leeds united 1 – 0 millwall: i’ll show you what bad isBack
It’s hard to think straight when you’re panicking, and while most at Elland Road would deny there’s been any panic this season, they could hardly claim it has been an arena of calm, focused contemplation.
Leeds United have had a lot going on. Players coming and going, coaches coming and going, an owner going and (presumably) coming back; that’s before you get to all those individual’s foibles while they’ve been here, from Cellino’s Cellinoness to Hockaday’s extreme swimming sessions, right down to Marco Silvestri’s hair.
Our club gets compared often enough to a soap opera, but the comparison feels true when you think about the consuming and almost addictive quality of the ever-changing narrative of life at Elland Road. Following a football club is meant to be absorbing, but Leeds United have the gravitational pull of a black hole, sucking you in and obscuring everything else behind a dark cloak.
Until Millwall came to town on Saturday it was difficult to get a true picture of United’s predicament at the bottom of the league. Around Christmas time, when we were getting banjo’d out of sight by Derby and Ipswich, I didn’t think twice about writing that this team was on its way to League One, and just this week Peter Lorimer was justifying Tavares’ exclusion from the first team because a relegation battle is no place for a pony. Neil Redfearn has been talking confidently about the top half of the table, but only while people listened in embarrassed silence until he’s finished, when after a long pause someone replies, “That’s nice, dear.”
And yet here we are, Leeds United AFC, a club in the top half of the Championship, with four confident wins in the last five games, and urgent recalculations are being made about play-off possibilities rather than relegation fears.
That’s optimistic. The current form is astounding, but it’s not the way we’ve beaten Bournemouth, Reading and co. that has provided the real assurance about how this season will end; those results gave us unexpected and confidence-boosting points, but we had play above ourselves to get them, and it’s been hard to judge whether they’re a true indication of our abilities. We beat Derby in fine style in November, but then collapsed in a sorry heap against much flimsier opponents, so we can’t put our faith yet in a McDermott’s Reading style charge up the table.
The solace we can take from Saturday, though, is that Millwall are terrible. Like, really, really bad. I think we’d missed that fact amid the panics of our ownership, our form, our transfer mysteries and our awful pre–2015 results; we lost sight of the fact that, as bad as it has been for Leeds this season, there are teams around us capable of doing much worse.
We got a taste of it when Blackpool came to Elland Road earlier in the season, and we marched into a first half lead; although we let them back into the game, it was almost out of sympathy. That was a long time ago, though, and we’ve endured difficult days against some very good teams since then. Millwall’s visit was a timely reminder of what the bottom of the table really looks like; of what we really need to overcome. The answer: not much.
United have surprised teams lately with how strong we’ve been in midfield, but this time the surprise was how weak Millwall were. Misplaced passes, confused players, a lack of leadership or bite; Millwall were as bad as, as the weeks wore on, we used to assume Leeds were.
There were a couple of moments when Millwall gave us trouble, but it was largely self-inflicted; Bamba and Bellusci will whack rocks all day, but roll a marble at them and they turn into human roller skates. Against Brentford and Reading Silvestri did a good job bailing them out when required, but Martyn Woolford saved him the trouble when put through one on one by blasting the ball into the Kop. The most troubling thing about that moment was that Redfearn had been desperate to sign Woolford; but that thought aside, Leeds had little to worry about.
Events at the other end were a bit more concerning. I don’t want this to turn into the kick-Steve-Morison show, but really, I don’t care how well he played outside the box or how much effort he put in, several clear chances fell his way and he can’t be excused from scoring for much longer. If there’s a problem with how bad Millwall were, it’s that United were only one goal better than them in the end, and that was a well aimed but deflected Mowatt free kick. Goals still don’t come easy from open play.
Redders tried to solve that, and maybe kick our goal difference a notch or two nearer to zero or above, by adding Antenucci to Morison upfront; if anything his finishing was even more wayward – there was just less of it. Perhaps Edgar Cani can be the answer; maybe we need to try again to fit Sharp in somewhere. Or maybe Redders should stop trying to rescue Morison’s confidence, quit trying to get something out of Antenucci that he’s incapable or unwilling to give, and concentrate on what works well.
The midfield is ticking over beautifully, with Murphy looking like a million bucks; Cook a Premier League player in waiting; Austin doing his thing but, crucially, doing it further forward where, erratic as he is, he’s a problem for opponents rather than for us; and Mowatt having his best game since moving to the left gave him some adjustments to think about. If, rather than Antenucci, Casper Sloth had been given a reward and a sub appearance after a game changing contribution at Reading, perhaps we would have created more chances for Morison to miss; or just bypassed him altogether and set the midfielders up for a couple more. We could also, potentially, have played the ponycorn card and seen what havoc Tavares could cause against one of the lousy teams he’s apparently not cut out for playing against; bringing a struggling player into the midst of in-form teammates might have produced better results than sticking an out-of-sorts Antenucci up with a never-been-a-sort Morison.
The trip to Middlesbrough next week puts Leeds back up against an opponent from the confusing reaches of the top of the table, where United have been hunting well of late, but where it’s been hard to fully understand our own place in the universe. We won’t go there as favourites, but we will go there in form, and with an eight point cushion over Millwall in the last relegation spot; and with the knowledge that they shouldn’t, given Saturday’s showing, have enough to catch us.
But as well as that confidence, we’ll need to keep the simplicity of thought. The only defeat in the last seven, against Brentford, came in part because Redfearn seemed to overthink things; there was tinkering, and there came a defeat. Clear-minded, un-panicked focus on which players can play better and what formation works well is getting Leeds a long way lately, and that needs to continue for as long as we’re fortunate enough to have it. That might even mean sticking with Morison; he might not be scoring, but the team is winning, so whatever is happening with him, it’s having the right results. But it definitely means making the most of the good that we have, and the good that we have right now is all in midfield.