blackburn rovers 1-2 leeds united: what was changedBack
Three wins in a week. Nine, yes nine, league points to treasure. Back-to-back away wins; a win in Wales; a win at Ewood Park.
This is it: the Leeds United tease, that tempts you into optimism, but just leaves you disappointed about what might have been. Some giddy folk have been talking about the play-offs since the lunchtime kick-off against Blackburn on Saturday finished, around teatime, after the referee admitted that no amount of injury time was going to prevent a Leeds win, but talking about the play-offs will only make me depressed.
Yes, this team could get into the play-offs. But only if it went back in time and got its shit together sooner. Thinking about our outside chances of what could be only brings to mind the very good chances of what might have been, and that’s not a good place to dwell when you’re trying to feel good.
The wins feel good; compared to the distress of Brighton, they feel incredible. We’re entitled, as we look back in dazed amazement at wins against Bolton, Cardiff and Blackburn, to wonder what changed.
Some things have changed, some things haven’t. If one thing characterised the defeat to Brighton, it was defensive mistakes: Wootton being Wootton, Bamba being Bamba, but both taking to it the precipice of believability. That hasn’t altogether gone away. Bamba began at Cardiff by reprising his greatest hits at Brighton; against Blackburn, an excusably rusty Berardi and an as-per unpredictable Bellusci let Blackburn in for chances, and the goal they scored was another in a long list of this season’s lousy defensive moments.
The change here hasn’t been entirely in Leeds’ control; mistakes have not been punished the way they were against Brighton. At Cardiff that was largely thanks to superhuman goalkeeping; against Blackburn, it was down to their weakness up front. They’ve scored thirty-six this season, the same as us.
But in both matches there was something else that wasn’t there at Brighton: the desire to stop the other team scoring. Silvestri wasn’t alone in keeping Cardiff out; his display inspired the defence to up their game and help him to the clean sheet. And if Berardi was occasionally culpable, he could also be seen galloping after his opponents ready to break them in half / quarters / as many pieces as necessary to make amends.
Another change has been in attack. For one thing, we’ve attacked. Not only that, but we’ve scored. On the counter. We’ve counter attacked, and we’ve scored. I can’t stress enough the revolution this represents.
It’s still painful to watch Mirco Antenucci run, and he gained from Rovers’ charity when his second touch, as he broke onto Alex Mowatt’s pass, sent the ball plonking towards the goalkeeper. Rovers’ defenders and keeper seemed surprised someone with such a well-trimmed beard could be so clumsy, and let him catch up to the ball and, as against Bolton, make amends with his second attempt: a darling chip from a tight angle into the far side of the net.
But that was the third time this week that Antenucci had led a ball-carrying charge in advance of a scattered defence and found a goal at the end of it, twice against Cardiff — one for Doukara, one for him — and once at Blackburn. At Blackburn, we had the extra element of Mowatt laying on the pass that sent him away, the kind of pass he hasn’t been able to play from his usual recent position, sat on the bench. Accommodating Mowatt seems to be one of the hardest tasks Leeds coaches face, after the whole Cellino/weird thing, but when they find a spot for him and when he finds form, good things tend to happen.
While we’re on the subject of attacking, the sudden signs of a threat from set-pieces are hard to fathom, taking us back to the heady days of Matt Heath and 2007. Again, though, this new found ability is hard to parse. Antenucci against Bolton and Bamba against Blackburn have both scored from corners; but neither was a header, and neither could be called rehearsed, so we’re trapped again between crediting the coaching, or crediting the fates.
Well, Steve Evans isn’t. Antenucci’s first goal against Bolton was something they’d work on in training, apparently; aye, Steve, aye. At Blackburn he said, “It was a joy to be coach of but the boys deserve all the credit,” but as natural as breathing added, “We’ve worked since we came in the door on the set pieces and scoring from a corner,” shifting the credit back to himself. Ah, Stevie.
And yet some of the bluster has gone, along with the pounds that have noticeably been shed in the past few weeks. The confident talk about all the stuff we’re going to see next season and stuff has gone from his pre-match / post-match pronouncements; the most he’ll say about Antenucci’s future is that if he keeps scoring someone will talk to him about it. A few weeks ago a few goals from Mirco would have had nailed on for Steve Evans’ Player of the Championship 2016/17.
The bluster has plainly gone because Cellino has ordered it gone. Evans is still apologising for Brighton, but also acknowledging that it had to be that bad for things to get better: “Some honesty from everyone has been key to this spell,” he told BBC Radio Leeds. “If we’d lost by the odd goal at Brighton we might not have had the meeting we needed to have.”
And he might not have been ordered to keep away from the press after the game, and he might not have returned, a chastened and more concentrated figure. One wonders if the fitness regime has anything to do with Cellino, too; when the two began to work together, it was fraudster meet fraudster, bully meet bully, mouth meet mouth (not like that), and nobody expected that the combo would result in the ironic reformation of one. Ironic, because Massimo Cellino is really in no position to tell anyone to curb their public largesse and recreational indulges, and yet he’s imposing on us all a quieter, leaner Evans.
President, we might implore, heal thyself; he knows a lot of English expletives though, so we’ll probably keep that thought to ourselves. One thing, we hope, has got through to Massimo after this week of unexpected success.
Take a look, Massimo, at what happens when Leeds United’s football team wins games of football. Dip your finger into the sherbet of this mood and rub that effervescent sugar into your gums. Listen to the people talking with hope about the play-offs when they know damn well the play-offs are what the team won’t deliver; hear them looking forward to next season, at the exact moment the mouth on legs on the touchline has stopped telling them about it. And marvel, that this week of wins has been achieved with the same drove of donkeys that collapsed in such shame at Brighton. If this team can do so well, imagine how well a slightly better resourced team might do?
And then get ready, old son, for Saturday. Because we’ve supported Leeds United for a lot longer than you’ve owned it, and we know what we’re due: a very firm kick in the bollocks from Huddersfield. It’s the Leeds United way. Don’t fight it, my friend.