reading 1-0 leeds united: olé, oi!Back
Selection questions, and how much they are due to Garry Monk’s whimsical tastes, were a big question before the trip to Reading.
Rejecting all yellow yet again, he went with yellow shirts, white shorts, yellow socks, and no Pontus Jansson to wear them. A hamstring problem, apparently, although Garry Monk reckoned he was only going to start on the bench anyway. Hmm. Hmmmm. Hmmmmmm.
A late kick-off meant everyone at Leeds was too many pints deep to bother scribbling ‘Leeds Fans’ at the bottom of the teamsheet to rival Reading’s mob; it also meant early songs about Jaap Stam and, most importantly, getting straight onto oléing Reading’s defensive passing right from the start. Into ’em, Leeds.
As at Elland Road, Reading were determined to play as much of the game as possible in their own defensive third of the pitch, but this time Leeds looked a little bit more ready to take them on. In the first match everyone associated with United was stunned into uproarious hilarity, and just watched and laughed as Reading passed themselves into oblivion. Here, Leeds looked more inclined to press, perhaps countering the fact that Reading looked a little more willing to get forward; perhaps at the Madejski Stadium they feel obliged to entertain their fans, although the easiest way to do that would probably be to cancel the football and have some friends round to watch ‘Love Actually’ over a nice bottle of wine. When they did come forward, Reading would find two rows of four custard creams ahead of them, and turn away, lest they be from Asda, not Waitrose.
Naturally they had to spoil all the fun by scoring. Given Stam’s talk about playing football the right way, he’ll have wanted this piece of opportunist cynicism chalked off. Gunter sauntered to the goalline to receive a quick throw-in, that didn’t reach him. Taylor headed the ball away from him but across his own goal, where Liam Cooper seemed to be mulling over the offside rule from throw-ins so let the ball go, and Kermorgant got to it, lashing it in a straight line off Robert Green’s hand and into the top of the goal.
The self-assured sarcasm had to go out the window, now, because United were faced with a beast hitherto unseen: Reading defending a lead. Would they attack, looking for more? Or would they play and pass even deeper, wishing their goal had a run off area behind it, like at the old Stamford Bridge, where they could hide the ball under a car?
What nobody expected was a forearm smash from Blackett to the side of Chris Wood’s head; it’s always the nice ones who cause the most damage, because they tend to be sneaky scrappers. Half an hour gone and we had to add new categories ‘scoring’ and ‘random violence’ to Reading’s known tactics of passing backwards and passing sideways. Leeds, with that ‘one man team’ accusation fresher than ever after Kermorgant’s goal, at least had that one man still conscious after Blackett’s clout, but couldn’t get the ball to him.
At the other end, Reading continued to veer off type, knocking a ball over the top and breaking Leeds’ central defence wide open, Berardi rushing across from right-back to try and stop Swift from volleying; he couldn’t, but Swift volleyed over. Then McCleary ran onto a low through ball, breaking between Cooper and Bartley but straight into the arms of Green. Leeds counter attacked, Pedraza, who’d had a couple of chances and was playing well, curving a ball to the back post; Hernandez stretched and slid and sent the ball wide.
Much more than Wood, Hernandez was the one player Leeds were looking to for inspiration, but as has been the theme in recent weeks, his best attempts at making things happen meant keeping the ball too long and losing it; or, with a chance to play a simple, effective pass, screwing it up with some mad style. Even on an off day, Pablo’s corners make him a worthwhile figure; when, in the 44th minute, there finally was one, Hernandez took it short to Taylor.
The half ended with a long punt forward from Al-Habsi — yes, you read that right — causing confusion on the edge of United’s penalty area, and a shot from Kermorgant that hit the post. The only sign of an equaliser was Chris Wood going in late on Blackett as revenge for his earlier whack, and the only hope for the second half was that Jaap Stam would use his half-time team talk to call Reading’s players a disgrace and to cut out all this direct attacking nonsense.
Depending on which stats site you looked at, Wood either had five or six touches in the first half, none in the penalty area; he added some at the start of the second half, controlling the ball on the edge of the box and trying to thread a ball through for Hernandez. Better. Reading’s pass numbers kept dinging up, past 300, almost twice as many as Leeds, but a few early differences were that what possession Leeds did have was now in more threatening areas. Chris Wood was getting the ball, Liam Bridcutt was further forward, i.e., troubling the halfway line; but the distance between him and Wood and Hernandez still represented a massive gulf.
