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leeds united 0 – 2 wigan athletic: the end of positive thinking

leeds united 0 – 2 wigan athletic: the end of positive thinking

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Before this game I read two interviews, one with Stephen Warnock and one with Sam Byram, in which they both confidently dismissed talk of relegation.

Talk or think like a team in a relegation battle, and that’s where you’ll end up, was the message from both of them; Leeds United should keep talking and thinking in terms of climbing the table instead.

What seems to have been missed from this exercise in positive thinking is that if you play every week like a team in a relegation battle then it doesn’t matter what you say or think. And if you play like a team that is losing a relegation battle, then there’s only going to be one result.

The only allowable result for Leeds against Wigan was a home win, but that is not what we got, and what we have now are big problems. This game had charmed us from afar for several weeks, beckoning to a struggling Leeds side and offering an easy way out and off into the safety of mid-table. Take heart from beating Derby, put Ipswich aside, treasure the point at Forest, and look forward to United proving themselves too good to go down against a genuine relegation candidate.

Well, we screwed that up.

Leeds did actually start quite brightly, and nobody expected Liam Cooper to switch the lights out quite so abruptly. His own goal took me back to the glory days of Lee Chapman. Chappy had an undeserved reputation for being ungainly, and when you looked at still photographs of him attacking the ball in the air he would be a disarray of legs, arms and angles. But when you watched him in motion, you could see there was a hidden, marvellous elegance, an acrobatic ability to rearrange every part of his twelve stone frame in mid-air so something attached to the Chapman trunk would meet a cross that should have been unreachable.

I haven’t yet seen a photo of Cooper re-angling his body at great height to meet Wigan’s aimless cross and chest it past Silvestri, but I expect it will be indistinguishable from a freeze frame of Lee Chapman circa 1990–93. We should treasure these links with the past, and maybe while regretting the own goal, regret that we don’t have a striker like Chapman these days.

Cooper did a good job of sparking Leeds out, but Neil Redfearn’s changes had carried a high risk of dimming our hopes by the end of the game anyway. Michael Tonge these days is like a mechanical wind-up toy; when you tighten the spring and set him on the carpet, he’s frenetic at first, but his energy soon dwindles. He returned to the team so Lewis Cook could replace Tavares behind the front two, and that positional change took as much out of the side as the change of personnel did.

Lewis Cook might not bring the brawn of Austin or the experience of Tonge to that spot in front of the back four, but he does bring a stylish ability to move Leeds from the back foot to the front. When we play the diamond it’s often exploited by opponents using the space left in the centre of the pitch; when Cook plays at number 4, he’s the one who exploits that space, whirring forward twenty yards with the ball at his feet to change defence into attack like a Tomy Super Cup player in the groove. When Cook’s starting position is already twenty yards forward, he doesn’t have the space to exploit, and he doesn’t have the close control of Tavares to make a run into the midst of the centre-halves anywhere near as effective. Behind him, Tonge laboured and Bianchi hid, while Mowatt had an overdue off-day.

The half-time switch to 4–3–3 put Cook somewhere nearer to his best position, and it was a surging run from deep with the ball at his feet that started a fifteen minute spell of pressure from Leeds. Amid the gloom of losing this game, it shouldn’t be forgotten that United had Wigan penned in for much of the second half, and if points were awarded for winning consecutive corners, the league table might look a little kinder. But it also shouldn’t be forgotten that Wigan hadn’t kept a clean sheet for nine games before coming to Elland Road, and that even though we tried with every striker available, the Leeds attack remains quite a dim-witted thing.

Speaking of which, the half-time changes also brought Rudy Austin onto the field, who drove out of the tunnel in his little broken down car before his flower squirted water all over Sam Byram and his enormous shoes sent a cross from the edge of the penalty area flying into the back row of the Kop. I remain a fan of Austin, but nowadays it’s more because I actually get a wicked laugh out of the way he lets Byram charge forty yards into acres of space for an overlapping pass and then whacks the ball uselessly at the goal instead. This is perhaps not the right way to be approaching watching Leeds United, but if the football world is going to think of us as a grimly entertaining sideshow, I’m damned if I won’t let myself be entertained by the sideshows within the sideshow that this damned world doesn’t get to see.

Bellusci’s inept defending also contributes to the fun, and Silvestri’s reluctance to shout at anybody, unless it’s an opposing player; both seemed more than willing to square up to Wigan players, even if they were unable to square up to the football and clear it properly. We’re looking for fight, now, as the games go by without wins, and Redfearn implied that was why he took Tavares out of the firing line today. But fight of the right kind is what we need, and I’d rather Giuseppe and Marco took their anger out on the football first rather than pointless fingerpointing in nothing situations. From those squabbles come FA charges.

I’d rather too that they had concentrated on their jobs while the rest of the team attacked the 1–0 deficit with increasing desperation. Bellusci loves a run upfield and is almost as demented as Austin about leaving no shot un-shit, but when McClean broke our offside trap to score Wigan’s second, it was the third time in quick succession that our goal had been under threat from balls straight through the middle. The first had been offside, but the warning was not heeded. It’s all very well chasing the game, but the defenders need to make sure we still have something worth chasing for as long as possible. Or, in Cooper’s case, that we don’t gift the lead in the chase to the opponents in the first place.

“We are in a fight now,” tweeted Stephen Warnock after the game. He’s changed his tune; but then, he had to. I can understand the need to remain positive, but how positive can we be about two wins in fifteen games? How positive can we be that our starting eleven was soon being outplayed by the team that started the day 23rd in the league? How positive can we be about our upcoming games against Derby, Bolton, Birmingham and Bournemouth, who are all in the top seven of the form table?

The truth about Leeds United at the end of 2014 is that we can’t confidently dismiss any possibility. Whether about relegation or ownership, Leeds United can’t be confident about anything, and no amount of positive thinking is going to change that now.

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