brighton 2-0 leeds united: controlBack
If this run of games I keep referring to — Newcastle, Liverpool, Villa, Brighton, Reading — wasn’t to end in table topping glory, it was going to have to be a learning experience.
That might be the most frustrating aspect of the game against Brighton. We didn’t learn much, because we didn’t get the chance.
There were two reasons for that. First, as against Newcastle, Kalvin Phillips and Ronaldo Vieira were left out of their depth. Can they run a game against a top of the table Championship side? No. In fact, at this stage in their developing careers, they can barely stay in a game against top players. They can break up play, but opponents can break up theirs even more easily, and then the opponents can keep it, because the opponents are better, more experienced players.
Whereas against Aston Villa Leeds were too deep for too long but eventually found the character and the quality to win, at Brighton the penalty, and the red card for Phillips, meant there was never any hope of a recovery from the slow start. Worse, the penalty was correctly given and the red card was the right punishment, so we can’t even moan about it. We could maybe moan at Kalvin Phillips for the handball, but he was only instinctively trying to prevent a goal; we could certainly moan at Robert Green for not claiming the ball as it swung across. But we can’t moan at the penalty.
Green was one of several players, away from the young midfield two trying their best, who didn’t seem to be on their game from the start. A series of free kicks flashed past his post from wide, and with a bit more wit Brighton could have scored two or three like that. At one point Green could be seen shouting that he couldn’t see the ball and blaming the floodlights, like John Lukic at Ibrox in 1992, but like John Lukic at Ibrox, Green has to remember that goalkeepers catch balls at that end of the Amex every other week.
Luke Ayling couldn’t get to grips with his opponents, Luke Bartley couldn’t get to grips with his; Pontus Jansson had a night when he reminded us he’s not just human, but fragile. When he was booked early on for an off the ball incident, I thought of Noel Blake, aka Bruno, the enormously popular central defender who Howard Wilkinson couldn’t trust to stay on the pitch; when he went off with some sort of cramp near the end, I remembered the knee injury that encouraged Torino to let him move to Leeds and thought of Paul McGrath, the Aston Villa defender whose knees were basically wrecked so he didn’t train, he just started games, and lasted as long as he could; and when Jansson peeled his shirt off and walked straight down the tunnel I thought of Tony Yeboah, another Leeds hero, and how that was his last gesture as a Leeds player — plus a toss of the shirt in the manager’s direction.
That surely won’t be the case with Pontus and for once I felt glad of social media, certain that he wouldn’t let the night pass without a call to arms on Twitter or Instagram; he didn’t let us down there. Where we really needed him, though, was on the pitch, dealing with those corners and wide crosses before Green had a chance not to.
All of those factors might have been overcome over the course of a normal game, but Phillips’ red card seemed to drain the team of hope, and stole the chance to learn something of the character of the side as an elevent, as we did against Villa, if not with the quality we saw against Villa.
The red card was the second reason we didn’t learn much from this game; the game was over pretty much as soon as Glenn Murray scored the first penalty. Leeds stayed in the game until Tomer Hamed scored a second penalty in the last ten minutes — a much harsher one, given for some Bartley grapple — but it wasn’t really Leeds, or at least not the Leeds we’ve been seeing; it was just some lads in yellow shirts, holding their own. At least it was better than it was in February.
One slight concern, that crops up from time to time, was Garry Monk’s inability to rouse much more from the players at his disposal. Matt Grimes would be an uninspiring introduction at the best of times, but here he played in front of the back four right where the Brighton players weren’t, so he couldn’t get close to affect them, and they just ignored him.
The arguments in favour of bringing on Grimes were that we’re — somehow — running out of central midfielders, and without much game time this season, it was a chance for him to show his worth; but by the same logic, why was Chris Wood allowed to keep running himself into the ground for ninety minutes when Marcus Antonsson, sprightly and in good form in the reserves, could have brought more energy up front, if only out of keenness to impress?
So we come away from Brighton defeated, as usual, and without learning much new about our team. Garry Monk may have learned some things, though, and not all of them good. I wrote in The Square Ball Week, in the build up to the game, that Monk has not yet experienced what it’s like to manage Leeds United in the midst of a proper Cellino inspired crisis; and now, perhaps, he has.
Because when things begin to go wrong at Leeds, they don’t just go wrong a bit; the wheels well and truly come off, and there’s nothing the manager can do. Kalvin Phillips’ handball was out of Garry Monk’s control; the back pages about about Massimo Cellino’s ban are out of his control; the ownership of the club is out of his control and, closer to his job, the structure of the backroom staff may be out of his control, if he suddenly finds he has the advice of a sporting director in his ear, whether he wants it or not.
And that’s all part of what we have to call ‘the game’ of managing Leeds United over the last few years, when it’s actually Garry Monk’s job: what’s the best you can do, when you can only control so much?