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nottingham forest 2 – 1 leeds united: breaking point

nottingham forest 2 – 1 leeds united: breaking point

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Remember, we did actually equalise. This wasn’t like last year at the City Ground, a total implosion in a season of decline. This time Leeds still played pretty badly, but we did actually equalise.

Leeds then threw that achievement straight in the bin, of course, but it was an achievement nonetheless.

It’s worth pausing for a while in the company of that goal, and not just out of determination to see the bright side of another dour match. It wasn’t a classic from Ross McCormack, but McCormack scored it all the same, and it’s a relief that his goalscoring form is continuing; when he goes a game without a goal, it’s like the stress of losing your keys, and when he scores in the next, it’s like the relief of finding them again.

The build up play wasn’t much to savour, owing much to clumsy deflections by Forest defenders, but it did stand out for one distinguishing feature: the goal came about because Sam Byram, on as a substitute, ran with the ball towards the byline. He did that as much as possible after he came on, and so did Gboly Ariyibi on his debut, and Dom Poleon at the end. Which is to say that none of them did it much, but that they did it all was an improvement on what had gone before, and by doing it once Byram managed to make the equaliser. If United had kept their concentration, and if Matt Derbyshire hadn’t suddenly channelled Rivaldo, that goal would have secured a second consecutive away draw and left us unbeaten in six.

It would have hardly been deserved. What came before the introductions of Ariyibi and Byram was only excusable because Forest weren’t very much better; they were, however, better. Although lacking strikers (sorry about Dexter, by the way), their midfield of Majewski, Lansbury and Reid was more than Austin, Murphy and Brown could cope with. Brown appeared to have been told to mark Reid and give Murphy space to play; inevitably Brown interpreted that as ‘kick the bastard hard and often,’ so one typically ill-thought foul led not only to a goal, when Leeds didn’t get their marking right from the free kick, but to a booking that meant Brown could no longer get close enough to Reid to anything about him anymore. I’ve said it too many times about Brown – all good hard men are clever, and he isn’t.

Austin, meanwhile, was milling around in the general vicinity of McCormack and Smith without influencing the game the way he does in that position at Elland Road. He might even have played a part in keeping McCormack quiet for the first hour, as Rodolph took up the spaces McCormack often likes to drop into, without providing the threats and the links that Ross provides. 

All that shifted too much responsibility on to Murphy, who is not well equipped to face a midfield of this quality, and with Brown chasing Andy Reid’s shadow and Austin getting under McCormack’s feet, Murphy was often simply shoved out of the way by the bigger boys of Nottingham who wouldn’t let him play.

In other words, Murphy – Brown – Austin didn’t work any better than Tonge – Brown – Austin had against Blackpool. Mowatt – Murphy – Austin may have its own problems – the young, the soft and the barmy – but it has a balance that, somehow, works. Remove one block, though, and the whole Jenga tower comes crashing down.

Leeds United are a team without a margin at the moment, held together by thin threads. Brian McDermott has done brilliantly to find a structure that works, that has got United into play-off contention, but his solution has been such a delicate one that the slightest touch can tear it. The team is fine when all the core elements are present in their proper places and right proportion, but tweak one small damn thing – or rest one small damn Mowatt – and it just doesn’t work as it should.

Which makes the comments from McDermott after the game, about leaving a list of four players with David Haigh for the club to sign, all the bolder. It wasn’t only a bold statement because Haigh has been promising a buyout and transfer funds this month, and has now been given a boot in the breeches from the manager as encouragement to get it done. But it was also bold because Brian could, if he wanted, try to maintain the machine that works, to keep Mowatt in there until he’s worn him down like Warnock did Byram, to persist with a formation and first team that, on form, is good. Instead he’s planning to take four new players – five, if you count Ariyibi – and he’s going to break the machine.

It’s bold, but it’s also the only real choice. Leeds need to strengthen not so much because, to pick a couple of common targets for criticism, Smith and Austin need to be replaced. It’s because Varney and Norris need to be replaced, but they need to be replaced by players that are better than Smith and Austin. 

Building a football team isn’t like building a wall; you don’t just keep piling bricks on top until it’s high enough. To build a football team you need to find a way to kick the bricks out of the bottom course and cement new ones on the top, without the whole thing toppling over before you can stabilise it again. 

Signing four new players won’t be a guarantee of instant success, and the gossamer-thin structure of Leeds United’s first team at the moment means putting four new players into the mix is an easy way to set yourself up for a period of failure. But this is the work; this is a big part of what Brian McDermott is here to do. He’s reached that point in the job now, the point where he has no choice anymore but to unbalance the delicate edifice he’s put up, and hope he can keep it upright and steady without it all coming down around his head. 

It’s going to make for a difficult January, as McDermott swings a lumphammer at our frailty just as we face Blackburn, Leicester, Brighton, Ipswich; but it should leave us a stronger team.

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