leeds united 2-0 burton albion: instant replayBack
I used to measure the darkness of the Evans and Milanic eras by the timing of the first replay on the big screen at Elland Road, when it wasn’t unusual for Leeds United to get through an entire game without doing anything that was working watching twice.
I counted again as Leeds played Burton Albion, and it was sixty minutes when we first got an action replay. This is perhaps the unspoken side of the recent run of good results that have taken United up to the edges of play-off contention; without coming up against any really good opponents, Leeds have won games without ever really looking brilliant — apart from in certain moments, that we’ll come back to.
The defensive stats lately look great on paper, but on the pitch it’s tended to mean some quiet games, save for when Pontus Jansson goes thundering through somebody. There were only brief flashes of that aggression against Burton, as what we had instead was a steady progression towards a clean sheet.
It was hard earned. Jansson was asked during the week who had been his toughest opponent in the Championship so far, but said that nobody yet had given him a problem. Chris O’Grady arrived determined to change that; presumably he’d heard about this physical presence in the Leeds defence, and decided that the way to play against him was to be even more physical. Although Jansson seemed subdued, perhaps with more concentration being asked of him than normal, O’Grady’s efforts didn’t work; he just kept fouling Jansson, who is exceptionally skilled at not fouling opponents, just hurting them instead. All O’Grady achieved was to make me hate him all afternoon, and I doubt he cares too much about that.
At the other end Burton brought an exotic three man defence with them from the sun-drenched climes of the Pirelli Calendar Stadium, which in the absence of other explanations I’ll assume was like kryptonite to Pablo Hernandez. For the first hour he couldn’t find space for a kick, and without that string pulling magic, there wasn’t much seen of Kemar Roofe or Hadi Sacko either.
It did make me wonder if there isn’t a plan B to try with Pablo sometimes. If things aren’t working for him at 10, the options are usually either a straight swap with Alex Mowatt, or to bring Marcus Antonsson on and go 4-4-2. Well, what about pushing Hernandez up with Chris Wood and trying a slightly more adventurous version of two up front? Sure, he’s already a winger converted into an attacking midfielder, but what’s one more conversion; and it need only be temporary.
It was when Hernandez started getting closer to goal around the hour mark that Leeds started to click. He wasn’t quite partnering Wood, but he was on the edge of the eighteen yard box — three of its four sides, but especially down the right — and started linking up with Luke Ayling and Sacko, and even Roofe when he wandered over to join in the fun, with Wood on hand for any possibilities.
It worked brilliantly for about fifteen minutes. Leeds weren’t just threatening Burton’s goal, they were dancing around it with flick knife in hand, ready to West Side Story it all the way down the street. Attacking with intent both to score and entertain! And this, from Leeds United. From Roofe, Sacko and Hernandez there were dummies, reverse passes, flicks, through balls, shots and close chances; and a fairly frustrated looking Chris Wood, wishing somebody would invite him to tango.
All this lasted for about fifteen minutes, until good ol’ Captain Pointless Subs decided he’d had enough of how well Roofe was starting to play and decided to replace him with Souleymane Doukara. Quite what inspired Garry Monk to make this particular change at this particular time is still beyond me, but it bloody well worked.
Eventually. Initially what it did was confuse an attack that had been showing good signs of getting it together to score, and take Pablo Hernandez back out of the game. Nobody seemed sure if Doukara was supposed to be playing on one of the wings, partnering Chris Wood or just generally getting in the way, and as Leeds lost their hard-sought fluency and momentum, I was fuming.
Then we scored, and what a goal it was. Then we scored again, and what a goal that was. The first is my favourite, not because of the transcendent vision and ability Hernandez demonstrated when he volleyed a first time into the path of Doukara, but for how deft it sounded.
First there was the meaty thump of Charlie Taylor’s pass from left-back to Chris Wood on the edge of the penalty area, like a thick rump steak hitting a butcher’s block. Wood’s first-touch lay-off sounded like a wooden mallet being brought down upon that same steak. And then, when Hernandez swivelled his foot through the ball and pushed it like a snooker safety through the Burton defence into the path of Doukara, there was no thump, no thud, no thwack, just the light, air-filled sound of a balloon coming to rest on a kitten’s back.
