barnsley 3-2 leeds united: normalisingBack
A winter afternoon, and red against blue, like an old fussball table or a Subbuteo starter kit, and, in this age of squads and rotation, an unchanged lineup for Leeds United, as part of Garry Monk’s continuing mission to put football and normality back at the heart of Leeds United.
Some of those non-changes were enforced by ongoing absences, and perhaps some changes might have been nice; it was hard not to watch Lewie Coyle’s early clearances, as nervous-looking as his moustache, and wish Pontus Jansson was back in the back four. But it was good to think that, even with the nerves, what we might be seeing with Coyle are the early games of a player who might one day be very, very good.
There weren’t many chances for United’s players to show themselves as good in the opening stages, as Barnsley attacked for the first quarter of an hour of a scrappy game. But Leeds, lately, have become efficient. A quick counter attack down the right was started by Coyle and let Pablo Hernandez loft a cross into the penalty area that was cleared for a corner before it could reach Chris Wood. Nobody could stop Hernandez’s corner reaching Wood, and it reached him around his midriff as he barraged towards the goal: the ball got caught in the barrage and was forced over the line.
Another Hernandez corner was nearly forced in ten minutes later, again by Wood, but it was cleared off the line at the post; then it was Souleymane Doukara’s turn to have a shot saved from the next corner as Kyle Bartley was sent, by a hand in his face, to the floor. The corner that resulted from that produced some head tennis and a header near goal from Doukara, and another corner; this time Barnsley stopped corner following corner and relieved the pressure upfield, and as Leeds ran back to defend all their tuts and moans were aimed at Mike Dean, on enforced holiday from the Premier League, for not seeing the shoving that had sent Bartley sprawling.
It was only a brief respite from what was rapidly becoming a game of corners at the Barnsley end, and soon another effort from Doukara was being cleared off the line. Then Barnsley started having a go at the other end, with a free-kick from wide, headed by McDonald and saved on the line by Robert Green. Barnsley’s possession, although it wasn’t creating many chances, was drawing lazy fouls from Leeds that Mike Dean was only too eager to give, and Green had to save again from a free-kick from out wide. A third time, just before half-time, and Green was beaten; Leeds’ Janssonless defence was asleep while Barnsley switched their free-kick routine to short, Adam Armstrong crossed, and Tom Bradshaw headed in.
There was time left in the half for Barnsley to have another chance, McDonald again with a header, this time from a corner. The abundance of set-pieces for both sides was an indicator that there was more endeavour than creativity in this game; both sides were attacking, but corners were easier to win than crossing opportunities or through balls; defensively, fouls were an easier option than good tackles. Only Hernandez and Wood were really looking on their game for Leeds in the first half, but their game was reduced to running around up front in the hope that they might be given the ball.
Leeds didn’t start the second half looking any more on it. A long ball forward brought Green just outside his area to head clear for a throw in, when it might have been easier for Luke Ayling to have just dealt with it instead of the pair of them faffing about. From the throw the ball went across the edge of the box to Ryan Kent, on loan from Liverpool, who turned past Coyle and fired across Green into the far bottom corner.
Things got worse. Scowen ran to the edge of the penalty area and Kemar Roofe, suddenly involved in the game, brought him down. Conor Hourihane, only in the Barnsley side as a gesture of his generous heart before he leaves for richer pastures, launched an exceptionally good free kick over the wall and into the top corner to make it 3-1.
Barnsley were attacking fast but the bookings for Leeds were coming faster; Bartley stopped one attack and was subjected to the withering Premier League disdain of Dean. In a rare trip up the other end, Doukara played a pass wide that was filled with laziness and self-pity, straight to a Barnsley defender, while Monk got Eunan O’Kane ready to replace Ronaldo Vieira, so good against Derby that he was rumoured to be attracting interest from Germany. Sure enough, a leaked scout attendance list showed a RedBulls.com representative was in Barnsley for this, but if they were watching Vieira, they won’t have been impressed. Perhaps if they take him, he’ll have to go to RB Salzburg before he can be allowed the giddying heights of RB Leipzig — not that that’s how it works, of course.
It may be useful to remember in these troubled times, though, that sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better, and fortunately 3-1 was the worst things got. As Wood raced for a bouncing ball with Roberts on the edge of the box, Wood nodded it forward and it hit Roberts’ arm. Was it a deliberate handball? Was it inside the box? Who cares. Blessed Mick Dean didn’t, gave the penalty, and Wood scored sensibly. Soon after, with a similar inside-outside decision to make after a foul on the edge of Leeds’ box by O’Kane, Dean went this time with the correct option of outside, and Hourihane couldn’t repeat the wonder with his free-kick.
Green saved bravely when Barnsley threatened a fourth, then Barnsley’s keeper Adam Davies went down tamely after a blow to the jaw from Doukara; Wood, like a bastard, tried to take the ball from under his crouched, injured body to score, and got more of Mike Dean’s pitying glares in his direction. With six minutes left Stuart Dallas came on for Bridcutt, suggesting Monk valued Doukara’s threat to Davies’ chin more than his threat of producing a goal, or a pass, or anything good. Bridcutt, though, had been worryingly second best to Barnsley’s all-action midfield, and that can’t all have been down to shepherding the inexperienced Vieira next to him. When Bridcutt’s good, he’s very, very good; but when he’s bad, we lose to Barnsley.
Leeds had one big final chance to equalise in the five minutes of injury time, when Coyle’s cross flew by everybody, including Roofe, who looked perfectly placed to divert the ball into the goal at the back post; he didn’t. And there was one smaller one, when Dallas volleyed just over the bar.
And that was that. Was there angst, wailing, gnashing of teeth? Only for those trying to catch a train back to West Yorkshire, apparently, crammed into a South Yorkshire Police ‘operation’. About the football, though, no. The reasons why this game was lost are easy to list: three right-backs, no Jansson, no Sacko, too much Doukara, too many off-days; that last one perhaps as a result of the other reasons accumulated.
Leeds are still fourth, and while the gap to second has opened to nine points, the more serious gap to seventh is still five. At the start of the season — heck, two months into the season — we’d have gladly take Sheffield Wednesday’s position on the edge of the play-off places, so to be five points ahead of them and in the thick of it is not reason for despair.
Leeds had won five and drawn one of their last six league games; it was time for a loss. It’s just a shame it had to be to Barnsley. But then again, Barnsley consistently do us at Oakwell — 2-0 in 2013, 4-1 in 2011, 5-2 in 2010 — so as part of a movement towards normality, this felt about right.
Being so sanguine in defeat doesn’t feel quite right though, but perhaps we need to give that time. At the end of a good run of wins, this doesn’t feel so bad. If it’s the start of a bad run of defeats, though, we may revisit this match some time soon, with pitchforks and hindsight. We’ll see.