norwich city 2-3 leeds united: love answersBack
The pre-match questions about Leeds United’s trip to Norwich City crystallised in one question before kick-off, which was, Was it right to start with Souleymane Doukara?
That choice felt like pushing luck too far, when United’s recent form has felt like something — not luck — being pushed further than it ought to be able. Doukara had impressed in the League Cup against Norwich, and changed the game against Burton Albion, but to start with him — to rely on him — ahead of Hadi Sacko was a risk, with a lot at stake.
For a team in good form in the right half of the table, going into an international break, Leeds United had an unusual amount at stake in this fixture. And most of it was morale. The momentum built up since defeat to Huddersfield, nine victories behind us with a soldout Elland Road for the Newcastle game ahead, risked a jolt if Leeds didn’t get the right kind of result from Carrow Road. Defeat wouldn’t ruin the optimism, but it would dent it; Norwich, despite their recent defeats, was the first in a sequence of fixtures against teams a step above the sides we’ve been beating, and to lose in the first would have augured ill for the rest.
We’re going to find out in the next few weeks whether Leeds United have been playing themselves into a mirage, above themselves, or whether this is themselves, under pressure, real. Selecting Doukara seemed like forcing that entire question onto the shoulders of one player.
He was in for his defensive abilities as much as anything, it seemed, so mainly because he’s a big strong lad. Norwich’s defence has been their own worst enemy of late, though, and with Pablo Hernandez at his excellent, creative best and chances being made for Leeds every few minutes, Doukara felt like a slight misjudgement. Until, that is, you realised he was at the centre of a lot of the attacking play, dinking one-twos with Hernandez and Taylor down the left hand side, and remembered that Sacko is the absolute master of fluffed chances, so he might not have been able to break the deadlock anyway.
Norwich took advantage of the fact that Leeds couldn’t score any of their chances in the first twenty-three minutes by scoring their own in the twenty-fourth. We were looking for omens of how Leeds will cope against top-half teams in the weeks ahead, and seeing Robert Green revert to the opening minutes of the QPR game on the opening day, as he scrambled and failed to clutch a header from a corner, was not the omen we hoped for.
To be honest it opened a pit of despair because nobody, now, wants to go back to that, and yet here was something very Leeds United, 2011-2016; an ineffective first twenty minutes punished by the opponent’s first chance of the game. Leeds, normally, go on and lose from here. Assuming the Doukara question settled for now — he was fine, the choice was okay — this became the next question when the teams came out for the second half. Old Leeds, or new Leeds? With a 1-0 deficit the question, what would be the answer?
Pontus fucking Jansson, that was the answer. There was no flick-on to the great, looping dink of a corner from Hernandez; it swooped right on to the forehead of Jansson as he backpeddled, and his neck muscles did the rest, butting the ball hard over the City defender on the line. Then there was no interruption to Jansson’s celebration; he ran towards the away fans and then was among them so seamlessly it was if the hoardings, the barriers, weren’t there. Metaphorically, they’re not; we’ve seen the photos of Pontus on the terraces in Sweden, holding a Malmo flag, and with kids in the Leeds end sporting Pontus haircuts there’s a bond between the fans and Jansson that I can’t recall since Vinnie Jones.
His goal felt more like something from the early days of David Batty, in that it mattered more than the simple act of ball hitting net, and was something we knew for weeks advance — or years, in Batty’s case — would be a moment to savour. The fans savoured Jansson, gripping him — the body of Christ! — not letting him return to the game until the last moment.
Out there, United weren’t done. The equalising corner had come from a swift move down the right begun by Luke Ayling and involving Sacko — on for Kemar Roofe — Hernandez, and almost Chris Wood. Ayling started another fifteen minutes later, releasing Sacko down the right then racing into the box himself to receive a flick from Eunan O’Kane; from the byline, Ayling pulled the ball back to Wood on the edge of the six yard box, and he shot high into the unguarded net for 2-1.
A comeback built upon quality play, after the disappointment of going behind, answered some of the half-time questions, although Norwich’s equaliser was not defensively tidy and came late, feeling like the old weak-kneed Leeds under pressure. See Wigan Athletic’s equaliser at Elland Road for another example of a habit United need to break. But after lengthy injuries Leeds were given seven minutes of injury time to see if they had any other answers.
The question this time is, What’s changed since last season? And while Ronaldo Vieira’s goal doesn’t encapsulate everything that has changed on the pitch, it does describe some of it. Thirty-five yards from goal, O’Kane weighed up his options with a free-kick; he chose to put the ball in front of Vieira, who controlled it and then cracked it low and hard into the bottom of the goal by the post, where it whipped up off the goalie’s wrist into the top of the net in the most satisfying way possible. A third time, over to the fans, this time Leeds United had won.
And what had changed? Remember last season, Lewis Cook, one of the most best midfield prospects in the country, standing over a free-kick at Rotherham, before being brushed aside by Giuseppe Bellusci and standing by impotent and forlorn as Bellusci smashed the ball into the stands. Then look at this season; Ronaldo Vieira, only eleven games into his career, demanding the ball from O’Kane and then being trusted with it, in the closing stages of a vital match. See how there’s no ego there, only trust; no reputations, just teammates; no belligerence, just bravery; and one, big, United celebration.
Better players help this. But better people help too. Bellusci could get away with treating our best young players like ballboys because Steve Evans was the manager and he was never going to stop him. Garry Monk does things, like bringing in Doukara for this game, that increase the circle of trust within the squad; while Pontus Jansson does things that put the emphasis on the collective — players and fans — rather than individuals.
The collective next time we convene at Elland Road will be bigger than it has been for years, with the team further up the league than it has been for years, and the confidence levels higher than they have been for years. Beating Norwich was important for morale, not just to keep a good run going, but to make sure United start the game against Newcastle with the feeling that the expectations of the 38,000 crowd can actually be met.
That was a big question before the Norwich game, and I’m loving the answer.