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leeds united 1-1 wigan athletic: no substitute

leeds united 1-1 wigan athletic: no substitute

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As my car creeped towards Elland Road, I heard Garry Monk saying something on BBC Radio Leeds about how there’s always a special atmosphere for night games, and I thought about the platitudes football managers trot out.

Some atmosphere. Thousands fewer in the ground than if it was a Saturday afternoon, many of them arriving irritated and tetchy after a day spent at work or commuting, followed by a rush to the game grinding to a halt in traffic; some of them caught out by the changing seasons regretting not wearing a winter coat; others wishing they’d had time for a pre-match pint and still more wishing they’d stayed in, with the telly, so they could watch Leicester City. Of all things.

Someone told us recently that Tuesday is the day they hate most, because by Tuesday all the optimism with which she starts the week has died. She would have felt right at home watching this game.

Of course, night matches can be wonderful and evocative occasions when they’re done right, but Leeds United didn’t do this match right. They were better than they were at Derby. The emphasis was on having the ball, rather than letting Wigan have it, although when Wigan had it, they were pretty rubbish about having it. One of their shots, taken on first time from the edge of the box, landed gently at the feet of Charlie Taylor in the left back position, and their passing wasn’t much better.

Kemar Roofe had replaced Alex Mowatt, so we had the treat of audible anticipation whenever he got the ball; something I always associate with Lee Sharpe. Roofe hasn’t yet had to endure the horrified outcries that used to rain upon Sharpe when that anticipation proved pointless, but he might get there. Or not; Roofe was fine, if still worryingly out of his depth against a side that should have been a bit more within his League Two capabilities.

It was Hadi Sacko who made the goal for Chris Wood, somehow. With space ahead of him down the right wing, Sacko booted the ball into it, and then began a forlorn race to get there before Wigan’s defenders. He didn’t, but the defender that did went for some weird stumble/slide thing so that the ball bounced off him, onto Sacko’s legs, back into his own face, off Sacko again and into space.

From here Sacko composed himself, took a good hard look at what was going on in the penalty area, and dug out a big cross to Wood at the back post. Wood controlled the ball with his chest, sending just to his side, where it could bounce a while before he swung a right boot to send it dipping firmly into a lovely big space in the goal. Keeper didn’t even dive; playground stuff, in the most fun way.

Leeds did step on it a bit after this, but this performance was only the inverse of the game aganist Derby in that we played more with the ball but it was still just as boring. There were chances; a looping header from Wood, who must have wished the cross for that one had been a bit lower so he could chest it down again; Ayling had a shot go just wide; Sacko got round his full-back and didn’t miss for once, but didn’t score either.

Wigan had chances too, hitting our post, and bringing a point-blank save a goal-line clearance out of Robert Green and Pontus Jansson. We even saw Jansson outmuscled by a Wigan forward, although all Pontus had to do was glare at him to send him tumbling prostrate at Green’s feet before he could become a danger.

Wigan were rubbish, but these chances must have lulled Garry Monk into a false sense of danger, as rather than send United firing forward again for a second goal, he encouraged sloth by making changes. Matt Grimes came on for Sacko, who wasn’t great but was okay, and was considerably more dangerous on the left wing that Grimes, on account of being a left winger. Alex Mowatt, who I’ve always thought looks and run a bit like Diego Maradona, came on for Pablo Hernandez, and looked and ran like Diego Maradona would now. Finally Marcus Antonsson was brought on for Chris Wood; I like Antonsson a lot more than I like Wood, but Wood was really good in this game, actually using his physicality to bully Wigan’s defenders, not an act Antonsson could emulate.

And lo, the inevitable pressure came, the ‘special atmosphere’ became a rash of anxiety, mistakes crept in, negative play took over, and it felt like a matter of when, not if, the kick in the teeth would come. Ah, the 91st minute, sir? The classic choice, I see sir is a connoisseur.

Garry Monk claimed afterwards that two of these changes were made “Because of physical situations”; not injuries, you understand, but “physical situations.” Maybe Hernandez needed a piss. Or maybe I don’t believe him anyway, because he makes these substitions all the time. He has subbed a winger in six of the last eight games; and he loves his little Mowatt for Hernandez or Grimes for Mowatt move with twenty minutes to go. I don’t think I’ve ever seen these changes result in anything in particular.

What they do result in, in a larger sense, is a tougher time for Sacko and Roofe in particular. These players are both headline arrivals, they both have potential, and they’re both struggling to different extents to really prove themselves as Leeds United players. I’m not sure that the uncertainty that must grip them, as each game passes the hour mark, when they wonder whether their number will go up, is going to help them much.

What it does in a specific sense, and did against Wigan, is a loss of rhythm, coherence and organisation. Anything good that Leeds had been doing in this game ended when Matt Grimes came on. That’s not an attack on Grimes, although I’m curious where Monk’s new faith in him has come from, given it looked to be all over when Grimes got through his debut at QPR, out of position, barely touching the ball; suddenly bringing Grimes on out of position is the done thing again. But it’s more that the style has to change, and the shape changes, and partnerships change, and a lot of adjustments are required, when we might be better served letting the first eleven get on with the task of walloping Wigan.

Monk rather smugly dismissed Adam Pope’s question for BBC Radio Leeds about whether Chris Wood’s absence had been a factor when Wigan equalised from a corner. The corner went deep to the back post where it was neatly headed back towards the penalty spot; it bounced, and Shaun MacDonald crashed it home. “It wasn’t in his area, so it wouldn’t have had any effect whatsoever,” said Garry; but the two players who were attacking the ball but missed when the ball was headed back into danger were Grimes and Antonsson, two of the players Monk had brought on — one of them for Wood — so his changes certainly did have an effect on United’s ability to defend that set-piece.

And that set-piece had the climactic effect on that special Tuesday night game atmosphere; ah yes, boos ringing round the old Elland Road ground as we draw dully against rubbish. And out we trudge into the streets again, to find cars, so that we can go and find closed motorways and park on them and seethe, thinking about work tomorrow and how far away the weekend feels. The weekend is Wolves. It was great when we won five games out of six, but if Monk wants to feel that special atmosphere again, he needs to steer clear of one win from five.

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