leeds united 0-2 newcastle united: experience the fairytaleBack
The full house didn’t so much melt away from Elland Road after this match as congeal around the drains, slowing the already sluggish march away from the ground.
What we’d forgotten about sell out crowds in LS11: the clogged roads that are easy to navigate afrer a win, but that paint your mood to match the tarmac after a defeat.
Leeds United have the crowd, then, if they want it, even if Beeston doesn’t quite have the infrastructure; the increase in noise inside the stadium at the start of the game suggested the majority were not newcomers, but returnees, as did the drop to grumbling when the game started going against us; folk who know the drill and know the songs but haven’t seen enough at Elland Road that they could recognise as Leeds United to make it worth coming over much of the last few seasons. They were back, and if things are good, they’ll come back again.
What we don’t have is the team. Newcastle United do have it, and they spent a fortune to get it, and it’s put them top of the league and sent them home from his game with a comfortable three points. Leeds weren’t a long way from them in this game, but I wouldn’t be surprised should there be a league between us this time next season.
Dwight Gayle, Ayoze Perez, Jonjo Shelvey and the rest have the experience and the confidence that comes with being in a team of Premier League quality players dominating the division below. Which essentially translates to arrogance that allows them to play without fear. Although after their decisive second goal, as they celebrated in front of the Kop, Pontus Jansson walked slowly into the crowd of Newcastle players and singled out Shelvey for a particular Pontus warning; Shelvey barely came near Leeds’ eighteen yard box again after that, but the damage had already been done.
Robert Green didn’t actually have much to do, but when he did have to do it, he didn’t do it well enough; not just the mistake for the opening goal, but his distribution, his dithering on the ball that caused panic in his own defence; but then, especially the mistake for the opening goal, when he should have used whatever volleyball technique necessary to send the football anywhere else but where he dropped it to Gayle. Other than that the defence was solid enough, and Luke Ayling was able not only to perform well at right-back but to attempt to stamp some authority in midfield when he could.
At the other end, meanwhile, Chris Wood, who I have and will frequently criticise, had an excellent game despite knowing that he was extremely unlikely to score. With that thought in his mind, he set about doing everything else he could to affect the game, and deserves credit for not giving up on what was a day, for him, of lost causes. He should by rights have had a penalty to score, but the referee was no friend of Leeds.
But it was the contrast between Shelvey and the Leeds midfield that best accounts for where Leeds lost this game. There’s a question about whether Shelvey should have been man-marked, but he was doing a marking job of his own on the referee that ensured he was in charge in the middle of the pitch, and Eunan O’Kane, Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips between them couldn’t nullify his influence.
Phillips in particular was poor, and attracted the ire of the home fans. I was mystified that Garry Monk left him on for the full ninety, until it occurred to me that Monk might have been protecting Kalvin from jeers or ironic cheers that might have risen with his number on the fourth official’s board; which, poor as he was, Phillips wouldn’t have deserved.
It wasn’t so much his set pieces, although many of these were not good enough; in a sustained period of pressure at the end of the first half, he did send in several good corners, that should be taken into account. What were hard to take were the number of 50/50 challenges that Phillips lost, and the number of times he didn’t make the wrong decision but failed to make any decision and, as a result, lost the ball. He held his own, just as O’Kane and Vieira held their own; but all three gave the impression of only holding their head above water that the Newcastle players were surfing across, and Phillips looked most likely to be sucked under.
It’s important not to be too critical. The blame for an off game against the best team in the league, if there’s to be any, doesn’t lie with the players as individuals, but with the injuries to Pabloe Hernandez, Liam Bridcutt and Stuart Dallas that have left Leeds relying on inexperienced youngsters trying to step up in class. I made this point after the Wolves game, when the same players were able to use their freshness and the team’s momentum to get a good away win. But the flipside of fresh youth is naivety, a virtue that would always struggle against Newcastle’s grizzled cynicism.
Leeds’ ideal midfield for this match would have been Bridcutt alongside O’Kane, with Hernandez ahead behind Wood; Dallas would take a wing, while Roofe, Souleymane Doukara and Hadi Sacko disputed the other; and the balance of age and experience would have been much more in Leeds’ favour. Roofe has played 16 times in the Championship, Phillips has 28 career appearances, Vieira 11; Dallas’ 197 career appearances, Hernandez’s 283 and Bridcutt’s 213 would have got Leeds closer to Shelvey (208), Colback (240), Gouffran (348) and Ritchie (319).
It’s not only about transfer fees and wages, but in a game of eleven against eleven, it’s about having seen it and done it; it’s about titles and successful promotions and international appearances. Newcastle had all of that in the middle of the park; O’Kane has played 236 games and been promoted from League One and won the Championship with Bournemouth, but he could have used some help.
Leeds go to St James’ Park in mid-April, by which time Newcastle might well have the Championship all sewn up. Leeds, on recent evidence, and despite this defeat, are capable of still being where they are now: among the play-off places, in the best of the also-rans trying to get up in Newcastle’s wake. If players like Hernandez, Bridcutt and Dallas are fit and working again, it might be a better indication of the distance between Leeds and the Premier League, at a time when, hopefully, we’ll still be in with a chance of reaching it.