leeds united 0-1 nottingham forest: class across the boredBack
Consider, if you will, Scott Wootton. Opposition managers and players clearly have. Wootton is a much considered, much discussed, and obviously marked man.
After losing to Nottingham Forest Steve Evans spoke a lot about what United lacked in the final third; a “£3million man, who was sat in the stands” (he means Chris Wood, just in case you thought the Tomas Skuhravy deal was suddenly about to come off), and a cutting edge, “someone who can go past people” (that hashtag again: #TeamBotaka). What he didn’t talk about was the consistent presence in the final third of Scott Wootton, and it’s something I think we ought to address.
Because he doesn’t belong there, and yet he’s always there. And it’s not his fault. At one point, the ball was played wide to Stuart Dallas on the right, and Wootton, in the centre circle, saw the space open up around Dallas. And he ran for it; head down, in a straight line, like a dog across fields; you could almost hear his panting and excited yelps. And if Dallas hadn’t moved then Wootton, like a dog across fields, would have run straight into him, because all Wootton knew was that he was going to damn well run across this field, and he didn’t have a clue what to do when he got there. Jump up at Stuart Dallas and lick his face, perhaps.
Scott Wootton is a centre-half, and probably a decent one; there’s a strong case that he should be given a run there instead of Bellusci, Bamba or Cooper, who even in their best form — and Bellusci is probably in his best form at the moment — still look like they have a mistake in them (see Bellusci for Forest’s goal; not a mistake as such, but a defender in his best form ought to have had more to say about that). But then, from Liam Cooper’s point of view and mine, you have to remember that Wootton almost always has a devastating headbutt in him, and that trying him at centre-half would be a risk.
He’s more than tried at right-back now, and game after game it doesn’t work, and game after game the charade continues, and game after game teams do their homework on Leeds United and exploit his presence. I can imagine the Friday tactical presentation from opposition managers to their players: ‘Leeds will retain possession, but there won’t be much movement up front so the ball will eventually work its way wide to… ah ha ha, yeah, well, you’re not going to believe this, no that is a real slide, it’s not a joke… alright, come on lads, this is serious.’
Karl Robinson knew it when he brought Milton Keynes to Elland Road, and Dougie Freedman was all over it with Forest on Saturday; all over it, in the sense that he knew better than to do a single thing about it. Bridcutt and Diagouraga in the middle for Leeds allow the full-backs to get forward in the safe knowledge that one of the two will drop in to block any counter attacks, which is great for Charlie Taylor, but pure hell for Scott Wootton, and an absolute gift for opposition defences. Press Taylor, press Cook, press Doukara, mark Antenucci, and when the ball goes to Wootton, just let him have it, because he’ll give it back to you soon enough.
Wootton is not the only break point in this team, and he’s largely a side effect rather than a cause, but the maddening persistence of it is a draining feature of Leeds United’s play that is never addressed, and his presence causes problems. In the first twenty minutes, he’ll see a lot of the ball, and waste it; his team mates will then try anything they can to avoid giving him the ball again, and the defenders will ignore him, so that Stuart Dallas will find himself surrounded by opposition shirts and all the pathways to our forwards blocked, while behind him Wootton stands uselessly in acres of space, ignored by friend and foe alike. With the added pressure on Dallas, he becomes more likely to lose the ball, and then the opposition can counter — as Forest loved to do — straight down our left, and Wootton huffs his way back from upfield.
And then Steve Evans has the gall to claim he’d watched Nottingham Forest and knew how they’d play but thought Leeds would have enough to “pick them off.” Leeds adapted to Forest’s deep defending by playing right into their hands; Cook was anonymous because he was trying to play in the middle of their crowd of defensive players and couldn’t find space to receive the ball; Antenucci grew quickly disinterested, the collapse of his move back to Italy now compounded by the head coach’s withering criticism of the team’s attackers; Doukara was I think supposed to be playing left wing or striker or I dunno what. Dallas, without an overlapping right-back to relieve the pressure, couldn’t do anything when facing up to the Forest defence alone.
Nottingham Forest didn’t have to do a damn thing to win this game, and perhaps that’s why Steve Evans thought he could get away with saying he’d rather watch paint dry than watch them play; Nottingham Forest would probably rather play a game against some dry old paint, as it might present more of a challenge. Teams do look boring against Leeds United, because all they have to do is stand around watching while we give the ball to Scott Wootton, then attack us with more pace than we can handle. Why bother to do more?
The boos that ring around Elland Road after games these days aren’t just to do with the defeats; I found it hard to suppress a hoarse boo even after we beat Bristol City. Games get lost, that’s a fact of football, but fans do still go home content. But what we’re watching at Elland Road is absolute rubbish. In fifteen league matches at home United have scored twelve goals; well, ten, plus two own goals. In the nine games coached by Evans, we’ve scored eight, including those two owners. And he has the temerity to call other teams boring; or, as when Ipswich beat us, to claim their standards are not up to much.
If they’re so bad, Steve, why are they seventh and tenth and climbing, while Leeds are sixteenth and dropping? And Leeds are dropping. The spell of good results Evans did achieve look vital now because relegation is still there to be avoided this season, and I think Evans knows it. At the start of the January transfer window Evans wanted five or six new players; he got effectively two (one and two halves) and then after the Forest game accused fans who wanted more signings of wanting the club “to go to rack and ruin.” At the same time, though, he’s looking for up to four players in the emergency loan window; the window of clubs that are not planning for next season, or building for the future, but realise they have a very real situation to deal with now.
We need more quality. That’s why the pressure on Wootton is a discussion point. We also need more class. Evans and Cellino are our discussion points there.