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leeds united 3-3 norwich city: lessons in letting go

leeds united 3-3 norwich city: lessons in letting go

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The theme of recent weeks has been learning. As Leeds United’s season has faded from possible glory to improbable failure, anxiety has grown around this season’s push for promotion, but more around next season’s hopes.

If this season was to come to nothing, as eventually it did, we had to ensure that it counted for something. It yet might. Leeds United’s liquid progress can’t be allowed to evaporate in the heat of the coming summer.

That means learning, and pointing out mistakes so that they can be learned from. That has been refreshing this season. At first, it was difficult to criticise Garry Monk too much, in case it was misconstrued by Massimo Cellino as a manifestation of Monk-Out sentiment that only existed inside his head. As the season wore on, though, and got better, those of us commenting from the sidelines relaxed into mildly pointing out where we felt Monk could be doing better, secure that only an idiot could fail to understand that ‘Garry Monk is the right man to take this club forward’ and ‘Garry Monk has a lot to learn, such as these things’ are complementary thoughts.

As such, then, we have to deal with the game against Norwich City by beginning with Monk getting it badly wrong. Before the game, he said that to “go for some maverick thing because we have to win the game can sometimes cause more damage then you would think,” and promised he would stick to the tactics and approach that have worked well all season — well, most of the season. He kept that promise, lining up for a win-or-bust match with two defensive midfielders and one striker, and Leeds United promptly went 3-0 down.

As something so significant, the first half was horrible. Confidence has been lacking in recent weeks, and United needed some sort of boost and they needed it early, but the only changes were to restore players who have been on the fringes in recent weeks; Gaetano Berardi, back at left-back, Stuart Dallas, returning to the wing, Eunan O’Kane, popular again, Matt Grimes, nowhere to be seen, thankfully. Choosing the same-and-steady approach meant Leeds stuck in the same rut as against Burton, against a much better team.

As Pinto, Naismith and Oliveira (several times) took close cracks at United’s goal, scoring three and nearly getting six, we saw some of what Leeds United had been missing this season: players in midfield who can score from distance, or unlock with a killer pass. If Monk was taking notes on the sidelines, hopefully they were about what was making Norwich so good.

And what was making Leeds so bad? Indiscipline seemed to be part of it. The midfield was frequently absent, allowing Naismith to shoot unopposed; or else it contained a random Kyle Bartley, that meant gaps at the back that allowed Oliveira to score Norwich’s third; between those, Pontus Jansson lost concentration and let Murphy cross for Oliveira’s first, then did the same thing straight after kick-off, Pritchard crossing and Oliveira coming close.

“If we are not quite at the standard it’s nothing to do with the tactics, nothing to do with the way we set up, it’s to do with the level of performance,” Monk had said when discussing his approach before the game. In this case, the level of performance meant that the tactics and set up weren’t working, and weren’t going to work. The narrow gap between Norwich’s third and half-time was enough for Chris Wood to equalise, volleying Dallas’s cross at the near post, and bring our old enemy to the fortress gates: hope.

From then on, Leeds United just had to go for it. They had one goal, and they needed at least three more to have a chance of promotion. Three goals wouldn’t come by doing more of the same. From the start of the second half, Leeds looked like they’d been given the instructions they should have had at the start of the game: Get an early goal. Get the fans behind you. Play like this is your last chance, because it is.

Wood’s goal, followed soon after half-time by a bundled effort from Bartley, made the difference. Leeds had forty minutes to score twice, they had the momentum of scoring twice already, and they had a crowd behind them who, after weeks of insipid football, could see a team that was alive again, and willing to fight for its life. That was a potent combination, and the second half is best described as sound: a constant roaring.

You don’t get a roar like that in any other stadium, and you don’t get a performance from any other team like you get from Leeds United when Elland Road sounds like this. It doesn’t matter who is wearing the white shirts. The roar lifts them to levels they’ve not been at before. Think back to the Champions League, when United froze in the Nou Camp and lost 4-0, but then, when Barcelona came to Elland Road, it was different; or to the Bristol Rovers game that won promotion, that Monk referred to in the build up. This game came close, eventually.

The team swashbuckled, all over the pitch: Robert Green was as responsible as anyone for maintaining the roar, given even more in a season of remarkable contributing. In the maverick spirit that had taken hold, there was a strong argument for sticking Green upfront just for the effect on the atmosphere, but Monk settled for adding Doukara and Pedraza to the attack, and setting the side on a forward emphasis.

Of all players it was Berardi who was fouled as he charged into the penalty area with twelve minutes left, and set Pablo Hernandez up for an equalising free-kick. We spoke to Berardi for The Square Ball the other week, and he told us he last scored when he was about sixteen; twelve years later, here he was trying to get into the Norwich box. They had to drag him out of it, and when Hernandez scored, Berardi had to be dragged off him, so fearsome was his celebration.

What Hernandez did with the ball deserved celebrating. Hope was in the top corner of the net, and soon so was the ball, and neither of them had any right to be. The angles were all wrong, the distance didn’t seem right, and the chances of getting a result seemed too ludicrous, but Hernandez ignored all that and put the ball in the only possible, impossible, place.

The final ten minutes brought some sympathy for the way Monk had gone about the game; desperation meant bad decisions that meant Leeds couldn’t find a way through to score. They lacked, too, a player to just bang the ball in from thirty yards the way Naismith had; he, incidentally, was sent off, for an inexplicably bad tackle on Vieira. The last minutes also brought sympathy for Monk for the season, from the stands; it was his name being sung at the final whistle.

That it took the final whistle of the last home game to finally end our hopes of promotion meant it was not a moment for disappointment. The game and result didn’t live up to the Bristol Rovers match, but hardly since the Bristol Rovers match has the last game of the season meant so much, and delivered so much. Don’t forget: this was painful, but it was also fun. Leeds fans have to have a masochistic streak, and that’s how come so few left at half-time; we might as well stay and see how bad it gets. And then, occasionally, it gets great instead. And when it does, we don’t forget who is responsible.

Garry Monk is responsible for this season’s brilliance. That means there is no problem forgiving him for for this season’s final defeat. Leeds should have beaten Wolves and Burton; the second half proved they could have beaten Norwich, if Monk had dared to unlock the Pandora’s Box of Elland Road from the start. But he wasn’t to know. It always helped Simon Grayson that he was part of Leeds United from 1988-1992, so he saw from the inside how success was done. Garry Monk is having to find his own way.

Responsibility for the future is now the concern. There’s one game left, but with nothing to play for, no more games to play at Elland Road, and the usual end-of-season awards ceremony slash social media summer chaos breaking out (hi, Matt Grimes’ mum!), this is basically it now. There’s a party to throw in Wigan, sure, and Monk has to make it go with a swing. He could really make it groove if he had a new Andrea Radrizzani backed contract to show off.

Garry Monk has earned his future. He’s learned a lot. Have the club learned as much? They can either go for it now, or stick with the same old ways as before. After Saturday, Garry can tell them something about how that might work out. Let’s listen to his lessons now he’s learned them.

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Read more about Do You Want To Win? and order here; and watch the trailer below.

 


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