rotherham united 1-2 leeds united: no free passesBack
Jesus Christ. Well, he wasn’t playing, in either his Pontus or Pablo form. Leeds United coped well without Jansson, but oh, what might Hernandez have done in this game?
After Newcastle’s experienced players eased through our young midfield last time out, Garry Monk reshuffled, benching the youngest, Ronaldo Vieira, and putting Souleymane Doukara wide so Kemar Roofe could do the Pablo. That left Leeds, again, relying on a young midfield for a different kind of challenge; against a grizzly Kenny Jackett side trying to drag itself off the bottom of the league.
We’ve been wondering what might become of Roofe, and hoping it’s going to be really something, and a game behind Chris Wood against lowly opposition was a great opportunity for him to adapt his League Two game for a Championship match. Leeds started brightly and so did he, getting on the ball and staying involved. That was a good sign from Roofe, who tends to show well on the wing in the opening stages then fade. Here, while he was no Hernandez, he looked a little more like the Roofe we’d heard about.
However Roofe, and Leeds, found themselves intruding upon Rotherham’s first half crisis, and that made it difficult to assert themselves. As the game developed, so much kept happening to Rotherham United that Leeds’ players seemed to think it would be safer to stand back and let the Millers work out whatever was going on among themselves, watching as their opponents limped off injured or stormed off throwing punches or gave birth to rabbits or whatever phenomena the cosmos had planned.
None of it was anything to do with Leeds. Greg Halford and Lee Camp were both injured in the aftermath of fair challenges, while unprompted Peter Odemwingie Superman’d fist first into the face of Liam Cooper before retreating to some dark corner of the New York Stadium to tweet his innocence and reflect, perhaps, he was fortunate not to have been taking aim at Pontus Jansson rather than the relatively placid Cooper. Rotherham seemed to be engaged in some private war, and Leeds United didn’t have to fight them to win it.
In the midst of it Leeds did grab an opening goal, scoring in the first fifteen minutes of a game for the first time this season. Along with Roofe looking lively, Charlie Taylor was notably further forward in the opening stages — perhaps because Doukara kept drifting centrally — and he was fed on the wing by Phillips. Great spaces opened up inside the right-back and Taylor headed for the penalty area, where he was given time to select a pass, and selected a sharp diagonal arrow to Chris Wood, who had found space of his own near the penalty spot. His wide open arms must have grabbed Taylor’s attention; nobody from Rotherham’s defence or midfield seemed to notice or care, and he passed the ball low into the goal.
The goal advantage was useful while Rotherham imploded; doubling it via Doukara was vital before half-time. The risk of letting Rotherham beat themselves was that Jackett might use the break to redirect their efforts Leedswards, and the second goal was perfectly timed to put a stop to that before it happened.
It was perfectly teed up by Roofe, too; his assist was his claim for Pablo permanence. Sacko played the ball square from the right wing to Roofe in textbook between-the-lines position, where he had time to turn and spot Doukara in space and running, inside left. Doukara only had to check slightly for Roofe’s pass and that allowed him to scrutinise the layout of Rotherham’s defenders, letting them swarm close but maintaining sight of his favourite, the low not-very-hard shot inside the post, which he executed with aplomb.
It was pretty much the last thing any Leeds player did with aplomb, unless you count some of Luke Ayling’s flying blocks. Things got so desperate that the one-man flying buttress, Gaetano Berardi, was brought on to secure the three points, as much by terrifying his teammates as stopping Rotherham.
Garry Monk said after the game he’d used half-time to tell his players, ‘Don’t get complacent.’ Whether he coughed while saying ‘Don’t’ or there was a loud clang that obscured his words, his team played like all they’d heard was ‘get complacent’, and like they’d interpeted ‘complacent’ as meaning ‘crap.’
We wouldn’t have learned much about Roofe in the 10 role from the second half anyway; ten defeated players at the bottom of the league were not the opposition to benchmark him. But we missed Hernandez. I’ve said before that Pablo has the ability to make the players around him play better, by making better runs, and making his team-mates find better positions; without him as a focal point, Leeds looked lost going forward.
It was the right game for Stuart Dallas to return and hopefully add some of that Pabloness, although the malaise was too dense by the time he came on; Antonsson couldn’t add any spark, and Liam Bridcutt, who we urgently needed so we could hook Eunan O’Kane, was still unavailable.
Various midfielders bore the fans’ brunt after the Newcastle defeat, but with some sympathy, given the opposition. There’s no hiding place for O’Kane after his second half performance here, though. He was the player against Newcastle whose career appearances — 237, more than seventy of those in the top two divisions — put him in touching distance of the opponents, at least compared to the twelve games of football Ronaldo Vieira has played in his entire life. If he couldn’t dominate Shelvey and Colback, that’s one thing, but to be our senior midfielder and not be able to play a competent forward pass through Rotherham’s midfield after it lost its lynchpin in the opening two minutes and lost its purpose, and the game, by half-time, is not good enough.
To be fair to O’Kane his was one of the bodies flung onto the line to protect the lead in the final minutes of playground scrambles; nobody can question his effort, or his contribution since coming to the club. That’s true of most of the side actually; they’ve built up enough credit over the last couple of months for any criticism to be related to their own high standards. This isn’t like last season, when bad players were playing badly. This is about good players not playing as well as they can. It’s frustrating rather than damning.
The one positive to take from the second half is that we only conceded once. Until Rotherham scored the game had only been turgid; that goal threatened something tragic, but Leeds proved they can just about defend without Pontus, even if they can’t attack without Pablo. We’d have collapsed in another season, it’s true; maybe even lost. But why does ‘not collapsing’ have to be the best we can do? Why can’t we just go and hammer some bastards?
Leeds won’t hammer Liverpool. That’s my confident prediction for Tuesday. Leeds will also probably lose, although my never-say-never detector is twitching already at the thought of Anfield. Play Pontus, and anything might happen. What’s certain though is the second half against Rotherham robbed Monk of a free pass against Liverpool.
It’s nice, I suppose, to be annoyed about the way we win, rather than dismayed by another defeat, but Rotherham was a performance that demands an instant improvement — and Leeds instantly face a much tougher opponent.