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leeds united 1 − 2 blackburn rovers: speed of thought

leeds united 1 − 2 blackburn rovers: speed of thought

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Perhaps, through the recent results, we should have credited the players with more intelligence than they seemed, on the surface, to be showing. Perhaps they knew what they were doing all along.

The increasing reliance on long balls up to Mathieu Smith had become so obvious and frustrating that even Brian McDermott called them out on it in public, vowing that in the Blackburn game we’d see much less of this aimless tactic. And true enough, against Blackburn the long pass to the tall boy was scarcely seen. And, as a consequence, Leeds were dreadful.

Perhaps the players hadn’t been modestly hiding their tiki-taka lights under a bushel after all. Perhaps the explanation for always kicking it long was a simple one: kicking it long is simple, and they are simple men.

It was immediately apparent that the ball was going to be kept on the floor as much as possible against Blackburn; but, almost as soon, it was clear that United’s players couldn’t really do anything with it down there. A passing game for Leeds becomes a ponderous one; the players can move the ball around among themselves, after a fashion, but at speed, or with purpose, and for long enough to control a game? Apparently not. 

It’s frustrating because the route to goal for Leeds really is so simple it hurts. I’ve lost count of the number of times this season we’ve got round the back of defences by playing in neat triangles around the corner of the box and sending either Austin, McCormack or another to the byline. In fact it was from there that Sam Byram made the goal against Blackburn, by getting past a slow-moving defender on the edge of the box, and it’s presumably why Danny Pugh spent so much time in the opposition half and was frequently absent when needed in defence. With Byram back in the side and looking lively, it should have been a priority: get the ball out wide to Byram, give him plenty of support and get round the back.

But even just getting the ball to Byram in the first place was an arduous task. Pearce and Murphy would exchange a few passes around the centre circle, while on the other side of the pitch Byram stood in acres of space waiting for the ball. If they didn’t lose it first, eventually someone would spot Sam, but the easy thirty yard pass to his feet was almost always rejected in favour of a twenty yard pass to Lees, who paused to reflect on natural forms in architecture or to mentally calculate π to twenty decimal places, before finally sending the ball ten yards further to a now surrounded Sam. Occasionally a first time ball would go directly towards Byram, but that normally meant a throw in to Blackburn. A potential tactical innovation for McDermott to consider: fatten Little Sam up to Jon Parkin proportions to make him harder for Austin and Murphy to miss.

Though still not at his best, when Byram did receive the ball he was the one player in our side who looked willing and capable of beating a player, to start a quick passing movement, to try and attack with tempo and with an aim in mind. Too often, though, this invention was only watched from a distance by his teammates, who seemed to want to see how he got on before deciding to pitch in and help the kid out.

My desperate idea of the afternoon, and I’m not sure it’s such a bad one, is to get Byram playing on the right side of midfield instead of right wing back; if he’s going to dictate the play – as he often did last season, and as he tried to do against Blackburn – he might as well do it from a position where he already has influence, rather than have to get there from full back first.

Peltier hasn’t done much wrong lately at right wing back, whereas Murphy and Austin seem to have been competing to see which one of them will be dropped first, and from how great a height; so why not keep Peltier in the team and replace one of those two with Byram? It’s been a pet theory of mine for a while that Byram is a Gary McAllister temporarily disguised as a Gary Kelly, and with him further forward and further infield he might see more of the ball and be able to more with it, with less risk to those in the front rows of the East and West Stands from Lees and Austin’s precision passes to the wing.

It’s either that or new players, but even if we did try that and it worked, I think new players are pretty much essential at this point anyway. I don’t know if they’re just tired – with half a season still to go – but have our players really been this slow all season? I love Rudy Austin even with his faults, but after slipping on his backside several times in the first half, he seemed to swap leather boots for lead in the second, and still manage to cover the ground quicker than Mowatt. When once Rovers were dispossessed, our players made a decent attempt a world record for the slowest counter attack ever seen, and I pressed my fingernails deep into my palms. 

At least, I suppose, you can’t fault the players for their persistence in following their manager’s orders; but you have to fault them for their witless rigidity in carrying them out. Managers like to say, ‘They’d run through brick walls all days for me if I asked them to,’ and this side seems to be the embodiment of that; ask them to pass the ball and they’ll pass the ball all day and all night whether it’s to any purpose or not, and they’ll keep on passing it until you tell them to try knocking it long; at which point they’ll knock it long as if it’s the only thing they ever thought of doing.

If only they could hold more than one instruction in their collective mind at a time, perhaps they could play a bit more like Blackburn, who weren’t great but who had enough inventiveness to have been 4-0 up by half time thanks to through balls pinged between our back three; but who matched the one goal they got that way with another from a set piece. Maybe Blackburn can’t do it all, but they can do quite a lot of it, and they can do more than one of it at once. Oh, for some of that at Leeds.

While I was frustrated by United, I’m reserving a special seat at a table piled high with rotten stinking meat for Anthony Taylor of Manchester, who returned to Elland Road to referee for the first time since August 2011. That was the memorable occasion when Taylor removed a yellow card from his pocket to book Middlesbrough’s Marvin Emnes for diving, but then decided to show it to Jonny Howson instead; as it was Jonny’s second, he was sent off for having been near Emnes when he dived. This was after Gradel and some Boro player nobody cares about had already been ordered off.

Against Blackburn Taylor returned, still crazy after all these years, and still making it up as he goes along; among many, many new rules invented this afternoon, apparently if two Blackburn players require treatment from physios, they don’t need to leave the field afterwards, even if one of them did lie down behind Ross McCormack to trip him up when he was clear through on goal, because I don’t know why because. Leeds were even expected to give the ball to Blackburn too, which was one favour too many for a justifiably angry McCormack, who was then booked when Blackburn’s players complained at his lack of nobility in only returning the ball for a throw in. Joining Taylor at this hideous feast will be most of the Blackburn team, who stood out as a particularly unpleasant set of injury-feigning gits. 

All of which probably makes me sound like a typical Leeds fan, bitter in defeat. Well, yes. Happy new year.

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