leeds united 2-0 reading: jaap stam’s circus comes to townBack
Oh, but there haven’t been many laughs at Elland Road these past few years, and who could have predicted Leeds versus Reading would be the game to have the fans rolling in the aisles?
Reading tried it at their ground once, when their co-chairwoman Khunying Sasima Srivikorn decreed that the music video for her self-penned club anthem, They Call Us The Royals, have its debut just before a game against Leeds. You could hear the laughter up and down the Thames.
This time the fun and games were reserved for the match itself. Seeing the lineups, you half-suspected the Peacocks would be the joke; what other club would have spend its summer stockpiling midfielders, only for injuries to leave them with a midfield of strikers and wingers in a line between Ronaldo Vieira and Chris Wood?
But no, this night belong to Jaap Stam’s Travelling Circus of Hypnosis and Mystery, eleven men’s attempt to lift the famous gypsy curse from Elland Road will their bedevilling voodoo football. From the ten minute mark, when Reading settled into the game, to the last minute, the awed crowds cried the same question aloud, over and over: What the hell are they doing?
Total football was invented in the Netherlands, of course, and through its refinements at Ajax, Barcelona and in the Dutch national team, it has become the purist’s choice for beautiful, high attainment football. It’s not football, it’s a church. If Reading’s owners know as much about football as they do about pop music, I can only assume that they got as far as ‘Dutch’, ‘Manchester United’ and ‘Ajax’ on his Wikipedia page and decided, that’s the man for us.
This was total football, Jaap Stam style; total football as interpreted by a brutish central defender whose style of play reflected the songs we used to sing about the man: ugly. The game he brought to Elland Road was concentrated on possession to the exclusion of aught else, and concentrated on the defenders having possession to the almost total exclusion of their attackers and even of the Leeds United half of the pitch.
It was like some fiendish revenge of Stam’s upon every midfielder he ever played behind who didn’t give him the ball. Reading played the game according to their own Stam-imposed set of regulations where any pass over more than ten yards was a £500 fine, any pass to a forward player was a £500 fine, and any pass to the goalkeeper, Ali Al Habsi, was a £1,000 bonus.
It will have been a lucrative night for the Reading team. The internet tells me Al Habsi had 53 touches of the ball; their ‘forward’, Dominic Samuel, had 11. Joke heat maps have already appeared showing a straight hot red line along their twenty-five yard line from wing-to-wing; but that it is actually what Reading’s heat map looks like, with another equally hot spot in their own goal mouth.
Leeds used to try and play like this, under the guidance of chief advocates Dave Hockaday and Darko Milanic. The problem was, our players were crap, and couldn’t hold onto the ball anywhere near long enough for it to be anything other than a self-defeating exercise. Reading’s players are not crap — the team are third in the league — but they were almost too capable of holding onto the ball for their own good, passing it pointlessly among themselves while Leeds chose when and where to press, and when not to bother.
‘Get a tackle in Leeds!’ yelled a frustrated voice in the Kop as Reading stroked the ball back and forth; but there was really no point, and the crowd soon cracked on to the game. Even before Chris Wood gave United the lead — he wellied a loose ball into the roof of the net, if you’re interested — Reading’s passes were already inspiring half-hearted olés from the South Stand. By the midway point of the second half, it was full on raucous laughter.
Even if Reading play like this every week, they won’t have had a more appreciative audience for their efforts than the bastards of Elland Road. Every pass of every aimless, impotent, thirty-pass move, that took Reading ten yards forwards and back again, was oléd as if it was Revie’s Leeds themselves playing cruel keepball. A typical Reading ploy, moving the ball from inside Leeds’ half, via a dozen or so passes, back to their keeper, was cheered upon successful completion like a goal for United.
When Al Habsi, his options disappearing rapidly as Leeds marked his back four, eventually, after much indecisive to-ing and fro-ing, shanked the ball virtually onto Jaap Stam’s head, it felt like the roof was coming off. My personal highlight was when the right-back received the ball in Leeds’ half, deftly turned past Charlie Taylor and Stuart Dallas, then raced twenty-five yards along the wing back towards his own goal and passed to Al-Habsi. It was probably Reading’s best attack of the night.
I still have no idea what Reading hoped to achieve by all this, or why Stam didn’t change it when he saw United’s players weren’t going to fall into his hypnotic trap. He did eventually bring on a giant defender, Jake Cooper, and put him upfront, but Reading didn’t once try to put a ball on his head and all he did was upset Pontus Jansson.
That means we can’t say very much about Leeds United in this game, because they didn’t have the ball; 210 passes, to Reading’s 704. It was as if Leeds had wandered into a bizarre exhibition match by mistake, against the Haarlem Boretrotters, and their only job was to let the, er, entertainers have the ball and keep the crowd happy. A role that Garry Monk’s men fulfilled with aplomb.
A lot of humour does have its basis in discomfort, so it made sense that in the last fifteen minutes or so the slim 1-0 score made for an edgier atmosphere than Leeds fans had enjoyed up to then. Monk made a curious move, Alex Mowatt for Kemar Roofe, presumably to compensate for Roofe’s tired legs, but Mowatt didn’t look much fresher. For a while, Leeds were penned in their own half, and Reading had a chance or two; but then, you could still never tell whether they were going to ping a precise pass into our penalty area, or spin 180 and send the ball back to theirs.
Charlie Taylor gave the match the kind of closure that made the end of the Aston Villa game such a treat and made sure that our last thoughts should be about Leeds, rather than Reading. Like Hadi Sacko had been trying all night, and like the Reading players seemed to find it impossible to do, Taylor grabbed the ball wide on the left and zipped, zigzagging between defenders, into the box. It was an obvious penalty, and Taylor wanted to take it himself; Wood was off with a worrying injury, so Souleymane Doukara crashed it home.
Pontus went crashing towards the Kop to celebrate, then when Reading found enough within themselves to go forward for a consolation goal, Pontus threw his body at it, blocked it, and then went crashing towards the South Stand to celebrate. Which is exactly what you want from a massive hardman defender, which is something Jaap Stam might want to take note of.
But then again, Jaap Stam said after the game that it was one of Reading’s best performances of the season. So I basically have no idea.