leeds united 2-0 everton: ready?Back
As the games have drifted by, I’ve been stuck with a concern about how Leeds United were heading into a Championship season without any wins under their belt. Lining up against Burnley without knowing how it felt to win a match seemed, to me, like a risky policy.
Policy is the wrong word, of course; it was hardly like Uwe Rösler was instructing his side to get beaten. The games against Harrogate and York seemed intended to help the players get that winning, scoring feeling back in their boots, but they fluffed that, meaning they faced up to Eintracht Frankfurt, Hoffenheim and Everton with only a couple of draws to bolster their egos. And, after seeing Leeds chase Frankfurt around and resist the temptation to lose by six or seven, I didn’t hold out much hope for Leeds getting much out of the other pre-season opposition. Hoffenheim and Everton are, basically, better than us. You have to respect your league ladders.
But then I hadn’t taken into account that Everton had two first team friendlies scheduled for this past weekend, a squad split weakening their team for both; I hadn’t accounted for them being weakened further by the introduction of Tom Cleverley as a substitute. Perhaps I had also underestimated the work done to develop some steel in Rösler’s new Leeds United team.
United weren’t great. But against an Everton side that, if it played there every week, would probably finish in the upper reaches of the Championship, they showed enough steadiness and organisation to suggest Leeds shouldn’t finish too far behind them. They also scored two goals and conceded none, which is a useful first principle in any game of football.
Mowatt scored the first, but it could have been Byram, as they one and two’d through the Everton defence after Byram had already exchanged passes with Doukara. A bit like Doukara’s goal against Blackpool at Elland Road last year, the sudden outbreak of one touch passing had the fans throwing their hats in the air; I don’t want to take anything away from it, but I suspect that in a real game one or the other of Byram or Mowatt would have been clattered before they had a chance for too many of those sweet passes. It would probably have been Byram who took the brunt, as he had the best chance to shoot before playing the final ball to Mowatt who finished; and Sam is too fragile to be taking risks like that.
At the opposite end of the Ajax-1995 spectrum was Chris Wood’s first goal for Leeds, a good hard poke from distance that hit a defender and found the only gap possible between the keeper and the bar. They all count, to a striker, which is what Wood undoubtedly is, his runs and energy and, most of all, his goalscoring a refreshing sight in comparison to ol’ Morison. Ol’ Morison even came on at the end and got involved in a goalmouth scramble, eventually sending the ball over the bar from three yards just to underline the contrast between him and our new striker.
According to Rösler Alex Mowatt was operating as a second striker in the second half, which helps explain how come he was in the box to swap passes with Byram, and helped solve one of the problems with the formation Leeds are trying to adapt to. 4–3–3 looks a lot like 4–1–4–1 a lot of the time, with Tom Adeyemi breaking things up in front of the back four, and Chris Wood looking very lonely at times in attack.
The problem with this formation is that the margins for attacking error are reduced when you reduce your attacking players to one. I might be being mean about Doukara there, but the formation only allows for one striker, and the onus is then on the supporting players to either feed the ball to him with so much precision he can’t miss, or get the ball to him often enough for one of his chances to go in, or for either the striker or the midfielders to produce moments of magic. A shorter way of putting this is to say that our right-sided forward is a right-back, and the implications of that haven’t been fully worked out yet.
Stuart Dallas might help, if that deal gets over the line in time for him to prepare for Burnley. Leeds are organised and systemic and hard to break down, but they haven’t fully figured out how to get forward in support of Wood yet — who has only played today, and behind closed doors against Notts County in midweek — and they still lack a spark, a promise of class to leaven all the tidiness. Dallas might help bring the hidden Tavares out of Lewis Cook or Alex Mowatt.
Competitive football might do it, too. Nothing said preseason friendly with more certainty than the sight of Leeds wearing a change kit at home, even if that change kit is more recognisably a Leeds United kit than some of the home strips we’ve worn at Elland Road in recent seasons. More even than last summer’s foreign influx, that was overshadowed by the non-league influx to the coaching staff, this summer’s work has created a lot of talk around the football, and how heavy it’s going to be, how metal.
Questions haven’t been answered in preseason, but old Brer Optimism himself has been regularly by our side; a dangerous chap to have around for too long without a resolution. We’ll learn more against Burnley. I’m looking forward to finding out.