leeds united 0 – 2 brighton & hove albion: coaching classesBack
Last night I understood the compulsion that drives some people to become football coaches.
From my position, useless in the stands, I understood what it is that makes a person want to be able to run onto the field of play, to stop the game and grab one of the players. To yell at them, “Not like that!” To point, to kick the ball in the direction you want it played. “Like this!”
As the first half dragged on, it was actually the Brighton players I wanted to have in my power, to have by the scruffs of their necks. Leeds United were so poor, so ineffectual, so beaten that they were beyond hope, and my despair transferred itself to Brighton’s lack of killer instinct.
It’s one thing to see your team leave acres of space down the wing for the opponents best player to stand in unmarked; it’s another kind of frustration again to see your opponents refuse to see just how free Craig Mackail-Smith was and give him the ball.
It’s one thing to watch your side allow the opponents to set up an easy chance in the box; it’s another thing to watch your side allow four or five chances in quick succession without so much as a challenge, let alone a clearance.
I wanted to tell the Brighton players, just get it to Mackail-Smith, just get it there now and end it, so that whatever happens next and whatever he does with the ball, I won’t have to watch him with so much space, representing so much danger, waiting for the moment when he would get the ball and hurt us. Just get it over with.
And I wanted to tell them just to get a shot in, just stick the ball in the net, because seeing an easy chance finished hurts, but seeing five easy chances squandered can hurt even more, because each set-up and miss just means another set-up and miss and another set-up and each set-up brings home just how bad this all is from Leeds.
And this was bad. It’s been an optimistic week, with Billy Sharp not only signed but scoring; some potentially exciting players arriving from Italy and even more, including an impossibly talented Brazilian, set to come; three points and a clean sheet and a win on the telly. The first half tonight killed it.
It wasn’t only that Leeds were bad, but Leeds were dreary. There was no joy in anything United did, but then most of what United did was chase the ball around while Brighton played keep-ball. Dave Hockaday has talked a lot about training Leeds to become the fittest, hardest-working team in the division, and they’ll have to be fit if they’re going to chase the ball like this all season.
The problem with a midfield diamond, as Brian McDermott discovered last season, is that the other team can do a lot about it by simply sending a player to stand on the centre spot. I don’t know how other teams make it work, but the diamond at Leeds under McDermott and now under Hockaday has seemed to come with an unspoken rule that the players can’t enter the centre circle or else they pay a forfeit, or something.
It was no problem for Brighton to continually pass to one of their players on the centre spot; it was then no problem for that player to pick a pass out of the diamond again, as the four players were just the boundary markers for four gaps. This doesn’t even begin to take in the unforgivable softness of some of the tackling, especially from Bianchi – we’re used to it from the others – but even that can be partly put down to the players always starting ten yards away from the guy with the ball, each looking to each to see who wants to defy the centre-circle force-field and challenge him.
The other price of the diamond is that it leaves us with no width, and with no wingers in the side, it’s hard to see how Hockaday and Cellino are going to solve this problem any more effectively than McDermott did. Did Kebe get fixed up with a club, in the end? Stephen Warnock put in an almighty performance at the weekend, but he can’t get up and down the pitch to cover approximately 2,000 square yards of empty space all by himself. Byram might be younger, but it’s a lot to ask of him, too.
Sam Byram became one of the key frustrations of the second half, in which United did improve, although it seemed to be more through a collective pulling up of socks than through a tactical solution. The formation did change as Mathieu Smith was replaced by Nicky Ajose and the one thing that did work in the first half was brought to a halt: say what you like about booting the ball long, the hoofed pass from back to Smith was pretty much the only one that actually arrived as intended.
Anyway, Smith was off and the players were late out for the second half, presumably being drilled overtime in the importance of humility when losing at home to Brighton, and Leeds changed to a 4–3–3 that, while Leeds got themselves back into the game through some hard work and effort, didn’t help solve the problem of scoring goals and winning the game.
The first problem was of personnel. Although it feels like Leeds have umpteen strikers in the squad and are busy signing more, in the shape of Mirco Antenucci, when it came down to it tonight we had a front three of Sharp through the middle, Ajose on the left and Bianchi, a midfielder, on the right. Warnock and Ajose didn’t provide anything much down the left, and what happened on the right came through Byram and Michael Tonge, who whenever Leeds were attacking would crop up next to Byram while Bianchi either stood looking as if he felt in the way or simply made himself scarce.
Leeds had gone from having nothing down the right to having three players looking pretty confused about who was supposed to be where, all praying that Brighton didn’t break and expose the huge gap behind them. The chances of such a break were only increased by Byram’s stubborn and bewildering refusal to take on the Brighton full back.
If in the first half I wanted to shake the Brighton players up and demand they put us out of our misery, in the second the coaching compulsion was a desire to grab Byram, then drag him past the full-back to the byline by his earlobe. All the odds were in his favour. The crowd of Tonge and Bianchi gave him backup; on the one occasion he did go round the outside of his man Byram as good as beat him and had to be stopped with a foul; the crowd were willing him, pleading with him, urging him to take that chance. And he is, after all, Sam Byram, the best young right back cum right wing prospect in the Championship.
And yet, every single time, the ball would go out wide to Byram and with his first touch he’d check back inside and stop. It was as if he was suddenly left-footed and playing on the wrong wing. Whether it was a tactical instruction or a lack of confidence or a lack of intelligence, whatever it was, it was always the wrong thing to do, because a run outside the full back created panic in the Brighton defence, while a pass back to Bianchi or Tonge inside the full back just made it easy for Brighton to win the ball back.
Of the closing stages we need say little. Replacing Sharp with Poleon added little to the already blunt front three. Putting a wall in front of Lua Lua’s free kick added little to our defence. Reminding everybody that we beat Middlesbrough at the weekend and it was a decent performance with a good result added little to the mood. Promising that this week we’ll sign a 19-goal striker from Serie B and will continue to attempt to try to sign a £5m wonderkid from Brazil did little to keep the 21,000 crowd in their seats for long after the second goal went in.
And having Dave Hockaday and Junior Lewis on the touchline did little to calm my sudden urge to become a coach. Perhaps that’s the true driving force behind a lot of coaches in the game; that at some point they’ve looked at a team’s performance, and looked at the guy who set that team up, and thought to themselves, “I could do a better job than this.”
That’s how I felt after this game, but then I’m just some chump in the stands who was foolish enough to sign up for a season ticket, and Dave Hockaday has nowt to fear from the likes of me. But I doubt I was the only one at Elland Road last night confident he could do a better job than the guys in the dugout, and some people at Elland Road are more powerful than others.