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middlesbrough 3-0 leeds united: progress

middlesbrough 3-0 leeds united: progress

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Ah, Bellusci, Bellusci. Bellusci, Bellusci, Bamba, as Kate Bush sang.

Or something like that. Part of the success of Kate Bush’s song — it was really called Babooshka, kids — was the pleasantly nonsensical sounding chorus; Bush says she didn’t know Babushka was the Russian word for grandmother when she wrote the song. The words didn’t have to mean anything, they could just sound good.

Perhaps pleasantly nonsensical was Uwe Rosler’s aim when he wrote down the teamsheet for Leeds United’s trip to Middlesbrough; one explanation is as good as another when it comes to these mysterious screeds bearing the manager’s hand. When you’ve yelled “Cooper!” from the sidelines for a few weeks, it can be boring. “Belle-oooosh-key!” — there’s a name you can get your vocal chords around.

And Bellusci’s name was sung all around Teeside after only two minutes on the pitch, if you can call the terrible cries of souls tortured in purgatory singing. Depending on your beliefs, various punishments are promised in the after life to the transgressors of holy laws, from burning for eternity, to suffering the same painful indignity repeated without end. If it’s the latter that awaits condemned humans, perhaps we all died the day Giuseppe Bellusci signed for Leeds.

It was some feat of Bellusci’s to try but fail to head the ball clear in the early moment that allowed David Nugent to score; it must have brushed his head like a ball shaped bullet with somebody else’s name on it. Nugent’s name, in this case, and once he’d got over the shock of such terrible defending so early in the game, he fired the ball straight through Marco Silvestri. Beaten, Silvestri stood in the goalmouth as if struck by lightning.

Bellusci’s failure to head that ball was compounded by the marvellous success he had later in the half when firing a diving header past Silvestri. Silvestri this time crouched as if struck by lightning in the pose that would have caught the ball if only Bellusci had left it. Bellusci looked to Silvestri, apologised, took all the blame on himself, which suggested that Silvestri had called clearly enough that the ball was the keeper’s; and that only made it even more mystifying that Bellusci chose to ignore him and take matters into his own head.

By this time Sol Bamba had joined in, earning the save of the match from Silvestri by chesting the ball towards the top corner of the goal. Soon Bellusci scored, and then in the second half Bamba sent another clearance looping towards the top corner, another Silvestri had to deal with. It was almost as if Bamba had decided that if you can’t beat opposition strikers, you might as well join them, and get the same sweet satisfaction they enjoy from scoring past Silvestri. The problem for Bamba this time wasn’t opposition strikers, though, but that Bellusci got there first.

His other problem was his footwear; or at least that’s the charitable explanation for Middlesbrough’s third goal. Bamba had slipped once as he followed in a corner that Leeds successfully defended; then he slipped again a few minutes later, playing a routine back pass to Silvestri, during a weird passage of second half play when Leeds took to stroking the ball around in defence as if they were Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan and leading 4–0. The third time was the most spectacular slip of all; one moment Bamba was attempting a routine pass across the defence, the next his legs were devouring his arms and Fabbrini was away, scoring a goal.

Those were the moments of the match, except for one close offside call that denied Mirco Antenucci a goal at 2–0, and a good chance, a header also by Antenucci, also at 2–0, that was easily saved. Chris Wood was injured so Antenucci had the lone striker job, and it was difficult to determine whether he was any good at it as Leeds didn’t attack a stout Boro defence well enough for us to find out. All we can really say is that he seems to require the same precision there that Wood needs. Put the ball on a plate for him, and he might score. That’s about as definite as it gets.

Jordan Botaka also came into the side, in place of Byram, but again his contribution was inconclusive; there was at least one very beautiful roll of the ball, but when the word around United has been that Botaka is talented, but not ready for the Championship, it’s hard to find the wisdom of giving him his debut against one of the Championship’s best teams, putting him directly against George Friend, one of the Championship’s best left-backs.

It’s well known from his time at Brentford and Wigan, and at Leeds so far, that Rosler loves a rotation, and that we should always expect changes; but it’s this sort of haphazard planning that raises eyebrows whenever changes have the effect they had on this game. That Massimo Cellino has favourites, there can be no doubt; part of his legendary press conference in the summer was devoted to the poor treatment Brian Montenegro had in the Development squad, while he goes on about Charlie Taylor so much he should marry him. Whether that translates into actual instructions, to play Bellusci or Botaka, only Rosler can say. Or Hockaday. Or Milanic. Or Redfearn. But only them.

Whether Cellino issues direct instructions or not, Sam Byram’s absence from the pitch on Sunday shows an influence he does have on team selection. Rosler was firm in his own press conference on Friday; he would speak to Sam, assess his mental state after Cellino fired his shots, and then make a decision about whether to play him. Rosler also said he would keep the contents of the conversation private, as if the fact that Byram stayed rooted to the bench while first Botaka and then Doukara toiled in his place didn’t give the whole game away.

Cellino doesn’t need to send direct instructions to the manager about who to pick when he can tell the world instead that, “I am so hurt inside that if Byram comes asking for a contract I would prefer to sign someone else.” Whether to avoid displeasing Cellino, or to avoid crushing Byram’s spirit any further, that part of the team must have picked itself as soon as Cellino’s interview hit Sky Sports.

More mysterious was the centre-half pairing, that had so much influence on the game. Sol Bamba will play because Sol Bamba is the captain and, even when not playing well himself, will get better performances out of those around him. But he didn’t come to Leeds with the nickname of Bomb Scare for nothing, and after a honeymoon period of relative steadiness we’ve learned the hard way how badly he can mess up. But he remains an obvious first choice centre back.

What Liam Cooper has done to deserve being replaced by Bellusci, though, is harder to understand, and that’s why the conspiracies fly; that and the continued mysterious introductions of Doukara into games, where he trundles around in the background like a stray Volvo ruining a period television drama. Of all the places for Rosler to tinker, the back four seems the least helpful, and yet it’s where he’s most keen; Wootton and Berardi still battle it out for right-back even though Berardi settled that score weeks ago, and the centre halves will surely change again against Birmingham. I just can’t be certain it’s Bellusci that will make way.

I wrote above that the choice of centre halves influenced this result, when I could have written that it cost us the game, but the truth is we would have lost whoever played there. Bellusci’s failures set the tone and wrote the story, but were not the reason Leeds United lost. In attempted mitigation, the in-game stats have been brought out, showing how Leeds had more possession, more shots; intuitive analysis has added that Middlesbrough didn’t really look all that, and Leeds held their own fairly well but for the three mistakes (plus the others that didn’t lead to goals, but we’ll stick to three).

That’s not a good sign, though. Middlesbrough were poor against Leeds because that’s all they had to be, and I dread to think what the score might have been had they actually been good. Had Bellusci not been so keen to settle the game himself, I’ve more confidence that Middlesbrough could have found an extra level of performance to win 3–0 by other, more conventional means than Leeds would have held out the way they did last year.

There’s the crux of what we can learn from this game. Last year Leeds did the double over Middlesbrough, costing them six points that kept them down from the Premier League. The performance at the Riverside, in particular, was an inspiring highlight in a drab campaign. Since then Leeds have, so we’re often told, improved; mistakes have been learned from, a new manager is being backed, better players are being signed, players that aren’t good enough — like Steve Morison and, er, Sam Byram — have fallen by the wayside. And this year Middlesbrough have beaten us 3–0 without even getting out of bed, which might tell us something true about our progress.

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