Reading continued to be a bunch of cheeky bastards; Kermorgant tried to score with a fifteen yard backheel. Soon after that Wood took the ball on a forward charge, not playing in Sacko this week, getting clattered by Swift for his troubles, but looking up for getting Leeds back into the game, on his own if Reading insisted. An unwelcome bottle of Fanta was aimed from the away end at Al-Habsi, and sent him skidding after he poured it out and ran through the contents to clear, but the delay destroyed the momentum Wood had built up; Vieira was caught taking his time with the ball at his feet and Reading seized the chance to attack, Beerens unmarked at the back post but unable to finish. Pedraza launched a charge down the left, but Hernandez’s shot wasn’t particularly dangerous; neither was Cooper’s overhead kick from a corner, which wasn’t as acrobatic as it sounds.
Sacko left after that, and Souleymane Doukara came on, but an injury to Obita let the intensity he added — he started as if his job was to pressure the Reading defence — drop. Berardi helped pick it back up, putting a good cross over that was just too high for Doukara. Hernandez had a wander into the penalty area, and with tackles picking up, Kalvin Phillips was added to the mix in place of Pedraza. Slack passing by Bartley let in McCleary who tried another over the top effort, and Leeds went upfield to win a corner; this seemed to be Leeds’ best way of starting an attack, to make a mistake at the back and let Reading try something audacious, then break. Not a tactic I’d necessarily endorse.
Liam Cooper, although he played well against Brighton, still managed two fairly large mistakes in that game; he was already arguably at fault for Reading’s goal — it’s tenuous, but it’s there — and now he delivered his most brutal misstep, short of an own goal. For all Jansson’s fire and strength, he’s never yet kicked an opponent in the head as he lay on the floor. Cooper can only really be accused of idiocy for this, because I don’t think for a moment it was deliberate or malicious, but that trying to hurdle Reece Oxford the way he did was only going to end one way, and it was only going to look one way: deliberate and malicious. The referee had a long talk with the linesman, Blackett tried to start something with everyone, and nothing further was done.
Doukara took a tilt at Al-Habsi, a long range daisy cutter that was probably going wide, so probably didn’t need his hands on it. After good stuff from Doukara, Taylor crossed, but it was over Wood, and the ball was jabbed weakly at Al-Habsi by Vieira. The chances were falling to Leeds but there wasn’t much hint that they’d score from one of them. After bringing brawn on for skill, Phillips for Pedraza, Monk now swung the other way, Kemar Roofe coming on for Vieira; Doukara, meanwhile, started stuff with Gunter. You began to yearn for somebody to just smack somebody — preferably not involving one of the bottles flying towards Al-Habsi — and bring all the tetchiness to a head. Then you yearned for a replay of Hernandez’s backheeled nutmeg forever, but none was forthcoming, and neither was an attack out of the moment of skill.
Instead of a firm smack, we had Kermorgant cheating, pretending a whack to the jaw off Cooper’s shoulder, and it was undeniable that we’d underestimated just what nasty little brats Reading can be, as players feigned injuries, delayed the game, and worst of all, sucked Phillips into fouling them, giving them exactly what they wanted. The rain teemed down as six indicated minutes of added time became seven, and then the game ended, and yes, Jaap Stam did play for Alex Ferguson, and no, he hasn’t forgotten everything he learned.
What Leeds learned from this game has to be considered against what we’ve learned over the whole season; the causes of the good results have be remembered, and not lost in haste to correct the causes of the bad ones. But that will have to mean Jansson coming back, presuming he’s fit, because there are two many moments stored up in Cooper for the rest of the team to be comfortable around him. It also means looking at Hernandez and Bridcutt, not in an accusatory way, but because some of our best performances during the pre-Christmas form came without them, performances it would be good to see again.
We should also look at Reading in a new way, especially as they’re a possible play-off opponent. Perhaps the laughs should have been left in the past; the big question about the game at Elland Road was how, if Reading were so bad, had they climbed so high up the league table? Well, now we know. And if possible, we can have even less respect for them than before.
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