fear remains about his lack of pace and nous when defending, that makes me feel like it’s not a matter of if it will all go wrong with Pugh at left back, but when – which sort of puts him on a par with Stephen Warnock. If The New Dorigo™ suddenly makes himself available during the January window, then without wishing to be mean to Pugh, I hope all his good play gets straight out ignored and we sign whoever this saintly figure may be.

It’s a conundrum when players who aren’t necessarily good enough for the United first team are playing too well to be dropped from it, but that’s the kind of conundrum I’m glad Brian McDermott has to ponder, rather than me, because there’s not an easy answer when so many of your reserve players are performing to a high standard. While you don’t want to dismiss their contributions by dropping them, you also don’t want to oversentimentalise what they’re doing and see the team suffer as a whole. Which might mean a few hard choices over the festive period.

The line up at Forest will be interesting, because McDermott has said this is the time when if he ever he was going to shuffle, he is now; good performances don’t guarantee a start when you face four games in ten days. This period not only gives our reserve players the chance to make claims on the first team, but gives our first choice players the opportunity to reassert their status as the squad rotates through them all. It could be that the teams against Forest on Saturday, Blackburn on New Year’s Day and at Rochdale in the cup all look very different, but it might be the team that starts away to Sheffield Wednesday on January 11th that tells who made themselves a real gift of the Christmas campaign.

Speaking of Christmas campaigns, I would like to launch my own campaign right now, and declare an amnesty on Marius Zaliukas’s legs. I said in my report on the Barnsley game that all I cared about when Tudgay was sent off was not whether he got the proper card or not, but whether EmZed was okay; it turned out that that foul left him doubtful for the Blackpool game, at the end of which Kirk Broadfoot ‘did a Tudgay’ and also tried to snap our big defender’s leg.

If all I’d unwrapped this Christmas had been Marius Zaliukas, I would have been more than happy; he’s not even played ten games yet, but already I’m enjoying watching him defend more than any Leeds player since when we had Radebe, Woodgate and Ferdinand strolling through games at the back. Since Zaliukas came into the starting line up against Middlesbrough, United have conceded only six goals in seven games, and what’s more, we’ve not-conceded them with considerably more panache than before MZ24 came to Leeds. I know the way fashions can take hold quickly in modern football, like pyros and Toure chants, but let’s not turn Hunting Down Zaliukas In The Last Minute into a ‘thing.’ He’s too important, our squad can’t take it, and in this post-Becchio era, I’m fed up of my sunshines being taken away.

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