leeds united 1 – 1 sheffield wednesday: the wolf who cried offsideBack
If there’s one thing missing at Elland Road at the moment – apart from Adryan, Montegro, Del Fabro and Benedidic – it’s trust.
That was the main takeaway from last week’s discussions about who is really picking the team. Darko Milanic says it’s him, but does anyone really believe him? Darko Milanic said Neil Redfearn would be in his dugout, and that wasn’t true; plus, well it’s Massimo Cellino. You can deny it all you want…
The selection issue was compounded by the team that was named to face Sheffield Wednesday. Milanic had said Warnock was dropped in midweek partly so that Liam Cooper could provide more solidity against Reading’s widemen, but partly so that he would have fresh players for Saturday lunchtime. And he certainly did: making a rare appearance between suspensions, they don’t come much fresher at left-back than right-back Gaetano Berardi.
Berardi is another hard one to trust. The red card on his debut against Accrington was spectacular, but had been only a matter of time given the way he’d played until then; his second red card, against Huddersfield, could also be seen coming. When he started against Sheffield by steaming into late challenges in the opening ten minutes the countdown to a sending off started ticking.
To his credit Berardi left the pitch at the same time as everybody else, and with only a booking, but the sharp breaths whenever he got himself involved – or chose to fall across an attacker, arms flailing, just failing to bring him down – made audible just how little trust there was in him to do his job.
There’s a sense of that whenever Leeds United actually do play well, as they did against Sheffield Wednesday. It’s a surprise, because nobody trusts United to give them their ticket money’s worth these days. It’s with good reason: Wednesday night’s game against Reading, a late flurry apart, was as dreary a 0–0 as you could ever wish you’d avoided.
Surprises are pleasant, though, and this one was. The lackadaisical diamond still denied us width, but the latest incarnation, with Austin replacing Cook, was more fluid, precise and dynamic than it had been against Reading. Until the ball reached Casper Sloth, at least, but that might be something the head coach can hope to crack and then claim as a victory: how to get all four central midfielders to play well at once.
For now, three out of four ain’t bad, with Austin’s heavy tread not giving the opposition a moment’s peace, Mowatt beating players and linking up well with Doukara, and Bianchi using his range of passing more often these days to send the ball towards their goal instead of ours. Even if Luke Murphy was no kind of solution to the Sloth situation, and even if the turning circles some of our players need to face the right direction still take an age to execute, the ball was being kept consistently by the white shirts, and being taken to intelligent places.
There, though, is where things too often went awry, and where trust is again a factor. Mirco Antenucci’s game is clear now, and it’s a kind of Russian roulette with the offside trap – which ought to be ideal for a team without wingers. We aren’t going to get the crosses in for Mathieu Smith any more – not that we ever did, although it was nice in theory – but when Leeds do score from open play, as with the two against Bournemouth, it’s often by sending either Antenucci or Doukara through on goal with a precise through pass that leaves them one on one.
Bungee-corded to the last shoulder of the last man, this is Antenucci’s game, but the problem is that he doesn’t always look to be very good at it. Against Birmingham, when we first got a proper look at him, Mirco seemed to think the offside rule was just something that had been made up on a wind up, and didn’t apply to him. When he showed up in Spencer’s later that night, I wonder if anybody got the salt and pepper pots out to try and convince him that it’s true.
Against Sheffield Wednesday, though, I got a slightly different impression. Apparently the Sky commentators complained that Mirco was “born offside,” but I think Antenucci just tends to look offside regardless of whether he is or not. This has implications for the linesman, certainly, whose default setting will be a raised flag, but it impacts on his team mates, too.
Again and again Mowatt, Sloth or Doukara would advance through the middle of the pitch with the ball, and again and again they’d look up for Antenucci, primed to escape behind Tom Lees; and again and again they’d delay the pass. It’s not that Antenucci was offside; it’s that these players are all new to each other, and they haven’t quite worked each other’s game out, and they can’t quite trust Antenucci not to be offside. So they err on the side of caution, until they run out of caution to err with and are forced into releasing the ball to a, by now, heavily offside Mirco.
The good news is, this will get better with time. Perhaps Darko needs to do a training session where they all fall backwards into each others’ arms, or perhaps with a settled pack of midfielders playing in settled roles, they’ll learn to read the twitch of Antenucci’s beard, the low, vulpine growl that says – now.
Other parts of the side are showing that kind of trust and togetherness, and certainly Guiseppe Bellusci has become very protective about his new Leeds home. I have no idea who that prick that scored for Sheffield Wednesday was, or why he celebrated as if it was the World Cup final when he booted the ball in our goal. He made a big song and dance about pointing to the name on the back of his shirt, but was too thick to realise it wasn’t readable; he then tried to antagonise the Kop at the next corner, but only succeeded in getting Pepe in his face. Even when he was substituted for his own protection, the name they read out over the PA meant nothing to me; and even now I’ve seen it written down under the scoreline, I’m still none the wiser as to who this waste of space was or what special problem he has.
Bellusci had the perfect reply to him, whoever he was, scoring a calm side footer and celebrating on his arse in front of his own fans, who are loving him more and more with each passing match. There are even mutterings now about giving Giuseppe the captaincy, which would be a bit harsh on ol’ P-Dog – who made some hugely satisfying tackles to bail Berardi out on several occasions – but an argument over potential captains is a net gain for a Leeds United that has lacked leaders in recent years.
The more leadership you have in your team, the more trust you can build: we can rely on Bellusci and Pearce to do their jobs, and that’s a valuable foundation for the rest.