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leeds united 2-1 barnsley: too good

leeds united 2-1 barnsley: too good

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By now you’ve probably heard about how good Leeds United were in this game; that this, the fifth win in six matches, was the best of the lot.

You’ll have heard that Chris Wood and Hadi Sacko were a constant danger in attack, that Kalvin Phillips was everywhere having his best game yet in a Leeds shirt, that Garry Monk has transformed Leeds United as if by magic — but more likely through hard work and self belief — from the side that collapsed and disappointed against Huddersfield, into a team that dominated Barnsley from start to finish and took home a well deserved three points.

None of that’s quite right. Barnsley, in the first half, were excellent; they lived up to their just like Brasil boasts, keeping possession for long stretches, frustrating Leeds’ attempts to attack by placing a solid mass of players in front of their own goal, and breaking dangerously.

Wood and Sacko were ludicrously wasteful, especially in the second half, missing a big bundle of good chances; Phillips was everywhere, but his mistakes were many, to be expected from a youngster, but still. As for Monk, his second half substitutions took the sting out of Leeds’ attack, as they did in the closing stages against Ipswich, changing the formation to the discomfort of 4-4-2, inviting pressure and making too close a finish of a game that should have been put away early.

That’s what it was actually like. And it’s important to make all that clear, because it only makes the overall performance and final result even better.

Leeds were great. The best part of the first half was, in fact, that Barnsley had the best of it but Leeds ended it with the lead: after Charlie Taylor charged to the byline and won a corner, Kyle Bartley charged to the front post to flick Pablo Hernandez’s cross into the goal with his left foot. It was neatly taken, and in the context of the overall game, practically stolen.

Which was great, because in times not so long ago Leeds would have crumbled under the kind of pressure Barnsley put us under and gone in at half-time one or two goals down, to a murmur of boos. Instead Barnsley were restricted to long range shots and half-chances, and with a goal behind us the feeling was that, no matter how well Barnsley were playing, United had the advantage and enough to see them off.

In the second half it was Leeds who looked most lively, and if Wood and Sacko were wasteful — and they were, and have been in the last three games — it was only visible because Leeds were creating chance after chance. Sacko terrorised his full back, but didn’t get the result; hopefully that’ll come.

Wood, meanwhile, was more mobile than usual, still not winning many headers, and still not the guy you want on his own thirty yards from goal with the ball at his feet, but the Barnsley defence didn’t like him. I’ll give Wood some rare praise, from me, for his role in the second goal in particular. Robert Green cleared the ball and, although Wood’s marker headed it clear, he’d followed Wood so far out of position to do it that it left a lovely gap through the middle for Eunan O’Kane to loft the ball towards Hernandez. It was the very definition of occupying the centre-half, and Wood did it well.

Hernandez had already gone close, shimmying through a crowd of defenders and shooting just wide from inside the penalty area. This time, as he controlled O’Kane’s pass, he only had the keeper to beat and less shimmying to do: he stepped to the side and to the side and clipped the ball around the keeper, exactly as he had to do, exactly as you hoped he’d do, exactly as he can do. Hernandez is playing very well; although he was giving the ball away as much as anybody in the first half, he more than made up for any steps he put wrong.

As was the case with Phillips. Leeds struggled with Barnsley’s midfield in the first half, which forced Phillips into a physical battle, which he is good at; what he’s less good at is keeping the ball when under such pressure, so he’d win midfield challenges but then give the ball straight back to Barnsley, or pass it to O’Kane, Hernandez or Stuart Dallas and then they’d give it back to Barnsley, putting Phillips under pressure again.

Phillips rightfully earned man of the match nominations not because he was faultless, but because he didn’t give up even when his faults were exposed, and because in the second half, when Leeds were the better team, his passing and influence grew steadier.

That’s the context with which United should be praised for this recent run of form. They shouldn’t be described as faultless — well, maybe Pontus Jansson, but he’s exceptional in every way — and the ‘other’ match of September, the Huddersfield horror, shouldn’t be forgotten. But Leeds have overcome, first, the challenge of bouncing back from that defeat, completely changing formation and tactics, adapting quickly, and becoming formidable; and second, the challenges they face game by game, as a group of players striving to improve, for whom confidence has obliterated faults, but who haven’t become world-beaters overnight. In other words, they’ve had to work hard for this, and to praise them without criticism would diminish that effort. Results are sweeter when they don’t come easy.

The end of the game was hard work, too. United last fifteen minutes with the comfort of 2-0, before Cole Kpekawa overlapped his way past Luke Ayling, and his cross went in the net off Taylor. It was a pretty tawdry goal to concede, and although Ayling has been decent at right-back, you wonder what Gaetano Berardi might have done about it.

That prompted a change to 4-4-2, with Marcus Antonsson replacing Hadi Sacko, and Leeds immediately looked less dangerous, which allowed Barnsley to spend the last fifteen minutes threatening an equaliser. Praise be to Pontus Jansson, and the brave parents who begat and raised him, for clearing the ball off the line in the closing stages.

There has been a lot of pressure on Garry Monk since, well, since the Fleetwood game, when Massimo Cellino was apparently giving out to journalists that he was thinking of sacking him, regardless of how sincere that thought — or any of Cellino’s thoughts — was. Immediately after the Huddersfield game it seemed like the pressure was too much for him; the infamous ‘identity’ interview felt like the start of a closing chapter.

Under that pressure, though, Monk has been brave to return to his plan A, and his identity and style, and he’s had the rewards; five wins in six matches is the kind of stuff that gets manager of the month awards, and also gets the club’s owner off your back and the fans on your side. And yet, when Leeds are defending a lead, Monk can’t resist the urge to revert to the 4-4-2 that didn’t suit him or his players. Sacko, for all his wastefulness, occupied the Barnsley defenders far more effectively than Antonsson, or Kemar Roofe when he came on; and against Ipswich and now Barnsley, good home wins have come perilously close to becoming frustrating home draws.

At least it makes things exciting. 27,350 people came to see this game — according to the second announcement, anyway, that added 300 souls — the biggest crowd in the Championship, and bigger than four of the weekend’s Premier League attendances. Apart from the Barnsley contingent, they enjoyed themselves, liked watching the football, were gripped to the end and happy about the result, and went home clapping and singing and looking forward to coming again.

Speaking of home brings us back to the start of the match, and the minute’s applause to mark the recent loss of Duncan Revie, Don’s son. His son, Aidan, was by the side of the pitch to observe it, and the moment was a sad but timely reminder of some truths about Leeds United. As far as I’m aware Duncan never held an ‘official’ position at Leeds United; but he was Don Revie’s son, therefore, he was part of the family. I don’t know how many other football clubs would feel the death of a former manager’s son so keenly; but then, not many other football clubs had managers like Don Revie, or were families more than football clubs, the way Revie’s Leeds were.

Every football club claims its own exceptionalism, builds its own mythology, but at Leeds United there really is something precious, something you can’t casually buy or sell any part of. We haven’t seen much of that something at Elland Road in recent years; let’s hope that the good we’ve seen in the last three weeks is allowed to flourish over the bad we’ve also seen, and doesn’t prove to be a fleeting glimpse.

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