leeds united 0-1 wolverhampton wanderers: scenarioBack
There’s an indignity about playing Wolves. They turn up season after season, after ironing a sponsor onto their Puma teamwear kit, with an expensive team, managed by someone completely different to last time, never with a prayer of promotion. They’re a reminder that you’re in the Championship. They’re a warning that they could be you.
It’s been the same thing Wolves for what feels like decades now, since back when Steve Bull sacrificed his England career for just one more go at promotion… just one more crack… this season for sure. They rebuilt the stadium, they bought bigger names, they tried ever more extravagant names in the dugout. They even got promoted, but they still felt like the archetypal sleeping-giant Championship club, destined never to wake up.
The team they brought to Elland Road this Easter wasn’t their strongest; the defence lacked Danny Batth, their wings were without their expensive ex-Benfica stars, Hélder Costa (ten goals, eight assists, £13m) and Ivan Cavaleiro (five goals, five assists, £7m). They did include Andreas Weimann, destined to become one of those players who does the rounds of all the second-tier midlands clubs, because he won’t move house; and Ben Marshall, a million pound-ish January signing from Blackburn Rovers, a sort of Keith Andrews reboot. And they had Andy Lonergan in goal, to give Leeds a chance.
It’s a chance Leeds shouldn’t have needed. Did Garry Monk select United’s best team? It’s hard to say, after a season of weekly changes, but it is the first team that Monk seems willing to have settle on in quite some time. The only change at Newcastle was made because Ronaldo Vieira was ill; he disappeared from the squad entirely for this match, making his replacement by Bridcutt the only change in three matches.
Leeds also didn’t change from the way they played at Newcastle which, given the different standard of opposition, turned out to be a mistake. Newcastle are destined for the Premier League — although they’re having a good try at messing it up just now — with a team that would have done okay in that division this season, so it was understandable that Leeds should be second best in midfield, under pressure at the back, unable to create opportunities in attack.
It was less understandable against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wolves didn’t have an outstanding individual, and no real focal point of danger, and didn’t have what the game was crying out for: just one player to assert their authority and make things happen for their team. But neither did Leeds United.
Leeds did have Pablo Hernandez, and in the long run at St James’ Park that turned out to be crucial. But here we got all of the kicked-in-the-head Pablo, and none of the game-turning type, unless you count him turning the game, like the weans, against us. Hernandez had twice as much possession as any other Leeds player, but seemed twice as determined not to share a decent pass with anybody, although Kalvin Phillips and Liam Bridcutt did their best to emulate him.
Without any wolf-beating patterns to their play, the Leeds midfield became a centre of moaning and frustration, passes yards in front or behind, balls to the wing too slow to arrive. The latter has been a problem all season, and leads to Luke Ayling and Gaetano Berardi becoming too involved, ending up further forward in possession than the wingers they’re supposed to be supporting.
Leeds didn’t fall apart, but as the game wore on, they gradually disintegrated; three attackers behind Chris Wood became four, then Kyle Bartley moved into midfield, then as a second striker, with Robert Green talking to the bench about going forward for corners. All that was by the end, and had begun with Pontus Jansson striding forward into midfield in the first half, thrilling his way through a couple of tackles, then losing possession and leaving Bartley and Bridcutt to try to stop the counter-attack. They couldn’t, and Wolves scored; Marshall slid the ball into the space where Bridcutt was trying to replace Jansson, and Nouha Dicko shot past Green.
Green had already given Leeds two regulation destiny-altering saves, but in this case they only altered the size of the scoreline, rather than the result. After the game, the first half was placed into a category of its own — the “worst half of the season” at the “worst possible time,” according to Monk — but the second half only looked better because more was thrown at the game, in desperation. Leeds are desperate for every point, while Jansson was in desperate search of disciplinary points, doing everything he could to draw a booking out of a distinctly unhelpful referee, so he could get a suspension out of the way before the play-offs.
Leeds are now seventh, and neither Jansson’s grail-booking or play-off football now look like the inevitabilities they were a few weeks ago. The run-in is kind — Burton Albion, Norwich City and Wigan Athletic — compared to the teams around Leeds, who will be playing each other. Leeds target should be simple — win the last three games. But that could, until recently, have been paired with ‘keep doing what they’re doing’, which seems to have been Monk’s aim in recent weeks — name a consistent line-up, find some consistent form, keep doing what we do and go to the end of the season.
Carrying on as we are is the last thing we want to do after this weekend, but at the same time, what radical changes could guarantee results with three games left? That leads us — inevitably — back to the changes that could have been made in January, when the bigger decision to carry on with things as they were was made. We don’t yet know what that decision may ultimately cost Leeds United, but Messrs Radrizzani and Cellino need only look at Wolves, and this performance against them, to see one depressing scenario. It’s up to Garry Monk to write the scenario we want.
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