leeds united 3-0 rotherham united: carry onBack
By the end every third pass was a backheel, every second pass a flick; every foul was against Leeds United, for a player zealously chasing a stray backheel or flick that had erroneously found a Rotherham foot.
By the end it was wonderful, as befitted one of the most attacking United lineups seen at Elland Road since the days of Simon Grayson, although that lineup turned out to be attackingly weak. Fortunately, unlike the days of Grayson, it was defensively stout, long enough for Garry Monk to work some half-time hat magic that ensured a confident, cheerful, inspiring first 3-0 win of 2017.
That first half can’t pass without comment. Garry Monk is a young manager and he’s learning, and we’ve seen plenty of mistakes from him this season; every game up to and including Huddersfield at home, basically. Here perhaps was another blunder; assuming Leeds could steamroller bottom of the table Rotherham simply by selecting all the attackers and leaving Liam Bridcutt on his own in front of the defence.
It didn’t work. Bridcutt is working his way back from injury and has barely played this season; he doesn’t look sharp yet. Likewise Pablo Hernandez, sent out to make the play, but sent out on a different wavelength to everyone around him, either through excessive talent, or like Bridcutt a lack of sharpness. On this occasion I suspect it was the latter.
Good forward passes were being played by Hernandez, but they were being played five yards away from their intended targets. Chris Wood and Kemar Roofe were paired up front but they barely had a touch as the ball was always slightly out of their reach. Such gifts of possession allowed Rotherham to attack and Bridcutt found them too much to deal with alone; the better chances of the first half were Rotherham’s. Admittedly it was a rebound from a freekick, but Brown, their loanee from Chelsea, hit the post. That was too close.
It wasn’t their only chance. One shot went just over the bar; another chance was prevented when Kyle Bartley swooped across the eighteen yard box to sweep the ball off a striker’s feet before he could go one on one with Robert Green. One Rotherham player even attempted a scorpion kick as a corner flew across the box; although he was miles away from connecting, he should have been miles away from even thinking that was a good idea, even with everything he’d seen on the gogglebox over Chrimble.
Garry Monk is learning from stuff like this and to be fair he’s not waiting for the lessons to sink in. Ronaldo Vieira was an essential introduction, and while a knock to Hadi Sacko might have forced Monk into at half-time, Garry resisted the urge to go like-for-like and instead reverted Leeds to the Wood upfront template that has been so successful. And within minutes Leeds led.
It was scored from a corner, but credit is due for the force with which United began the half. Credit is also due to Pablo Hernandez, for the pinpoint danger of the ball he delivered, but most of all to Kyle Bartley, who began his run from the edge of the penalty area and read the flight of the cross so accurately that his header into the top corner from five yards out was a simple but glorious nod of his nut. He barely broke stride, Bartley, for god’s sake. It was great, great stuff, as good a goal as you’d want from a corner, and following Jansson’s at Villa Park — and his follow up attempt that hit the bar — a pleasing sign that United are paying attention to the value of basics, like scoring from corners. That, over the course of the season, can be worth a lot.
Because you can’t always rely on Chris Wood to do what he did twenty minutes later for 2-0, because if you could, he’d be in the Giroud leagues. From Bridcutt’s cross Wood controlled the ball audaciously on his chest, holding off the defender until it dropped again within range of his fluttering right boot, that became hefty machinery when he crashed the ball past the Rotherham goalkeeper. Wood relies on service but here his only helper was himself; as soon as Bridcutt crossed, Wood had a plan, and he executed it with ballistic precision.
Wood’s second, and Leeds’ third, was a simpler affair: Luke Ayling set Roofe clear down the right, and his cross was swept home by Wood from close range. The video should be part of Hadi Sacko’s homework for the rest of the season. This goal declared the game firmly in Leeds’ favour, but they’d already brought out the bunting at 2-0; a mesmerising team move set Berardi clear for a shot that rebounded off the post, while the aforementioned tricks, flicks, and bodily violence from Berardi (who hates playing against Rotherham) were all well underway once United had a two goal lead.
Refreshing, aside from the scoreline — that you had to hope would be the minimum against bottom of the league — was the confidence with which United swayed through the game once they were ahead. In a way Bartley’s goal came too soon to be able to judge the impact of Monk’s half-time change, but Ronaldo Vieira found a way to balance the first half misfires of Bridcutt and Hernandez and brought them both to the level of which they’re capable, earning himself a strong man of the match recommendation in the process. Wood, too, seemed to benefit from having Roofe removed to the wings to supply, instead of being alongside him to compress; after seeing off Marcus Antonsson’s attempts to partner him early in the season, and now Kemar Roofe, we may have to conclude that Wood is just plain anti-social, but if that’s what makes goals like today’s happen, that’s fine.
At the other end Leeds have conceded only two goals in the last five games since losing at top of the league Brighton; they’ve won four of those games and drawn the other, and their position five points ahead of Derby’s spot on the edge of the play-offs feels more and more real.
If this really is a promotion challenge, the moment it got real might not have been when Bartley scored, or when Ayling played a one-two off his own face at 3-0 up, but after the game when Garry Monk spoke confidently about his squad. “We don’t have to sell anyone and we won’t be selling anyone. It’ll only be in-comings. There’ll be no-one leaving in this window,” Garry told the YEP’s Phil Hay. “It goes for every single player who’s in the squad at Leeds United right now.”
That that’s true is the main worry of every anxious Leeds fan right now; we’ve heard it before, of course, but right now keeping Hernandez, Jansson, Bartley and Taylor — the least secure of our first team — is key to whatever Leeds do this season. Even if Taylor should never recover from his injury and Berardi continue to deputise, keeping Charlie feels much more important to our overall stability than the two or three million quid a sale might bring in. In the same post-match interviews Monk said he only needs one or two additional players, if that, and given the way players like Vieira, Phillips and Doukara have stepped up in recent weeks, you can see his point.
Leeds United really are fifth in the league now, and are fifth for good reasons. Ensuring the safe continuance of those reasons is all we can ask of them now.