nottingham forest 1-1 leeds united: the final thirdBack
It’s a euphemism. Like all euphemisms, we use it to protect the sensitive. That can be difficult sometimes.
Against Nottingham Forest, Chris, Leeds lacked a decisive cutting edge in the final third.
‘Oh did we?’ says Chris. ‘Well maybe we should work on that.’
Yes, Chris. I mean, no, Chris. What I mean is, Leeds lacked a decisive cutting edge.
In the final third.
That’s what Leeds lacked.
‘Yeah, well, I mean that’s tough. I tell you what though, did you see Kirkstall Road on Boxing Day? Like a river!’
Yeah, Chris, it’s terrible, and it’s been even worse for people living upstream, but it’s not really —
‘I tried to drive down there, to see if I could help. Ended up in Bramley though, missed it by miles. Dry as a bone up there though.’
Right, but Chris, what we’re saying is —
‘Yeah, something about the final third? I don’t know mate, ask the gaffer.’
Yeah. It can get so difficult that you want to throw euphemistic phrases like ‘the final third’ down the nearest uncovered manhole, and hope they don’t come firing out of another halfway down what used to be a riverside promenade.
The final third? Well, few people have complaints about Stuart Dallas; he’s kind of a low-rent Robert Snodgrass, and even if Snoddy’s return to fitness means we’re being taunted from Humberside by the real-rent Robert Snodgrass being excellent in our division, after replacing Snoddy with Varney we’ll take what we can get.
Over on the other side is Sam Byram: he can’t play right-back; he can’t play right-wing; he can’t play bass; he can’t play drum; but fed by Doukara, he can swish the ball away from a defender with his left foot and then bury it into the bottom corner with his right, putting all his cares where a footballer’s cares belong: in his feet, swinging at a ball. Again, just like at Wolves, playing with a smile on his face until he realises it means more ‘He just loves playing for me’ nonsense from Evans after the game.
So in the final third, two thirds seem to be doing okay. Don’t they. Chris. If you see what I’m driving dangerously through five-feet floodwaters to get at.
I’m no longer buying the confidence argument where Chris Wood is concerned, and haven’t for a while, because even when he was confident — like when he lashed the ball home from distance against Derby County — he was making the same basic errors that make him look like such a lump now — like when he missed that simple close range header against Derby County. Confident or not, he plays just the same way, so we can never know if a shot is going to crack with a satisfying ‘pzongthk’ off the post and into the net, or crack with a horrible ‘undmmgrnch’ off the steel stand roof and into the upper tier.
There’s a basic problem I always see with Chris Wood, which is that he is always beneath or behind the ball when it reaches him. When Dallas or Byram or Taylor or Woot— well, when someone swings a cross in for Wood, he always seems to be exactly underneath its flight, straining his neck muscles to direct it towards goal; or when the ball is passed across the goal to him, he is always exactly in line with its trajectory, so he has to try and twist his hips and he runs the risk of letting it hit his standing leg and looking like a fool, as at Forest.
I was raised, dear children, watching Lee Chapman play as a double-title winning number nine for Leeds United, and one of the joys of this formative experience was watching this apparently uncultured centre forward judge with almost instinctive maths the path of a cross from Sterland or Strachan or Dorigo or News— well, a cross across the penalty area, and adjust his run and then fling his body so that his momentum towards goal coincided perfectly with the ball’s momentum across goal, and he would divert it, with head, foot or chest, past the goalkeeper.
I never thought this was difficult until I saw Chris Wood play, perhaps because John Pearson was blessedly a reserve by the time I was old enough to understand. But I’ve hardly yet seen Wood throw himself forward to head a cross, or run onto a low ball and turn it past the goalkeeper; he’s always there too soon, waiting when he should be anticipating.
Such close focus on Wood might seem unfair, especially when the point earned in Nottingham was decent, and when you could easily argue that the only reason Leeds didn’t take three points was that Bellusci and Silvestri together took all the good reviews and positive comments they’ve had in the last few weeks, swept them up into a pile, and dived into them like they were a high pile of dead leaves, for a laugh. If the football pitch was a classroom, you’d never allow those two to sit together.
But this was a match against a play-off hopeful but probably ultimately also-ran peer, which turned out close because Leeds played well, and Forest have tuned their game to steal points from teams who play well. As such Forest are open to defeat by teams who play well but add a decisive cutting edge in the final third, and, well.
Leeds were decent; decent in possession, decent going forward, mostly decent in defence; there was enough in this Leeds performance to beat a bottom-half neighbour and get us closer to our current target: six points from the play-offs, so Cellino will open the coffers and blow all that hard-earned pie-tax on the ‘Steve Evans players’ that we hope will all be as good as Liam Bridcutt, while remembering that Steve Evans signed Paul Green after seeing him play for Leeds.
We’d be two points nearer to that goal if Wood had, not the confidence, but the technique to have buried just one of his chances; we’d also have three million pounds more to play with if we’d never signed him in the first place and just grabbed a floating wheelie bin from our city’s new waterways and chucked that on the team bus instead.
Harsh? Perhaps. But constructive, I hope. Because Leeds United had the benefit of Lee Chapman aged 30, when he’d seen it all and done it all and learned it all, especially from his struggles after a big money move to Arsenal when he was 22; he wasn’t born complete, and he had a whole career to become the player we got at United. So there is hope for Wood yet. Although it does need to be added that when Chapman began to sort it out and put it down was when he joined Sheffield Wednesday aged 24; the same age Wood is now.
Sometimes you’ve either got it or you ain’t. Right now, in the final third, Leeds United need it. We ain’t got it.