millwall 2 – 0 leeds united: the pointBack
It was nearly perfect. Alex Mowatt, an eighteen year old making his league debut, did just what he was put in the side to do. Springing on to a loose ball on the left wing, he composed himself and sent a beautiful curved pass through the air that landed at the feet of Ross McCormack at the edge of the six yard box.
As youthful assists go, it could have been up there with Stephen McPhail’s fifty-yard pass to Hasselbaink against Derby in 1998; Mowatt, with the barrel-shape and thick black hair of Maradona, seems to possess the kind of wand left foot that made McPhail so exciting when he graduated from Thorp Arch. The Leeds team that day, though, also possessed Jimmy Hasselbaink, who turned the sublimity of the pass into a down-to-earth goal.
Mowatt’s pass found McCormack, and Ross did everything technically right. He gave it a soft touch with the side of the boot, aiming to take the pace off, hoping to redirect it just inside the far post and well out of the goalkeeper’s reach. He missed by about an inch, and Leeds’ best chance was gone.
Even then, in the 47th minute, you knew Leeds wouldn’t get another chance like that; in fact, the only other serious goalscoring effort in the second half was when Scott Malone took the ball round his own keeper and realised what he was doing just in time. Leeds’ other notable attempt came from Varney, an overhead kick from the edge of the penalty that wasn’t far away.
That we’re reduced to watching Luke Varney trying FIFA-style acrobatics in hope rather than expectation demonstrates the struggle Leeds are having in front of goal, a struggle that Saturday’s changes failed to end. Brian McDermott told Phil Hay he was, “Just tweaking things, trying to get a goal, trying to make things happen,” but the shifting personnel, and shifting formations in midfield, seem to only succeed in moving the problem around.
McPhail had Hasselbaink to aim at back in 1998, and any time the ball went near the penalty area in that team, Jimmy was around to slam it in the net then duff up anybody who tried to celebrate with him. Mowatt had McCormack sniffing around up front, and when it comes to sniffing, even Ross, who is capable of getting twenty goals a season, would admit he’s no Allan Clarke; that’s not his game. It’s not Varney’s game either, and no matter what combination of diamonds, Christmas trees or false nines McDermott sends out in midfield, the point remains the same: it’s a midfield without a point.
The effect of overloading with midfielders has been to turn Leeds into a meandering unit that passes the ball around with no real aim in sight. What actually is the target of a Leeds United passing move? Get it to Varney in the box? Get it to McCormack in the box? It used to be simple when Hasselbaink was there – he was a magnet for the ball in the final third, and a focal point for the team. Too often these days it looks like the plan is to pass the ball around and hope somebody thinks of something, then hope that something works.
The build up to Millwall’s first goal was a perfect illustration. Varney gave the ball to McCormack on the halfway line, who turned, held it, held some more, did another 360, held it a bit longer, and finally passed to Varney, who had run to a spot just outside the penalty area. Varney, with his back to goal, miscontrolled the ball and it went back to McCormack, who chested it to Varney again, who headed the ball into space and gave it to Austin. Austin gave it to, Mowatt, who looked around a bit, and gave it back to Austin. Tonge moved to where Varney was, and asked and asked and finally got a pass played into him, with his back to goal. He ran toward the halfway line, turned, and played it to Mowatt, who took a touch and passed to McCormack, who was now where Varney was when he passed to him in the first place. The passes had gained nothing, and now McCormack was surrounded by defenders. In a bid to make something happen and give some momentum to a pedestrian move, he tried to beat them all, darting between two before being tackled by Shittu.
The ball broke to Martin on the edge of the box, and he ran with it to the halfway line and passed forward to Waghorn, who laid it off first time back to Martin, who played an instant through ball to Woolford, who scored. Simple and incisive and effective.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking Millwall are any good; they’re not. My pre-weekend confidence turned into Saturday morning certainty, and I had £20 on LUFC getting an easy three points down south. I’d probably place the same bet again, because a) I’m a total mug and b) Leeds really should be good enough to go to Millwall and win.
But we have two goals in six games, and five defeats, because we don’t have a point. A loan striker was McDermott’s request before the game, and I hope he had Bahrain on the phone as soon as he got back to Yorkshire. It may be short termism, but that’s okay right now, because the team needs a short term fix to boost its confidence and stop this losing all our games business.
Our many, many midfielders aren’t making many chances, meaning lots of fingers are pointing their way. But right now what they need is help. They need to know that when they do create a chance, the guy on the receiving end will do the business every single time. No change to the formation or tactics will sort things as quickly as giving the midfield someone to aim at.
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