sheffield wednesday 0-2 leeds united: change givenBack
While Fulham knocked the ball quickly from player to player around and inside the Leeds United penalty area on Tuesday night, a voice in the crowd piped up, ‘That’s how you do it, Leeds! That’s how you play football!’
Leeds have had a lot of lessons in how to play over the last few seasons, but not heeded them. Week after week we’ve seen teams come to Elland Road playing football that, if not quite otherworldly in the Guardiola sense, looked a lot better than anything Leeds could manage.
I’d begun to wonder this season if it was something that had become too deeply engrained at the club. I wrote recently about the development of footballing cultures, and as I watched Leeds players getting to every ball second against QPR, as Birmingham and Fulham players darted between them at speed, I wondered if this was now ours: a culture of slothful football. Hey, wait long enough, and it might come back into fashion. We might even get Casper Sloth back.
United can’t wait for that to happen, though, because there would be no one still coming to Elland Road to see it. So changes are required, which doesn’t seem to bother Garry Monk. Since playing Fulham on Tuesday, Leeds have acquired two new players; only one, Liam Bridcutt, came into the side, but there were three other swaps.
Some of these were perplexing. I had looked forward to the signing of Bridcutt as a means of getting Pablo Hernandez properly involved; Monk dropped him. There seemed so little to choose between the other players exchanged — Dallas, Roofe and Phillips out, for Mowatt, Vieira and Sacko — it felt like fiddling for the sake of fiddling. Monk might not mind changes, but he also doesn’t seem to have a preferred midfield in mind; perhaps fair enough, given a major part of it has only just arrived.
He also seems determined to stick with 4-4-2, despite early signs that 4-2-3-1 would be the way forward. With Antonsson playing well, but Wood scoring, it’d be harsh to drop either; that has meant relying on two central midfielders, which has made us weak in the middle. I’d still, personally, like to see Wood removed so Hernandez can play behind Antonsson; but at least, as long as Bridcutt and one other are in midfield, we can look forward to some strength there at last, whatever the formation.
Bridcutt didn’t look, to me, like the strongest player last year. He’d go in for full-blooded tackles that would get the crowd roaring; but he’d end up on the floor, without the ball, effectively bouncing off the player he was trying to dispossess. Still, blood and thunder on his boots though, right? It was, at least, action in a slothful side.
Bridcutt did his dirty Leeds credentials no harm on his second debut, booting Gary Hooper in the breadbasket in the finest Leeds-at-Hillsborough tradition of Michael Brown’s kung-fu on Chris O’Grady; the clip has already been cheerfully shared around the internet. But, again, while Hooper ended up in a crumpled heap, he still managed to head the ball to a teammate on the way down, who set Forestieri up to shoot at Robert Green. An effective tackle wins the ball.
Fortunately, there’s more to Bridcutt than nipping bites. Those tackling efforts, even if they’re not always successful, raise the tempo around him; and his willingness to keep trying them keeps it raised. Hernandez is an individualist, and I hope that as his Leeds career continues we can find a way to make the most of that; but it has left Vieira and Phillips lost and perplexed alongside him. With Bridcutt as a model and a guide, Vieira didn’t have to do all the work on his own against Wednesday, and a clean sheet is as much a tribute to the centre midfield as to the back four.
It didn’t blunt Leeds going forward, either. Vieira could relax and attack, knowing he wasn’t the last line of defence anymore; while Hadi Sacko had one of those good days that every winger hopes will come along more often than not. His crossing is still suspect, and yet, Marcus Antonsson’s goal came from a cross from Sacko, as did several missed chances from both Antonsson and Chris Wood. They may spend a lot of time watching the ball sail over their heads and out for a throw-in this season, but they’re being given more possibilities to attack.
The second goal, that clinched it, came from a cross from Kemar Roofe rather than Hadi Sacko, but by this time Leeds were leading and Souleymane Doukara was on the pitch, so things were quite upside down. Getting the ball on the halfway line, Roofe didn’t race down the left flank but trotted, his poise straight like a dressage horse, never quite beating the full-back but not needing to; when he reached the corner, he sent a low cross to the near post and Wood slid in to apply the right amount of push to the ball and send it in the net.
Again, about Chris Wood: play to his god damn feet and he will score a ton of goals. And again, about Chris Wood: he celebrated in front of the Leeds fans, jumping on the advertising hoardings and swinging his arms in roaring ecstasy. The other players seemed slow to join him; perhaps they were waiting to see if he was about to produce a bike chain from somewhere and pile into the supporters, finishing what he started on Tuesday night. He was shouting a lot, but I’m willing to assume it was all nice things. It was a nice finish that deserved a nice reception, and maybe we can all play nicely together from now on.
Wood’s goal was a nice finish but Antonsson’s opener was nice all the way through, and it’s a goal that would not have been possible last season. It began when Charlie Taylor won the ball in the left back position. He charged around the outside of a Wednesday player — see, he can still do it — and passed to Chris Wood, in space, in the centre of the pitch. Sacko had to pause his run slightly to receive the ball from Wood, but then he drove into the box, the Wednesday defence retreating from him like sheep from a collie.
Once he was there he did something I thought had come and gone with Jordan Botaka: he backheeled it. To a Leeds United player. To the very willing Luke Ayling, who did something else Leeds players don’t generally do; he played a first touch pass back to Sacko. As soon as the ball left Ayling’s foot, the arms of Wood and Antonsson sprang aloft in unison in the centre of the penalty area. Neither were marked, but Antonsson, sneaking behind Lees, was the least marked, and Sacko’s first touch cross was a chip that left everyone else on the pitch redundant, reducing the game to a diving Antonsson, the ball, and an empty net.
The ball crossed the line seventeen seconds after Taylor had brought it under control in defence, a ludicrously brief amount of time for Leeds United to get forward, play one touch passes and a backheel around the box, and score a goal. There have been plenty of occasions when that has been done to Leeds, but Leeds as doers?
These are the things we’ve been longing for. A disciplined midfield, fast breaks, quick passes, crosses and goals; it’s been so long, it’s felt easier to give up. And even seeing it now, it feels fragile. Monk’s changes are frequent, and it’d be surprising if he keeps the same team for Luton and Nottingham. But it won’t matter if the team changes are frequent, if the style changes — the culture changes — are permanent.