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leeds united 0 − 1 leicester city: austerity football

leeds united 0 − 1 leicester city: austerity football

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If only Tom Lees had been a little more alert; if only Paddy Kenny had been a bit quicker off his line; if only our defence hadn’t been so distracted by Kevin Phillips that it forgot about David Nugent. If only our strikers had finished like that.

If it hadn’t been for that little confluence of factors three minutes before the end, we could be reflecting on a satisfactory point against the champions elect and hoping that this game was a sign of better days to come.

As it is, we got beaten again, and so we’re reflecting on yet another defeat, without an opportunity for ten days to put it right. We can still hope, though, that this game was a sign of better days to come, although those might not be days exactly like this.

This was better from Leeds; it’s fair to counter that by saying Leeds could hardly have got worse, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, apart from the result, Brian McDermott delivered what we required after Hillsborough. United were better, and against a team who will probably win the Championship this season, we didn’t get battered the way we did by a team that will probably get relegated.

The late goal and the lack of any points to add to our total have also meant that an overwhelmingly positive first half performance has been a bit forgotten already. The second half didn’t offer much from either side, but the first definitely belong to Leeds. Sure, Vardy whacked a half chance off the post; but McCormack planted a header against the post at the other end, as well as having a lob cleared off the line up and a follow up cleared off the line by the still aggravating, still preening Schmeichel. Our new captain also completely fluffed a one-on-one with; Tom Lees put a header from right under the crossbar over the crossbar; a header from Kébé went just wide; and a dangerous cross from Kébé didn’t quite reach Varney. Four clear cut chances and a handful of decent attempts were a good return against a side as efficient as Leicester, and more than Leeds managed against Rochdale or Wednesday.

So the first half, to give the players their due, was good. The performance overall was decent, worth a point on the day, and good enough to earn more against poorer sides. Like Sheffield Wednesday. Ah, if only we could go back a week. McDermott’s back to basics approach worked, and he said after the game that this was the first time he’s been able to put a team out that shows what he’s “trying to achieve here.”

That can only have been a reference to the formation, a traditional looking 4-4-2 with wingers, rather than the personnel. If we were going back to basics, then to borrow another political term, this was McDermott’s austerity line up. Even knowing that changes had to be made, changes that reintroduce Varney, Warncok and Brown to the side are changes to be feared, rather than welcomed with open arms. Just a couple of weeks ago McDermott was talking about a loan move for Varney, Warnock had been completely forgotten about, and my irritation at Brown’s performances at Blackpool and Forest was just beginning to subside. Now, here were all three in the starting eleven of a vital game, called upon to turn our season back around. Tough medicine to swallow. 

It might not have got the pulses racing pre-match but it did, to vary degrees, work. Luke Varney was one of our most impressive performers, running constantly up front, winning headers and free kicks, and generally being a nuisance. Leicester were so worried by him that they ended up giving him a few smacks around the head; but Varney’s threat in attack is more theoretical than practical. All his effort rarely translates into goals or chances; the aim instead is to force mistakes that others can profit from. He might be more mobile than Smith, but with seven goals, Smith’s threat is a practical one. For sheer effort, though, Varney was well worth his place.

Stephen Warnock makes me tremble, and not in a good way; but then so does Pugh, so we’re about even. With Pugh, it’s his habit of charging off up the wing, never to be seen again at left back; Warnock tends to stay in position, but has a habit of dithering that often got us into trouble when he last had a run in the side. At one point on Saturday it took Cameron Stewart pointing and shouting frantically to draw Warnock’s attention to the fact that a winger bearing down upon him with the ball really ought to be tackled at some point. Then there’s the small matter of the free kick he delivered to the South Stand SS5 crew in injury time, but as some of Warnock’s other set pieces were excellent, we’ll overlook it just this once. His overall play also means we can overlook his sleepy moments, but his presence is far from reassuring.

