leeds united 1-1 burnley: improvingBack
For 89 minutes of the game on Saturday, Leeds United played as if somebody had told them they could win the league.
Compare this side to the one that started at Millwall a year ago, and you’ll only find Silvestri and Byram still starting; compare the performance, and there’s no comparison.
Against Burnley United were confident and bold, attacking with intent and defending like they meant it. I made an absurd observation when Neil Redfearn got the (almost) permanent gig last season that our players started to kick the ball harder, and I had that same thought on Saturday. No tentative taps leading to easy interceptions; no aimless, drifting passes to nowhere.
Mowatt aimed the ball crisply and truly at Byram, and Byram took it in mid-air, controlling it on his thigh and getting ready to move the ball to the next player, carrying the team forward and putting Burnley on the back foot.
That he couldn’t always quite find Chris Wood after a piece of play like that wasn’t necessarily the fault of either player, but it might be a symptom of the formation Uwe Rösler is imposing this season; Wood found it difficult to get into the game, and the attacking players around him — Byram, Mowatt and Dallas — found it difficult to bring him on board.
Byram was the pleasantest to watch. The most striking thing about Sam Byram, when he broke into the side at right-back, was that right-back became the home of the playmaker when he was there. In Neil Warnock’s desperately uninspiring side, Byram would dictate games from right-back, starting and continuing attacking moves, bringing players into the game, more of a quarterback than a right-back.
Moved to the right wing, Byram is free to fly his Zico flag, and to cause problems for Burnley by moving infield from the touchline and roaming around in the space behind Wood. It’s what Redfearn had him doing in the second half of last season, but taken to the next level, so that he’s not only terrorising the inside-right channel, winning penalties and scoring goals, but enjoying an almost free role, pulling defenders out of position and creating space for Wood, Mowatt and Dallas to exploit.
Stuart Dallas, on the other wing, played more traditionally, and was no worse for it. The last time we signed hashtag wingers, we got a couple of sadly beaten-down looking players; at last, in Dallas, we have a real life tag winger willing to take a player on and able to beat him. The immediate comparison is with Robert Snodgrass, because he’s not all that fast but has tricks; he’s bigger and stronger than Snodgrass, though, and when he cuts inside it’s with thoughts of netbusters rather than curling shots.
The other new signing, Adeyemi, didn’t show the authority I hoped for alongside Cook, who was also relatively quiet; maybe it was just that a deliriously creative Byram and Mowatt, who played like he was absolutely loving the 10 on his back, were more obviously outstanding. Adeyemi was also outshone as a defensive midfielder by Sol Bamba, who was willing to take charge of anything Burnley did within forty yards of the goal.
After all the energy and excitement of the performance, it would have been a letdown if there hadn’t been a goal; but we may not have been able to withstand the explosion of optimism that might have hit Beeston had Antenucci’s goal been the winner. It’s instructive, two, that while the overall positives in the game came from 15/16 changes — Dallas and Wood signing, Byram and Mowatt in new positions, Rösler’s new style — the two key incidents came out of the Italian old school of 14/15.
What frustated me most about some of Cellino’s favoured signings last season — Antenucci, Bellusci, Silvestri to an extent — was what looked like an unwillingness to learn, to adapt. Antenucci is 30, Bellusci 25, but what should be beneficial experience looks at times like stubborn inflexibility. Silvestri, the youngest at 24, still has no problems stopping shots, and showed that against Burnley; but there’s little evidence of progress or work in the rest of the game.
Antenucci, too, has worked hard to get in the team, but always in the context of his existing game. The goal he scored to give Leeds the lead on Saturday was a beauty; Antenucci looked like the most relaxed person in the stadium as he swung a lazy left foot at the ball, bending it slowly around the goalkeeper and into the top corner, and Rösler loved it — bounding down the touch line and into the West Stand, fists and suit flying.
The other two times Antenucci retreated into his own wolf-world and, ignoring the game around him, relaxed into a long range shot, the rest of the team ended up just standing and looking at him, and I’m not sure how far Rösler’s tolerance for such laconic play will last; Mirco scored a goal from the Antenucci book, rather than the new-look Leeds book, and while it was a goal we needed and a goal to treasure, I suspect Rösler’s thoughts will be preoccupied with how to get the best out of his team, rather than wanting to rely on an occasional beauty imported from Antenucci.
Bellusci, too, played like he always had, and while the failure to deal with George Boyd down Leeds’ left was the root cause — and perhaps a case of the whole team admiring our lead too long — one of the jobs of the central defenders is to bail out young players like Cook, Mowatt and Taylor on the occasions when an experienced, quality opponent gets the better of them. I’m sure Sol Bamba sees it that way; but then, he has to think about bailing Bellusci out as much as his younger teammates. Bellusci actually had one of his better games against Burnley; like the team as a whole, he played with definite ideas about what he was doing, not just challenging for the ball but winning it. But he still shows no sign of overcoming his achilles off-switch, no evidence that he’s worked on improving himself to be better than the bomb-scare he was when he arrived.
That won’t be good enough for Leeds United for long, if the rest of the team keep showing the improvement that was on show on Saturday. Apart from when they conceded the goal, Leeds played as if somebody had told them they could win the league, and as if they believed it.
I’m not sure that kind of positive mental reinforcement is Rösler’s style; ‘believe and it can happen’ has a bad rep at Elland Road since Hockaday started banging on about the journey to the Champions League. But setting standards and then meeting them, and exceeding them; that seems more like a Rösler tactic, and that’s what Leeds United showed on Saturday. This team could win the league, if it improves, and keeps improving. Saturday was a big improvement. Let’s keep going.