middlesbrough 0 – 1 leeds united: not a care in the worldBack
“We can’t go on like this!”
It’s not often that stadium clocks tick over 100 minutes during a regulation game of football. It’s not often that goal attempts counters tick past 100 either. As the clocks and the scales struggled to measure Middlesbrough’s efforts to draw level with Leeds United on Saturday, the same thoughts were running through the minds of Leeds fans everywhere.
“How much longer can this go on?”
How much longer in this game, and how much longer in this season? That’s three wins in a row now, already statistically unlikely enough for Leeds; it’s three clean sheets in a row too, which is almost unheard of. We’ve won five of the last six, only lost one of the last eight, only conceded four goals in those eight games, and beaten the division’s top two teams.
How much longer can this carry on?
Watching as, after yet another Silvestri save, Marco looked at Giuseppe and Giuseppe looked at Marco and Marco looked at Sol and Sol looked at Giuseppe, and they all raised their eyes to the skies and gave each other high fives, you could conclude that it can’t go on much longer. But then you watch Bamba throw himself in front of the next shot, or Bellusci nail a last ditch tackle, and you think, why not?
This game was one for the hearts, and you have to leave your head behind a bit to appreciate it. Amid the euphoria on the bus back to civilisation on Saturday afternoon, Neil Redfearn and Steve Thompson must have taken a deep breath, loaded up the match analysis on the iPad, and then decided to just play Angry Birds instead and enjoy the win. We won. We’ll worry about the rest on Monday.
That we won is largely thanks to two players, Marco Silvestri and Sol Bamba, and while that’s no way to mount a play-off charge, who cares if it’s what gets results. The concentration during the 2015 Leeds United comeback has been upon the young players, and so necessarily on how good Leeds have looked in midfield and going forward; midfield has been the source of the goals, and it was again on Saturday, Cook playing a typically inventive pass to Mowatt, who with his own typical determination tackled it twenty yards into the bottom corner.
The lead secured, it was the defence that took the reins, and United revealed just how George Graham-ish the new plan has been. While the tactics are nowhere near as negative as Graham imposed on Leeds in his first season, and while the actual defending would leave him not so much strolling as sobbing, there’s something very Georgie about the way Leeds are lining up these days.
One striker; a right back at right wing; a centre back at right back; a defensive midfielder as our most attacking midfielder; it’s not quite a throw all the way back to the days when Graham would put Radebe, Wetherall, Molenaar, Jobson, Halle, Robertson, Kelly, Palmer, Couzens and Ford on the same pitch (or would have if he could) but it’s not hard to see why Tavares is struggling to get into a side that would probably ask him to drop and fill in as an extra centre half on days like today.
Charlie Taylor has been a revelation at left back, but after checking the damp behind his ears and looking across the rest of the team, it’s still a bit of a surprise that the goals against column for the recent run is looking as well as it does. It’s even more surprising after playing Middlesbrough, who really should have waltzed away with all the goals. We’re not actually very good at defending our penalty area, but we are good at stopping teams from scoring; a subtle but important distinction.
And it’s a distinction that, as I said, was mostly down to Bamba and Silvestri on Saturday. I’m a bit of a stickler for shirt numbers, so I was happy with the Bellusci and Pearce era for reuniting the classic 5 and 6 in central defence; but I wasn’t happy with much else about it, so I’m willing to let Sol Bamba get away with wearing 3 in there. Plus, he’s working in a developing tradition of Leeds centre halves wearing number 3 like absolute bosses: give him a headband to go with the armband and that could have been Paddy Kisnorbo out there, clearing everything that came near him.
You can sort of see why Leicester fans are quick to remember his bomb-scare moments for them, and I’m sure his ball-dawdling in midfield will terrify and thrill us for some time to come. But you can also see why he’s such a good defender when he’s facing the ball. Bamba anticipates danger and moves quickly to the right place at the right time to make things safe again. In the heart of United’s defence he has had to adapt his game slightly, to be less about watching what the attackers are going to do, and more to be ready for the mistake that Bellusci is going to make, but the principle is the same.
Bellusci got himself suspended with a tenth booking in this game, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Bamba-Cooper combination can keep the clean sheets coming and keep Bellusci out of the team. I like Peppe, and I loved his free kick against Bournemouth, but sometimes I look at him and wonder if he isn’t an imposter sent to Leeds as part of an elaborate hidden camera show. At one point he ran clean away from the player he had been marking in the box just as Middlesbrough’s winger was shaping to play it to him; Bamba was on it in a flash, booting the ball clear, and then it was high-fives and butt-smacks all round from Peppe, as if it had all happened just as he planned it. When he began organising the defence for the corner, I looked at him and wondered if he had even the first idea about what he was actually doing, or was just shouting and pointing like a kid copying footballers he’s seen on the telly.
Given the way the Thorp Archers have flourished under Redfearn and Thompson, and the new-style Murphy and Austin they’ve developed, I can’t help but look down the road to Sheffield and wonder what they could have done with the stern-looking centre half that’s captaining Wednesday these days, but that’s water down an Italian hillside and we’ll not speak more of it here.
The bail-out Peppe crew has always had Silvestri, whose bid for player of the season status has been on the back burner in recent weeks, but was back in full effect against Middlesbrough; he spent most of this game in his little van, driving around the Riverside pitch yelling ‘VOTE MARCO FOR A CLEAN SHEET’ through a loudhailer. That infamous George Graham team was fortunate to have found Nigel Martyn among the heirlooms left it by Sergeant Wilko, and while he lorded it over his penalty area in a way Silvestri hasn’t mastered, he’s the keeper my thoughts run back to whenever I try to think of the last time I gasped at a save the way I do when Silvestri fingertips the ball over the bar.
Silvestri is all about the camera-clicks; I nicknamed him Showboat just based on the YouTube highlights we saw when he signed. But sometimes it takes a replay to show just how good his reaction saves are. For that finger-tip gasper, the deflection and the reaction could be seen in real-time; on other occasions, when Middlesbrough’s forwards took pot-shots at him from inside the six yard box, you needed the slo-mo to appreciate how quickly he’d got down to the ball, how vital his reflex had been to prevent the goal.
Aitor Karanka might need a few of those replays to truly believe that his side didn’t actually win 5–1 on Saturday, but he shouldn’t worry; Middlesbrough won’t face Silvestri and Bamba in this sort of form every week. Leeds shouldn’t worry either, but not because there’s nothing to worry about; if you wanted to worry, you would start with the fact that Bamba and Silvestri surely can’t keep this form up forever and worry up a storm from there. Leeds shouldn’t worry because because there’s no reason to.
How long Leeds can keep this run going, and how long Silvestri and Bamba and Murphy and Austin and Cook and Mowatt can keep this form going, is a question of possibilities, not closures. It’ll come to an end sometime; maybe against Brighton on Tuesday, or maybe not until after we play Rotherham on the final day. But it’s exciting to think that it might not; and it’s exciting that it hasn’t yet. And it’s just bloody brilliant to have absolutely stolen this win from Middlesbrough. Hail, Silvestri; salut, Sol Bamba; we don’t have a care in the world.