I’ve watched it frame by frame in close up and it’s ridiculous; it’s foot-golf more than football, and it’s not only exceptional, instant insight from Hernandez to see, in the half-second it takes for Wood’s pass to come near, the wonky lines of the Burton defence, the potential stored up in the position of Doukara before even Doukara had seen it; but not only to see, but to execute with such visual and audible finesse. Watching Pablo’s pass sets fire to my mind; I can smell it and taste it, it’s everything.
Chris Wood takes a different penalty every time and quite often these days he scores them — Doncaster seems so long ago now. His main contribution was yet to come, though, setting up Doukara for the second goal, although Alex Mowatt had a lot to do with that as well.
On as is customary in place of Hernandez, Leeds were as is customary clinging on to the 1-0 lead in injury time, and Mowatt as has never been customary channelled Pontus to hurl his body in the way of a by Jackon Irvine shot on the rebound after a Burton free kick, cleaning out O’Kane as he did so; the ball pinged around and eventually bounced off O’Kane and back in front of Irvine.
Mowatt, clambering out from under O’Kane like a superhero from under a flipped car, is still on his knees when Irvine eventually gets the ball under control. Like a sprinter from the blocks he is up instantly, and with no thought for his own health or Hadi Sacko’s, he dives feet first to block another shot.
Chris Wood, on the edge of the box, has no time to stare in wonder and ask, who was that capeless hero, and how did he diguise himself as Alex Mowatt? Instead he had some surprises of his own to pull; a surprising turn of pace, as the ran with the ball away from danger and up the touchline, and then a surprisingly well measured ball in front of Doukara, again, who had nobody between him and the halfway line and the goal.
Doukara was sent flying before he could score, as he was for the penalty, but if you’re not tired of surprises yet you might be interested to know that rather than stay down and plead for a second penalty, Doukara scrambled to his feet, raced the Burton defender for the ball, and poked it into the empty net himself.
As I wrote here last week, I didn’t see enough of the Norwich match to treat this new improved Doukara as anything other than a mass delusion brought on by hysteria, although I was prepared to grant prodigal licence to Marco Silvestri if he can continue to keep his head down and keep improving out of the limelight until Robert Green concedes the keeper’s jersey in the summer. After seeing Doukara for myself against Burton I’m still erring on the side of giddy hallucinations, but there’s no doubt that there was something going on there with a player who has been presumed to be only taking up space at Thorp Arch until we can move him on and get a proper striker.
Doukara has a longer road back from the Sick Six episode than Silvestri, quite simply because he bit a player last season, and that isn’t on. But he has, from time to time, seemed worth persevering with; mainly in his first season, when he and Mirco Antenucci scored daisy cutters from twenty yards in every game for a month.
This past week has been both the most positive trio of results we could have wished for, and a reminder that the improvements we’ve been seeing are being built on flimsy foundations. Silvestri and Doukara are the heros of the hour, but long-term and deep down they’re far from trustworthy; Jansson and Hernandez are dream players, but both are currently here on loan deals, along with much of the best of the rest of the new look side.
And our results have often been secured in spite of our performances, against sides that we had to beat if we don’t want severe problems this season; Wolves sacked their manager after losing to us, and Wigan sacked their’s even though we only drew. What lies ahead of us are contests against the top half, which may be a different proposition, that needs better answers than a late arriving Doukara.
Those, though, are the downbeats. The upbeats are that we begin to face up against the top half teams as a top half team ourselves, for the first time in the Massimo Cellino era. Our goal difference is positive, and so is the mood. If the football at times has seemed cranky, that’s understandable, as United have had to crank it out from under results and performances that, up to and including the Huddersfield game, were a warning and a worry.
And there have been moments, like Mowatt blocking two shots, Doukara kicking the corner flag down the left-wing in celebration, Hernandez contributing the pass of the season in front of us all, here an earth, a first-touch angel, as worthy of a big screen replay as any moment from the last however many seasons of drear and regret. Never ignore the good times; next week is next week.