huddersfield town 2-1 leeds united: the better teamBack
There are several irritating things about Huddersfield Town these days, irritating because they’re true. The ones we have to deal with right now are the fact that their team was better than ours in this game and deserved to win; and that, at the moment, they represent the standard Leeds United have to reach.
The heartening thing is, United are on that course. The last time we played them, back in September, wasn’t only a defeat but a test of nerve, of whether the club and Garry Monk could get past the difficult start to the season and stick with a plan for longer than a couple of months. Leeds passed that test and now, four months later, are just a point behind Huddersfield in the league, in a surprise promotion chase.
Surprising to us, anyway, which is one of the differences between the two clubs at the moment. Huddersfield are actually underachieving in fourth; their promotion attempt is the result of careful planning, and faith in a manager and his methods, that began upon his appointment in November 2015, and by rights they should be where Brighton are. Leeds, on the other hand, sometimes look like a side that have wandered into the promotion race by mistake; out for a quick jog round the park, we found ourselves in the leading pack of a marathon.
The unexpectedness has been part of the fun this season, but it does make our position seem less secure. If we don’t get promoted this season, will we still have everything in place next year for another go, or will the magic dust wear of Jansson, Ayling, Wood and the rest after one golden season? If Huddersfield don’t make it to the Premier League this season it will be hilarious — especially if it involves a play-off defeat inflicted by us — but they’ll be well placed to shrug it off and have another go next season. Leeds United need that foundation; we don’t have it yet.
And despite starting the day above them in the league, we don’t have Huddersfield’s team yet either; certainly not their midfield. Aaron Mooy was the clear danger, as we saw at Elland Road, and Garry Monk elected to use Ronaldo Vieira alongside Liam Bridcutt to keep him quiet; it worked to an extent, but only until the second half, when Jonathon Hogg became the driving force and Vieira struggled to get a pass away.
Huddersfield ran the midfield and effectively the game, meaning much depended on our defenders. Now that Pontus Jansson has signed forever, we can relax about his future, and so can he, but not like he did in the first half. Imagining himself in space he attempted to stroke the ball to Kyle Bartley, but his imagination didn’t reflect reality, and two-Ls Collin Quaner charged the ball and sent it looping over Green, and just over the bar. Jansson said a quiet prayer of thanks to the deity that let him get away with it and promised to pay more attention.
Gaetano Berardi didn’t get the memo about tightening up. He was dispossessed while taking things easy in midfield, and as he lost his desperate race to catch Elias Kachunga, Jansson came flying across to tackle twice, first safely, second recklessly. He missed the mark second time, which might have saved him from a red card, but as Tommy Smith now had the ball, cost Leeds a goal; he crossed to Izzy Brown, just on as substitute and occupying the space Jansson has vacated, who crashed the ball in off the bar.
Once upon a time such defensive fragility would have been the precursor to an all-out collapse, but nowadays Leeds make a game of such things. And we have Pablo Hernandez on set pieces. He was off form in this match, and needed two attempts to get his cross right, but Bartley’s connection beat the offside trap and left Chris Wood close and personal with the goalkeeper. With a smart, soft touch, Wood put enough on the ball to get it past Daniel Ward but knew the angle was against him putting it straight into the net; he followed the ball and tapped it the right side of the post. He looked like he enjoyed it.
A goal each was the starting point for a derby that, for the rest of the half, Huddersfield took a grip of. United’s defending was committed, but still leaving large gaps for Town to make chances; Berardi made up for his earlier mistake with a goal-saving block at the back post, and Green rushed out to save in his defence’s absence.
The momentum stayed with Huddersfield in the second half, as they created chances on the regular and Leeds struggled to breakaway. Alfonso Pedraza was introduced for his debut, in place of Doukara, and his first contribution was being put on his backside after intricate play from Brown; his second, almost immediately, was to run from the halfway line and shoot on target, which was exactly what Leeds needed from him.
Pedraza alone couldn’t supply a winner, and he was eventually joined by Mo Barrow, taking Dallas’ place, giving Leeds a whole new attack for 2017; imagine if we had signed a new striker, too. Instead it was another midfielder that joined the fray, Eunan O’Kane replacing Hernandez to help secure a point, which of course meant the opposite happened. Leeds didn’t do much wrong, other than give Mooy too much time to get his shot away; it was a poor hit that would have been easily dealt with if it hadn’t deflected to Michael Hefele. The last minute; urgh. It was Sunday lunchtime, but I just wanted to crawl back under my Billy Sharp bedspread and pretend the whole thing wasn’t happening.
If I had, I still would have had David Wagner bursting into my bedroom on his celebratory lap of honour. He claims that there’s nothing wrong with a manager celebrating with his players, that’s it’s just something English football culture isn’t ready for; well, maybe. I would probably enjoy seeing Garry Monk jumping on Jansson’s shoulders as they piled into the Kop to celebrate a last minute winner, if it ever happens. But the reason it’s generally not done is not cultural, it’s because if you say, why not the manager, you have to say, why not everybody else? If Wagner has the right to run half the length of the pitch to celebrate with his players, then why not his assistant, the coaching staff, the physio, all the subs?
That would be quite a troupe running back and forth through the opposition’s technical area, which would make flashpoints even more likely, only this time Garry Monk would have to take them all on, not just Wagner. That was left to Berardi, who of course was brilliant value once the fighting broke out; late on the scene, he forced his way through and beneath the grappling arms ahead of him so he could square up to four Town players at once.
Monk, his point made to Wagner with the initial jostle, had retreated to a safe distance by the time Berardi and Pontus arrived, his hands in his pockets as they were throughout, and he was unfortunate to be sent to the stands; Monk’s part in the incident looked like a calculated effort to show Wagner up for being nothing more than a German Steve Evans who read a book once, and he nearly got away with it.
Unfortunately for us the book Wagner has read is a very detailed coaching manual, which brings us back to the uncomfortable truths about Huddersfield Town that we have to acknowledge. Good setup, good manager, good team. But afterwards, as Garry Monk spoke about being brought up to value respect, humility and class, it gave us the licence to concede those truths to Huddersfield as things stand, and to remember that all we have to do to make those things true about ourselves is to carry on as we are. Class, humility and respect, though — I don’t know how Huddersfield will ever catch us on that.