leeds united 1-0 derby county: yeeeeeerrrssBack
Statistics can, as Reading have recently shown to great effect against Leeds United and then this week against QPR, be used to suck all the joy and fun out of the game of association football.
But on other occasions, like when you’re left breathlessly lost for words, unable to adequately describe a football team’s brilliant performance, stats can be the language that you otherwise can’t access that can describe, at least in part, the wonder that you’ve seen.
A thousand corners. One hundred attempts. 99% possession and a galaxy of passes. And, importantly, one goal. And that was only the first half.
Derby County did attempt a rally after half-time; with two substitutions and Steve McClaren’s teacups flying around their ears, they put up a temporary show of opposition to Leeds United. But it was all a fake, a hideous, beautiful fake. They couldn’t keep it up and they couldn’t win, because this Friday night belonged to one team only.
It’s impossible to know whether, with a makeshift defence of youth players, ex-Arsenal youth players all grown up, and Swiss psychopaths, the message was given by Garry Monk to keep the pressure off the United defence by piling it on County’s. But that’s what happened. In the first half Leeds had total control and Derby were totally whipped, and the second half was mostly more of the same, as Derby visibly wilted.
It isn’t possible without, reviewing the tape, to describe every chance that Leeds created, or go into detail about how often and how close they came to scoring. The big screen at Elland Road helped, or hindered, replaying in excruciating slow motion how Kyle Bartley screwed a chance wide when the goal was gaping; but that was only the most blatant chance, not the best.
The best was the one Chris Wood scored. Wood, whose ability with his head I’ve often doubted — while noting his ruthless efficiency with his feet, especially from one or two yards — rose and twisted and nodded and diverted the ball perfectly past Scott Carson, minutes before half-time, and nobody should doubt either the quality of the goal or the significance of its timing.
Nil-nil at half-time would have been unjust, but likely. A 1-0 lead meant United had something to grip in the second half, and that goal’s demoralising power contributed to Derby’s lameness.
Another contributor was the referee. Mr Scott Duncan, I will name you here by name, and salute you, for committing the rare act of awarding to Leeds United every free kick that we were, by the laws of the game, due. Ever ready to roar at another injustice, I was repeatedly sat down by the referee’s insistence on giving a free kick, rightfully, to Leeds United. Sending off Bradley Johnson was perhaps more gilding than the lily required — I’ve never had a particular problem with Bradders, and I mean, that goal against Arsenal, and I mean, I barely even noticed he was playing — but it was appreciated.
Other nods must go to the defence; Bartley, for his mature calm; Ayling, for when he popped up in the Derby penalty area, an outright danger; Berardi, for not killing Tom Ince; and Lewie Coyle, whose youth didn’t show. In midfield, Bridcutt was all captain, and Vieira was all dominant, wayward sometimes with his passing but never with his confident interceptions or his keen dominance.
The chief contributor, though, was Pablo Hernandez, fresh with his new contract, having one of his Strachan games. Playing as a number ten, like Reading’s tactics, can become more about fashion than effect; but Hernandez made his game about chasing and supporting every one of his team mates in attack. He was the first line of defence and counter attack behind every gesture of Wood — who was relentless — Roofe — who was excellent — and Doukara — who was a different player to the one who turned out against Cambridge — and with his instinctive ability to embrace a football and use it with great menace, Hernandez gave Derby a problem they may not have expected lurking behind the tall threat of Wood.
That, overall, Derby didn’t seem to expect any of what Leeds United threw at them shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; it wasn’t anything many Leeds fans were expecting, either. And without diminishing the tactical plans of Monk, Clotet, Beattie et al, I have to wonder if even they expected this level of performance. We’ve had no reason in recent seasons to expect that, against expensively assembled play-off rivals — go google what Derby paid for Bradley Johnson — Leeds should play so well that their opponents look like a broken kids’ team not by the end, but within half an hour of kick off.
But we, as fans of Leeds United, have had every reason to expect that our team should play this way, ever since Don Revie changed the kit from blue to white and decided Jack Charlton, already a veteran of Leeds United’s Second Division defence, should play football for England, and that Leeds United should play football that was better than anybody else’s. But our expectations, for many years, have not been met.
That’s why this victory over Derby County wasn’t only a joy for the comprehensive win that it was. The indescribable manner of victory — seriously, I doubt anything I can write here can compete with a video of the game — took Leeds United not only back to a place where it meets the fans’ expectations, but where it exceeds them, crushes them, and leaves us thrilled.