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leeds 1 – 2 burnley: making the habit

leeds 1 – 2 burnley: making the habit

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The phrase ‘lining up to score’ is normally used when teams are relentlessly attacking – when the penalty area is full of players competing to stick the ball in the net. 

That wasn’t really the case at Elland Road on Saturday, unless you count Sam Vokes playing a one-two off Paddy Kenny for Burnley’s decisive second goal. Lining up to miss was more like it.

The advantage of the more fluid system Brian McDermott is using with this United side is that by switching positions our players are harder for defenders to mark. A downside is that it’s harder for our players to get into consistent habits. A lot of talk after the game was about Luke Varney’s miss in the first half, when he placed a free header exactly ten feet over the crossbar and into the Kop. If you were Luke Varney, you’d want every opportunity to put right that wrong; in the end, I think he got one opportunity, when after a swift spin and shot the Burnley keeper saved well.

It wasn’t that Leeds didn’t create chances, but each chance fell to a different player. Varney, McCormack, Pearce, Diouf and Tonge each had a go from inside the six yard box, and each missed in whatever way. And each had precious few chances to have another go. A lot of football is down to habit and confidence, about doing the same things over and over because you know they’ll work, but you can’t build that out of one or two misses every game. If those chances had fallen to, let’s just say for the sake of argument, Becchio, Becchio, Becchio, Becchio and Becchio, I reckon at least one of them would have gone in the back of the net. Not that I miss him, or anything.

We did see two comebacks on Saturday, with Aidy White and Sam Byram in the attacking full back positions that have looked made for them in their absence. It only took about ten minutes for Byram to reestablish his quality, and he just as quickly became an outlet for our midfield, slightly to the detriment of White who looked a little left out at times left back. Murphy, Austin and Tonge quickly decided a fifty yard pass to Little Sam on the right wing was their new favourite ball, and I’m with them: I could watch Byram control a lofted Murphy pass on his chest all day. 

Things tended to break down slightly from there. Getting Byram to the byline seemed to always involve far too many passes, with Sam and McCormack trying every kind of triangle to get past the Burnley full back, before turning inside and giving in to Leeds’ natural narrowness. White’s direct running on the other side might have brought more than the one thin penalty claim – but it seemed like just the novelty of having Sam back meant he got the biggest share of the game.

The other comeback was El Hadji Diouf, who relieved Noel Hunt from his search for form. Diouf brought what we expected – good touches and vision to connect play and put team mates into good positions – but after sending a player, that’s pretty much it for Diouf for a while. Paddy Kenny is more likely to make a lung-bursting run into the box in support than Diouf, while Varney has to settle for slaloming around defenders on his own to try and score – something he did manage with some pizzazz in the first half, spinning away from two Burnley defenders then swaying through another three, until his eventual cross reached – nobody. Perhaps Mathieu Smith would have got there – his headed consolation goal didn’t seem to take much effort – but he feels too raw and too damn lanky to be a regular starter.

When I interviewed David Wetherall recently for The Square Ball, he told me, “Howard Wilkinson used to have a saying: ‘Winning’s a habit, but unfortunately so is losing.’” You could say the same about scoring goals and missing chances, and with Newcastle getting their act together since the League Cup draw was made, there’s a decent chance that Leeds will go to Millwall next weekend after three straight defeats and with a minimum of goals scored. That’s no reason to panic, but it’s also not a habit that can be allowed to develop. 

This morning’s news from Phil Hay at the YEP, that “immediate funds for a high-profile loanee” are available, is the Alka-Seltzer Leeds needed to serve up, and this season Leeds don’t seem like a club that will give in to a hangover by suffering on the couch all day. A change is needed up front, and so a change is going to come, whether that change is Billy Sharp, Shane Long or Adam Le Fondre, all mentioned in Phil’s article, or, be still my beating heart, Luciano Becchio. 

Despite our close relationship with Lucy, he might be the riskiest move of all. You can know someone too well. And when it comes to habits, Luciano is definitely out of the goalscoring one – he’s even well out of the playing habit, which is why his swift return is even an option. The sight of our rusty returning hero fluffing chances as an exasperated Elland Road yells in dismay – that’s not somewhere I want to go. Becchio was always frustrating, and the expectations this time would be enormous. 

But then there’s the other scenario. The scenario where our chances fall to Becchio, Becchio, Becchio, Becchio and Becchio, and Becchio scores them all. It’s a fairy tale solution to a story that always had a hint of a fairy tale about it: the wicked stepmother Warnock banishing Becchio to the coast and dragging Morison to his castle. There’s a chance now for a bald, heroic prince in D&G glasses to break the spell and put the world back as it should be. Morison has been rescued already, and is back at Millwall where he belongs. Luciano, meanwhile, still sleeps in the tower.

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