leeds united 1-0 brentford: winning anywayBack
The theme of the week at Elland Road has been boredom, after Reading’s non-performance and Jaap Stam’s weirdly personal defence of it. For most of this game, Brentford and Leeds United stayed stoically on trend.
Through heavy-lidded eyes, smoking thin French cigarettes, the crowd shrugged and contemplated the last Saturday before Christmas, spent redefining ennui through the medium of second division football.
This was nowhere near the relentless neggy vibes that Reading brought, though. Leeds were their usual selves but Brentford were unusually stout, and without Chris Wood in attack United struggled to do anything but bore. Passes swayed from side to side, defender to defender, but only because Brentford made passing forward so difficult.
Souleymane Doukara, playing up front alone in Wood’s place, was up against three centre backs and didn’t seem to fancy it much. He didn’t want a scrap, he wanted the ball, so he would wander off into midfield and to the wings to try and get it. That ought to have given Kemar Roofe the chance to burst through from the number ten position, but Roofe always had two markers and had to make his game about quick layoffs, unable to get possession.
Unfortunately for Roofe, Kalvin Phillips in particular wasn’t on the same quick-thinking wavelength, and so most attacking attempts dwindled. It’s become something of a fashion to harsh on Phillips but he had such an undisguised dodgy first half here that he was harshing on himself by the end of it; throwing his hands in the air as his wayward passes buzzed out of play, staring at the sky wondering why he couldn’t pass a ball ten yards anymore.
Brentford got the ball in the net just before half-time when Phillips switched off and failed to track a wide runner from an intelligent Brentford freekick, but when the ball was crossed for Scott Hogan to finish, he was well offside. That, and a brief burst of attacking at the start of the second half, were reminders that Leeds still had to be careful at the back. Brentford were capable of playing through Leeds’ defence, but incapable of staying onside.
The second half snoozed along in much the same way as the first, and overall the match asked a question about Garry Monk’s ability — or perhaps willingness — to change a game. With Chris Wood injured Leeds needed a new solution in attack, and Doukara on his own against the massed Brentford defence never really worked. And yet Marcus Antonsson stayed on the bench until the last ten minutes, and replaced Doukara when he came on, as Monk resisted any thought of letting Antonsson and Doukara take on the Brentford defensive three together. Earlier in the season Monk was vehement in his 4-4-2, until it became too painful and he eventually reverted to his favoured 4-2-3-1 identity; perhaps he needs to be less cautious about switching between the two when circumstances dictate.
One change did have a positive influence; when Liam Bridcutt replaced Phillips with twenty minutes to go, the midfield changed altogether. Bridcutt was like a magnet to a ball full of iron filings, taking it and giving it and raising the tempo. Phillips and Ronaldo Vieira have done well overall this season, but this glimpse of Bridcutt showed us what a serious tilt at promotion might look like.
With composure and a higher tempo, Luke Ayling and Hadi Sacko began to dominate down the right. Ayling should have scored twice; first, when he controlled a deep corner on his chest at the far post, and Marco van Basten’s life flashed before his eyes as he blazed a half-volley into the Kop. Then, after Sacko kept a wayward pass in play on the Brentford goal line, Ayling collected the loose ball and Gary McAllister’s life flashed before his eyes as he attempted to stab a shot with the outside of his right boot inside the Brentford goal.
Sacko still can’t find a final ball, but his love of a lost cause makes him impossible for defenders to deal with. Brentford’s full-back kept collapsing under Sacko’s pressure, and that led to the match-winner corner. Sacko and Stuart Dallas had been trying cute short corners all game, but this time they caught Brentford’s defence asleep. Dallas’ cross was too high for Pontus Jansson at the near post, but just behind him was Kyle Bartley, who nodded the ball sweet and square into the near top corner of Brentford’s goal. Their keeper, Daniel Bentley, was still waiting for the ball to arrive when Bartley and the rest were rolling in the grass in front of the East Stand celebrating the winner.
Although Bartley issued some stern calm down instructions to his team mates after that, and United had to resist Brentford for a few minutes now the Bees’ time-wasting tactics were out the window, it was only a temporary interruption to his match-winning grin.
While the game wasn’t much fun, the win was as enjoyable as they come; spoiling Brentford’s attempts to spoil the game and get a 0-0, and securing fifth place as a Christmas present to ourselves, and doing it through a last minute winner from one of this season’s most popular revelations, made for a very festive feeling at 5pm and into the night.
This game demonstrated a lot of the reasons why Leeds United shouldn’t be able to go up this season; inexperience in midfield, a lack of Wood alternatives in attack, Monk’s occasional resistance to change. But United won anyway, which has been the key in the last couple of months; whatever the sense of it, whatever the adversity, Leeds are winning anyway. Long may the winning continue.