cardiff city 0-2 leeds united: no fussBack
After the non-performance against Huddersfield, Leeds United needed these two games, against Blackburn and Cardiff, to find some sort of firm footing on which to start building some sort of season.
There was no need for fireworks. Getting these matches ticked off with a minimum of fuss was the first, essential priority.
That was done, and it’s almost the most surprising thing. There have been other benefits, like Garry Monk returning to his core plan and finding it good, and the increasing flair being shown by Pablo Hernandez, Hadi Sacko and Stuart Dallas in attack.
But the lack of fuss is something that Leeds United can be particularly pleased about, because we’re a club that doesn’t half like to make a fuss at times.
Not this time. The only wobble was Blackburn’s equaliser, but that goal was so similar to Huddersfield’s against us that you’d hope it’s a weak spot easily fixed; it was followed by a clean sheet against Cardiff, kept by a defence that almost, almost, looks solid.
Let’s not get carried away. Blackburn and Cardiff are both poor; and Blackburn scored, while Cardiff hit our woodwork enough to feel aggrieved that they didn’t score. But if that was down to luck then it was earned luck, as Kyle Bartley and Pontus Jansson committed themselves to security. Cardiff City had twelve corners in this game and didn’t score a single goal. In recent times twelve goals would not have felt out of the question, but here the heart flutters were few.
A solid defence could do so much for Leeds United. This clean sheet was achieved without Liam Bridcutt but with Ronaldo Vieira, who continues to do his best to make signings like Matt Grimes and his partner against Cardiff, Eunan O’Kane, look a little surplus.
With this tidy crew behind them, Sacko, Dallas and Hernandez almost looked like they were enjoying themselves. Sacko’s second half against Blackburn was a joy, and while none of the players as individuals quite reached that level of attacking domination, as a combination they always looked dangerous.
The best of them was Hernandez. He didn’t give it absolute flames against Blackburn, but against Cardiff he upped the temperature and cracked out the nutmegs, and the options. When Leeds look to create things without him, it’s left to Dallas or Sacko to try and hit their striker solo, not always an easy task. Hernandez, though, provides the link between Dallas and Sacko that can change the point of attack and give the striker a second chance to escape his marker before the ball heads his way.
It gives our wide players, always our most creative, a second option other than banging the ball into the middle; and when Hernandez has the ball, he has three options, either playing it into the middle from wherever he is, pushing it to the other wing, or having a dip himself.
Either way, cutting that lazy route from the wings to Wood should actually give Wood better chances to score, so that he’s not always striving to get on the end of wayward crosses — or gazing at perfectly good crosses like a short-sighted cow at an incoming banjo, as he did when Dallas whipped the ball across in the first half. Apart from that Wood’s best chance came when Sacko, rather than cross straight to him, dropped the ball inside for Hernandez who popped it perfectly for Wood on the edge of the box. Wood hit it straight at the keeper, and I’ll say straight out that Marcus Antonsson would have scored it, but maybe Wood will score one like it some other time, with more confidence and more chances like these.
Wood did score; he doesn’t have a confidence problem about penalties, for some reason. He’s such a weirdo. Where confidence might be an issue is Pablo Hernandez’s confidence in him. Hernandez had two more chances to play Wood in; the first time, he ignored him, and his weak shot came to nothing. The second time, ah, the second time…
Chris Wood’s goal would have been perfectly adequate for this game, when ticking if off with the minimum of fuss was the target. A clean sheet, a penalty goal, a 1-0 win, six points in a week, three goals for and one against, a formation that works and confidence that grows. That would have been enough.
But let’s enjoy the fact that Leeds United, this time, exceeded expectations that have been aimed lower and lower since Dave Hockaday took us to the river. Hernandez was given an inexplicable amount of space by Cardiff and, rather than simply accept the gift, he chucked in some extra Argos vouchers of his own and passed the whole parcel to us to open. What a present.
Don’t just watch this goal, listen to it: close your eyes until you hear the ping of the ball against the post. In the moment of silence that follows, open your eyes and look at Ben Amos, the Cardiff goalkeeper, who has not moved. Then let the roar of the travelling fans move you. Then, finally, rewind the whole thing and this time do watch the way Hernandez makes the space and then shoots, putting a barely perceptible bend on the ball on its way towards that post, that ping, that pause and silence and glory.
Watch too how Chris Wood punches the air with pleasure, despite being passed over again; maybe he didn’t realise that Hernandez was still holding that earlier miss against him, and withholding the ball, or maybe he just loved the way Pablo hit the ball. Watch Pablo celebrate, too; kissing his arms, right then left, presumably because his magic feet are out of reach. If he keeps scoring goals like this, and if he wants, I’ll kiss his feet for him.
Blackburn are next, again, in the League Cup, but who knows whether that will be a first or second eleven or what Blackburn will send. After that it’s Ipswich, Bristol City, Barnsley; after Blackburn and Cardiff, we’ll be trying to punch up the table again, right to the top if Barnsley keep up their bizzarnsley start. These will be sterner tests. But we don’t have to approach them in fear, which is progress, which is what we need.