reading 0 – 2 leeds united: defying expectationsBack
Is this a new thing now for Leeds United? Is this team, from now on, going to be defying expectations, but in a good way?
We mustn’t get carried away, we mustn’t get carried away, we mustn’t get carried away… but… ☺. But we mustn’t get carried away.
Because the expectations, in fairness, were right. That’s why you’ll get a lot of these sorts of phrases thrown around about this game: against the odds, unexpected result, raised their game, defied expectations. Before kick-off there was a singular and quite imposing general view of how this game was going to go, and it didn’t give much hope to Leeds. It wasn’t up to United to prove that view wrong, because it wasn’t in itself wrong; but rather to overcome it.
The problem before the game was that, when illnesses, another formation change and some recent departures were all taken into account, our team looked nowhere near as good as Reading’s. Shying away from 4–4–2 after the Brentford defeat was probably the right decision, but it took Billy Sharp out of the team, and I still can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; while the absences due to illness showed up our squad for what it is: thin. Gaetano Berardi was one who fell foul of a sickness bug that I’m sure had nothing to do with Massimo Cellino’s cooking; rather him than Charlie Taylor, but what options would we have had if both had taken to their beds?
Austin was lost to the side too, a big loss after the way he pounded around the pitch on Saturday, and especially given that his replacement, Tommaso Bianchi, has never yet looked like a truly capable player and only lasted around quarter of an hour anyway. Casper Sloth came on, but looking beyond him on the bench, you kinda wondered whether it might have been worth letting Michael Tonge see out his contract here after all; especially as he spent his evening helping Millwall to a 1–0 win at Birmingham.
It’s not just the numbers, but the quality; or the perceived quality. Ignoring the cringe status of naming their fans on the bench, Reading had Yakubu on there, Hal Robson-Kanu, Jamie Mackie, Simon Cox; it was a relief that they could only bring on three of them, but then, how good must that make their first team?
Leeds, much as we might love them, don’t have players with that sort of reputation in our side. Names that make opposing fans or, thinking wishfully, players pause and go: bugger, is he playing? Byram and Cook are the stars, but they’re inexperienced; Sharp is a marked man, but isn’t in the team; most of the players who are in it were either out of the team a few weeks ago, lived in a different country a few months ago, or were still at school just a couple of years ago.
If I were to pick an adjective to describe Leeds United’s team this season it would be ‘fragile’, and yet the toughness it keeps showing keeps suggesting that I’m not very good when it comes to words. To beat Bournemouth, Huddersfield and now Reading was asking a lot of this side, and yet here we are, nine points later, with only Brentford preventing a clean sweep.
We can’t say for certain what the source is; some would say that sidelining a large part of the foreign contingent has been key. When you see Byram, Wootton, Cook and the rest piling into the away end to celebrate a goal, it is tempting to assume some sort of local pride is at the heart of it all. Until you see Casper Sloth sneaking in there too, but then Danes are always up for a party.
English grit doesn’t explain Sol Bamba’s rapid ascent to the captaincy, though; or Giuseppe Bellusci having a solid night next to him, or how Sloth restored balance to the midfield after Bianchi’s ill-starred cameo.
The answer might not be unrelated to nationality, but the exact connection is a bit more subtle. Quite simply Neil Redfearn is making the players at his disposal play better, and whether because of language or because of what he’s asking them to do, he’s getting better results with the British players than with the imports.
Luke Murphy hasn’t seemed to speak the same language as any coach he’s had since he got here, whether McDermott, Hockaday or Milanic; and yet Redders seems to have the golden phrase book that transforms Murphy into a lower league McAllister, spraying passes and placing shots from distance with deliberate cunning. Lewis Cook doesn’t need telling anything, but Byram and Taylor have taken to a new position and a new division as if they’ve both played that way their whole lives. Under Neil Redfearn, these players are now playing better than we’ve seen for a long time; better, in some cases, than they’ve ever played in their lives.
Leeds United are now a team playing above themselves, and they have to be, because their true level at the moment will continue to strike rational fear into the hearts of Leeds fans when they go to places like the Madjeski Stadium. Reading are above us in the table and have better players, okay. But by raising their game, our players can overcome those challenges.
They can’t destroy the pessimistic expectations that surrounded the start of this game, because it would be easier to eradicate football of money than it would be to cleanse football fans of pessimism; but they can accept the realism of those expectations, and then do better. It’s one of the foundations of football’s brilliance: that the best team on paper doesn’t always win. Leeds United, on paper, won’t be the best team in 80% of the league matches they play this season. But under Neil Redfearn, they’ve found a way to lever football’s chaotic wonder, and turn it to their advantage.