Then there is Michael Brown; I’ve made my feelings about Brown clear before. I could handle the fouling if it wasn’t for the diving; I could deal with the hard man act if he didn’t spend so long complaining about every slight infringement against his fragile, ancient body – complaints that were wasted on referee Mike Dean who, it feels odd to say, was pretty good all round on Saturday. Let’s concentrate instead on his midfield comrade Rodolph Austin, now armband free, and looking like a footballer again. Not only was his passing and anticipation better, but 4-4-2 seemed to make it easier for him to decide when to stay in midfield and when to drop into defence should one of the back four be caught up front. There had been clamour for Rudy, now he’s no longer captain, to no longer be in the team, but either the formation, the absence of formal responsibility or simply the knowledge that he needed to get his act together meant an improved performance. A Murphy or Mowatt alongside him in place of Brown ought not to feel like a risk if Rudy continues to play like this.

Murphy or Mowatt will be required because the only gloss around all these workhorses – at least in theory – came from the two new wingers. Jimmy Kébé was apparently nursing a bad back, on top of his lack of games this season, and it was clear to see that he’s missing the pace he was known for a couple of seasons ago at Reading. To endear himself to the Leeds fans, though, he’ll have to show more willingness to press and tackle on days when he can’t get the ball and run; we’ve never had much patience with players who shirk the hard challenges, and Kébé showed little desire for getting involved. Cameron Stewart was near anonymous, apart from a few occasions when he cut inside and took a shot; at one point Varney ran straight into him, presumably forgetting – like the rest of us – that he was on the pitch at all. 

That forgetfulness might be part of the problem Kébé and Stewart are having fitting in at Leeds. Both players need time to adjust to a new club, and what makes things harder is that they’re coming into a team that has to get used to having wingers on the pitch at all. Apart from Jerome Thomas’s brief loan, it’s probably 18 months since Leeds last played with traditional wide men, and on several occasions players would pass the ball infield and then turn to the wing to apologise, as if they’d just remembered there was somebody there. It’s a two stage process for the new boys: integrate them into the side so that they start getting the ball, then give them a chance to show what they can do. 

The make up of the side they’ll be fitting into remains unfixed, though. Neil Warnock was grandstanding the other week about how many of “his” players are still present in McDermott’s team, but it is telling that when the chips were down after Hillsborough it was to the old Warnock boys that Brian turned. Smith was excluded through suspension, but McDermott has also signed Hunt, Murphy, Wootton, Zaliukas and Ariyibi; none of them played on Saturday. That’s a worry on two counts: one, it suggests that McDermott has been working some serious reverse Midas magic in the transfer market; two, that we’re back to relying on players who damn near had us relegated last season. 

Until Smith was sent off, the club seemed open to offers for Varney; Diouf appeared from the bench on Saturday to put himself in the shop window, looking as if he’s spent the last few months grazing in cake shop windows. Both, however, seem to be ahead of McDermott’s own signing Noel Hunt. Leicester, meanwhile, were able to bring on Kevin Phillips as a game-changing substitute, looking as fit aged 40 as he did aged 24 with Sunderland, when I threw all sorts of abuse at him from the Kop as he cupped his arrogant ears when the referee wasn’t looking. Phillips then was a nobody to us – we’d signed Michael Bridges, so who cared about him? – but he’s the kind of nobody Leicester can put on the bench now, and we can’t.

Painful as it is to admit it, keeping the score down against Leicester was the priority on Saturday, and Leeds did that job successfully. Another awkward admission is that being knocked out of the cup might have done us a favour; McDermott has ten days and a free weekend between  the Leicester and Ipswich matches to get the team working – something that served us well in the break before Birmingham came to Elland Road. 

Significantly, GFH, GFH Capital and the Sport Capital consortium also have this time to get done whatever it is they’re going to get done. What we saw on Saturday was a team capable of doing the job necessary in one game, but we didn’t see a team that will move this club closer to being where Leicester are now. Everyone involved has a chance this week to make sure Leeds United can deliver something more next time. 

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