leeds united 2-1 bristol city: do what you gottaBack
Garry Monk had to change things after Saturday, and not only because Liam Bridcutt was suspended.
I don’t think I mentioned it when writing about the game against Cardiff, but the ending had stayed with my mood since; moving nearer an exit for that on-the-whistle getaway, I was slumped on a bit of wall, chin in hand, staring at something in between me and the green grass — I think it was some players from Leeds United Football Club — feeling all the glumness of the last few seasons returning in one big, gut wrenching ball.
And we couldn’t have that again, so Monk changed it. Eunan O’Kane was Bridcutt’s replacement; Hadi Sacko and Kemar Roofe replaced Alfonso Pedraza and Stuart Dallas on the wings; and Pontus Jansson, the man everybody wants for their Valentine — including, thankfully, Kyle Bartley — replaced Liam Cooper in defence.
That set Leeds on a much better course than against Cardiff, closely replicating the side that got United up from fifteenth to the play-offs in the first place. It’s kinda something you have to whisper, because nobody wants it to be true, but one thing that Bridcutt’s performance against Cardiff reminded me was that the big push happened while he was out injured, and that there’s an argument — again, I mean, it’s only a theory — but there’s an argument that we might play better without him. He’s club captain, though. Also, he’s a really good player. But still.
Against Cardiff Bridcutt’s constant troubling of our own central defenders seemed to pull our players too far apart and keep our passing in the worst kind of Jaap Stamish zones, and against Cardiff, Leeds were much further up the pitch, at least in the first half. The problem that wasn’t solved, however, was the distances between the players, which even when physically small seemed, to them, psychologically more than they could imagine overcoming.
Chris Wood, who is now used to both playing upfront on his own and the idea that, to be good at it, he has to work really hard, was working really hard as is now usual; but he’d be the only player in the Bristol penalty area, twenty or thirty yards away from his teammates. Most of them would be watching as Pablo Hernandez, back on his game, pirouetted in the centre circle trying to spot a white shirt on the horizon, unwilling or unable to run nearer to him and, y’know, help him.
The player who needed most help, but couldn’t help himself, was Hadi Sacko. Being reunited with Luke Ayling did both of them good down the right, but if Ayling wasn’t there for the overlap, for whatever reason, Sacko seemed unsure what to do, and lacking in nearby players to help him. He’d face up to a defender and think about taking them on, and if he did it, he usually got past them; but he seemed to only want to take a player on if he was already running, and too often he was given the ball in a position that meant he had to stop to receive it.
There was too much of that; players stopped still, gazing into the distance, trying to work out how to pass to a teammate. It affected Kemar Roofe, too, although he always had enthusiastic help from Gaetano Berardi, and more willingness to try things, which meant he made more obvious mistakes. It was frustrating, because Sacko and Roofe both played well, but couldn’t make things click; and without that click, the game as a whole was becoming frustrating to watch.
Bless, then, Pablo Hernandez; you could overdo the comparisons, but Gordon Strachan used to love a quick free kick when the opposition weren’t ready, and that’s how Hernandez made the opening goal for Wood; as O’Kane mulled, Hernandez acted, and found Wood on his wavelength, away to receive the ball as soon as it was struck through the unready defence to him, determined enough to shove his marker away as he shot past the goalkeeper. Bristol’s players and manager complained at the cheek of it all, but they were wrong to, because that was the best part.
There was a certain amount of cheek to the goal Hernandez scored himself to make it 2-0. There’d been some dread thoughts as United failed to score again before half-time, and Bristol attacked first in the second half, worrying Robert Green and worrying me. Hernandez settled things down, taking the ball and sizing up his dribbling options from the edge of the box, then deciding to shoot instead, wrongfooting the defenders and getting a deflection on the ball to send it in.
2-0 was businesslike, and 3-0 would have been better, and Wood would have certainly scored the penalty that should have been given for a blatant handball in front of the South Stand; from the opposite end of the ground it was clear that the defender’s arm had been away from his body in one of those ‘unnatural positions’ that ensure the penalty you’re given isn’t just certain but stoneclad and heavy as an anvil. Leeds weren’t given it, so the final half an hour became all about Robert Green.
Well, Robert Green and Mo Barrow. Mo Barrow first; he came on to take advantage of how much space Bristol were leaving at the back for Leeds to counter-attack into, and when he could, he did a decent job of it. Our first proper sight of what he can do came when he got the ball on the halfway line, burned towards goal, poked the ball past a defender to chase it on the other side, and was blocked off. He played for it, but it was given, and it was dangerous. Also dangerous was his defending in the left-back position when, facing the Kop, he elected to cannon the ball as hard as he could off the nearest Bristol player and see where it ended up; in our penalty area, as it happened, where Jansson, Bartley and Green had to scramble to get it clear.
There was a lot of scrambling in that last half an hour. Robert Green makes me nervous; not in a Marco Silvestri way, because you know what to expect with Silvestri: if it’s a long shot, he’ll save it, if it’s a cross, he won’t catch it, if he has to communicate something, it’ll be wrong. With Green, apart from those weird medium-range shots that seemed to be hypnotising him earlier in the season, you can normally be sure he’ll get to the ball, but it’s what happens next that gives me palpitations; will he catch it safely? Palm it to a striker? Tip it over the bar? Drop it at someone’s feet?
There was a bit of Green inspired pinball early in the second half, when he saved well but then had to save again, because he’d let the ball roll ahead of him. That was no good for my nerves as Bristol began to turn the screw and start a fightback, learning from Leeds and trying quick free kicks of their own; but the more I flinched, the more saves Green made, until I set my fears aside long enough to realise — he was actually having a really good game.
It should have earned him a clean sheet, and a volley hit his bar in injury time, it felt like nothing was going in that goal for Bristol. Apart from, it turned out, when they scored with the final touch of the game — either a header or a kick, I’m not sure and I don’t care — a goal even the Bristol fans didn’t seem to celebrate for about a minute. Which makes you wonder if it was even worth scoring at all.
Maybe it’ll help Leeds more than it helped Bristol City. 2-0 and cruising would have flattered United, whereas 2-1 means we have to discuss this game the way that it was. Better, even good at times, but workmanlike and too stressful; and beset with small problems that are consistent across teamsheets, such as that lack of a ‘click’ in attack, the players’ reluctance to get close to each other and be available for a pass, the reliance on Pablo Hernandez to either score, or make a goal from a setpiece. All that needs some work.
But 2-1 also means we won, as we had to win, so all that can be put in its place, dealt with in due course, and be part of what I’m sure Garry Monk loves to call the process of improving Leeds United.