bradford city 2 – 1 leeds united: impact footballBack
This report was very nearly about a lesson in how to win. Instead it’s about a lesson in how to lose and, pending a decision from Cellino, a swansong for Dave Hockaday.
How do you win a game of football? Impact. You do things that affect other things, affect them strongly. You make decisions, movements, runs, passes, shots that have an impact, that do something to the opposition.
The ultimate impact is a goal, but you can be impactful at different levels; a series of dangerous crosses, for example, even if they don’t all end in a goal, has an impact: your opponents have to think about how to defend against those crosses.
The same for incisive, attacking passes, or dangerous runs. Or if you’re on the bench rather than the pitch you can make a change, a substitution or a tactical decision, and have an impact on the game that way.
That the only impact Leeds United had on Bradford City last night was Mathieu Smith’s goal would still not have been okay even if we’d held on and won. If the game had finished 1–0 to Leeds I would have used that goal as an example of how Leeds can actually win, a contrast to how limp and aimless and pointless the other 89 minutes of absence football had been.
Absence football, because I’m trying to think of what might be the opposite of total football. I’m still working on the terminology.
In the end Bradford had two examples of their own of how to have an impact on a football match, and ended up deserved winners. Actually, they had loads of examples of impactful football, with at least seven good chances in the game compared to Leeds’ three; all of which came in the last few minutes.
It’s difficult to analyse Dave Hockaday’s Leeds United teams so far because there’s a strong temptation to only try and judge the part where there are eleven players on the pitch; and that part doesn’t seem to last very long. But it’s important to emphasise that Luke Murphy’s idiotic sending off didn’t change the way Leeds played: it just meant we had ten players doing nothing with the ball instead of eleven.
There’s a very good reason why Leeds only had one shot on target in this game, and none against Watford on Saturday, and it’s nothing to do with the number of players on the pitch. It’s because however many players we have, they don’t attack. They just don’t. They pass the ball around a bit, but they don’t attack, and they never have any impact. And there’s no point to any of it.
A typical piece of play against Bradford would see Tonge, on the halfway line, give the ball to Wootton, also on the halfway line but standing on the right touchline. Wootton would then give it to Tonge again. Tonge would give it back to Wootton, and then run somewhere else.
Wootton would then play it to exactly where Tonge had been standing, because now Bianchi was there. Bianchi would then give it back to Wootton. He’d see that by now both Bianchi and Tonge were marked, so he’d play it back to Pearce, and Pearce would then give it back to Taylor in goal. Taylor would then play it out to Wootton.
And there would be no point to any of it. What’s the point of eight passes that move the play no further forward? What’s the point of one-twos in midfield, while Smith and Sharp are ignored up front? These aren’t even pretty triangles; these are straight passes in straight lines between two players who haven’t got even an idea of playing the ball forward, and you can pick any two players you like, because they all do it.
The one time when they didn’t do it, Leeds all but won the game. An aimless passing move fizzled out like all the others, but then suddenly Norris was released with the ball out wide; a swift cross met the head of one of the division’s most effective weapons and suddenly it was 1–0 to Leeds. Impact: and playing to our strengths.
Mathieu Smith exists and is a fact. Giving him one cross in 85 minutes is a waste of his very existence, and if we take nothing else from his goal – we didn’t take the win – we should learn something about playing to his, and our, strengths.
Or, on the other hand, here’s Dave Hockaday.
“If you look at the team selection, before the sending off, we’re comfortable, we’re in charge, we’re knocking it about,” he told Adam Pope of BBC Leeds. “Tactically, I’ve been in the game for forty years, and we got it right tonight. We just can’t legislate for moments of madness.”
It was a similar story at Watford, where Hockaday was happy with the performance and said Leeds were “frustrating” the opposition until Bellusci’s sending off. What he’s failing to realise is that, whatever the results, the style he has Leeds United employing is doing a better job of frustrating the hell out of our fans that it is of frustrating the opposition, who no matter how irritated they might be by our us, still manage to win. Us Leeds fans don’t have that bonus; we just have the frustration, and the defeat.
To say Hockaday got the Bradford game tactically right is also demonstrably not true. Not just because we lost, but because we started with a formation set up for two attacking full backs to bomb forward, but with Scott Wootton at right back; which meant the only full back bombing forward down that side was Bradford’s James Meredith, who was awarded man of the match by Sky for the gleeful way he exploited the acres of space around Wootton from the first minute. Meredith has Hockaday’s forty years of football to thank for that magnum of champagne on his kitchen table this morning.
Meredith also had that vital thing that Leeds don’t have: an idea about how to make an impact on the game. After the match Hockaday said that he hadn’t made any substitutions until after Bradford went ahead because he felt his players were getting stronger, and that they could still have been playing half an hour later.
Perhaps they could. Perhaps if they had, they might even have managed another shot on target. But I doubt it. And without that, what would have been the point?