leeds united 2 – 0 blackpool: all you can doBack
It’s been a long, confusing journey this season, and often I’ve wondered where it will lead. Against Blackpool we got a possible answer: right back to the start.
United haven’t topped that opening day game against Brighton all season. Boosted by a completed takeover and the ousting of the old regime, a big crowd arrived in the sunshine and were treated to a last minute winner at the Kop end from a million pound midfielder. It was the nearest feeling to winning a cup final since beating Bristol Rovers in 2010.
Saturday wasn’t quite up to that standard, but it had many of the same elements. Takeover just completed? Check. Old regime ousted? Well, a few are still here and helping the police with their inquiries, but then Bates wasn’t really gone either so we’ll call it: check. Big crowd? Bigger than it should be, so check. Sunshine? Check, and rain and wind. This is, after all, West Yorkshire. Check.
The million pound midfielder didn’t wait until the last minute, and he didn’t wait until he was playing towards the Kop end, and most fans would probably question whether he’s been worth a million pence this season, never mind a million pound. But the other elements from day one were back again in Luke Murphy’s goals, and at least a couple of other good chances.
Long punts forward, flick ons, bursts into the box, and finishes that if not always efficient were too effective and too near the goal for Blackpool to stop them. It might not be cultured but it works. Smith was involved in the first, as he was against Brighton, but this time McCormack intervened to get the ball to Murphy’s feet. The slowest and possibly least advisable of Cruyff half-turns followed, but once you’re in the opponent’s six yard box you can always bamboozle your way to a goal even if you need a little luck.
Smith was gone by the time of the second, but Lees’ long punt was flicked on by Hunt this time, and Murphy, emboldened by his first goal, finished a much harder chance with a bit of style. It wasn’t a cup final finish, but it was a damn sight better than getting beaten by Doncaster, Charlton and every bugger else has been.
Luke Murphy was a damn sight better than he has been most of the season, too. We saw part of the reason in his finish for the second, and in the ambitious through ball that nearly put McCormack through after that: confidence. With the goals under his belt Murphy grew into the game, and played passes like the one to Ross that he wouldn’t have even attempted last time he was trudging around the pitch. Goalscoring chance from a narrow angle? No problem, when his dander’s up anyway.
The other reason was with where he was playing, and how the team was playing, which traded prettiness for effectiveness and left you wondering why we haven’t done this all season. A punt to Smith and a knockdown to Murphy worked on the first day, so why haven’t we seen that happen since – how come Murphy hasn’t scored a goal since then?
The answer is that it hasn’t happened because Brian McDermott has been trying to evolve the way the team plays this season, instead of just getting the results and worrying about the evolution later.
McDermott has attempted since August to find a balance between formations that suit the squad now, and a formation that he believes would win promotion with the squad he wants next season. He claimed at one point not to be a “4–4–2 man,” but has often cited the success he had with that system at Reading, and the various 5–3–2s and 4–3–3s only felt like fill-ins until he could get a couple of wingers and go 4–4–2. Then he got a couple of wingers, with not so hilarious consequences.
It’s all very well planning for the future, but at times it has felt like Brian has been more focused on a team of spectres that might never become real, and lost sight of what works with the team that he’s got. Earlier in the season, around the time when we were good, everything seemed to be clicking around 5–3–2; Byram was just coming to fitness, a player born to be a wingback; Zaliukas had knitted the defence together; Murphy, Austin and Mowatt seemed to be a nice blend of brains, brawn and flair behind McCormack and either Blackstock or Smith. It was all a bit fragile, but most of the time it worked.
Come the unsettling takeover, come the unsettling new formations, come the unsettling wingers, come the unsettling new line-ups, and come disaster after disaster. It’s taken a long time for Brian to realise it, but this squad just couldn’t do what he wanted to do. Midfield is where it was most painfully obvious: Murphy, Austin and Mowatt can work as a three, but drop one and the other two can’t cope. It was Brown and Tonge in there with Luke on Saturday, but if you brought Austin back in now I suspect he’d be more like the Rudy we used to like – you remember, the good one.
The same applies to the tactics. Asking Tom Lees to play a ball into space for Cameron Stewart is asking too much, especially when Stewart would immediately lose it and poor Tom would be stranded near the halfway line as the ball whipped past him again. Let him launch it at Smith and there’s a reasonable chance that a) Smith will get on to it and b) it won’t be coming back at Lees too soon. Play Murphy in the right place and you can add c) a decent chance of a goal as well.
You could argue that this isn’t very pretty. McDermott put his marker down at Leeds with last season’s win over Burnley, and I remember well the astonishment with which I watched a team, that just a week earlier had been doggedly playing Warnockball, pass it around on the grass to each other with purpose and intention. It was brilliant, and the idea must have been that we’d have more of that this season.
But we have to be pragmatic, and look at what we’ve got, and where we can be a danger to the opposition, rather than to ourselves. Tonge hasn’t the legs and Brown hasn’t the talent to win a midfield passing competition, so shift the emphasis to the areas where we can win: the aerial attack with Smith, the invention around the penalty area with McCormack, the bursts into the box from Murphy.
You can call it long ball, or direct football, or hoofball if you must, but the point is that this is football that makes the best use of what Leeds have, rather than football that tries to achieve something we can’t do with players that we haven’t got yet.
There is a worrisome side to this, and that’s the concern that maybe the players can’t improve. They’ve had a season to try new formations and new styles and the end result is to just go back to getting it in the final third and seeing what Ross can create. You can’t blame McDermott for trying to get more out of them, although it has nearly cost him his job. Maybe the praise for the improvement against Blackpool should be tempered by the memories of all the times when the players haven’t improved this season.
That might partly explain why Nigel Gibbs was doing the instructing from the technical area on Saturday, while a newly tracksuited Brian stayed in the dugout; this way of playing suits the players, so they shouldn’t really need much in-game coaching to carry it out. Nigel could look after things while Brian turned his thoughts to next season, when maybe he can give 4–4–2 another crack and see what that Andrea Tabanelli looks like on the wing.
Minor changes like what the manager wears and who stands outside the dugout are always going to be over-scrutinised at Leeds, where every tiny thing is seen in the context of the massive mess that this club has been in recent seasons. Nothing seems to happen at Elland Road, whether it’s spy cameras or Luke Murphy’s advanced role, without a hundred questions following: who put them there? Why did they do it? Why wasn’t this sorted out earlier? Has it been sorted for good now?
And whether it’s spy cameras or Luke Murphy’s advanced role, the questions won’t stop just because Massimo Cellino is here. The questions stopped for a while at the start of the season, when after a completed takeover and the ousting of the old regime, a big crowd arrived in the sunshine and were treated to a last minute winner at the Kop end from a million pound midfielder.
We’re pretty much back there, if not quite so delirious this time, because this time we know it’s not a leap forward: we’re back to square one. But we had some fun back at square one in August, and we’re entitled to have some fun again now. Now might not be the time to question why Luke Murphy is in the box again; now’s the time to just be glad that he is.
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