sutton united 1-0 leeds united: play to loseBack
Naming a reserve side for an FA Cup match ought to be a bulletproof tactic. It protects your first team from injury or suspension, and against a non-league team, even one fired up by Ian Baird, they still ought to be able to win. And if they don’t win, well, your team’s reputation should survive; it’s not like it’s the first team getting beaten out there.
Garry Monk made ten changes, keeping only Dallas, and complementing more experienced players — Doukara, Silvestri, Cooper, Antonsson — with young players we’ve seen in glimpses, and young players we’ve not seen at all. Paul McKay was one of those, one of the twin sons of agent Willie McKay who joined Leeds in the summer; Billy Whitehouse was the other, also signed from Doncaster in the summer and, earlier in the season, loaned to Guiseley, where he played one game.
A couple of years ago Casper Sloth might have made a rare appearance in this game. By the end, I was wishing he had.
An early marker from Sutton United on Matt Grimes, the Sloth du jour, indicating there would be no fear of sliding on the astroturf pitch, no lack of tackles, and no lack of willingness to kick Grimes. Rain began to fall, bringing with it a fraid of Histon ghosts gathering to moan and rattle their chains. A cup tie began.
It began with a shudder of joy for giantkilling fans; a pass over the top caught three of Leeds’ defenders on the snooze, and Roarie Deacon, a striker with a name like a Millwall mascot, took the ball on and crashed a shot into Marco Silvestri’s near top corner. There was an offside flag to deny the goal, but the call was close, and the finish into United’s net was robust. Deacon soon had another chance, a shot from distance that struck Silvestri right in the showboat on its way to the top corner.
Leeds weren’t having many problems with the weather, or with passing the ball around on the artificial pitch in the forward areas of midfield, but Sutton’s pressing and high balls were troublesome. Coupled with Sutton’s eagerness to reach any loose ball first, it made a difficult first twenty minutes for Leeds. Deacon’s strength, like that of Uche Ikpeazu at Cambridge in the previous round, was more than United’s defenders had bargained for, and after he raced through Silvestri had to save smart and low to stop a goal from Gomis.
Leeds went straight up the other end and Dallas’ shot was saved well, but counter attacking against a dominant Sutton side was less than Leeds ought to have been delivering. Dallas had another chance when Doukara, remembering from midweek that he’s Messi now, backheeled to Denton; Denton played a firm pass to Dallas whose shot deflected just wide.
It was a temporary reprieve. Silvestri again had to revert to the showreel to keep out a shot from — yet again — Deacon, who had by now been booked for scything down Denton as he headed for goal. Leeds couldn’t do anything from that free-kick and instead retreated to their own penalty area, resisting long throws until Deacon had his chance to let fly.
Silvestri might be a showoff, but his saves meant Leeds were still in the game at half-time. The ball had been with United’s forwards so seldom it was hard to be sure if Doukara and Antonsson were playing as a front two, or what, or at all. Grimes? Gimme Sloth. Whitehouse and McKay? Gimme anybody.
The second half presented a still compressed pitch for Leeds to play in and an early effort by Whitehouse; he played some carefully prepared stepovers on the edge of Sutton’s boxed, then mishit a shot that squirmed wide. It was followed by an attacking move between Antonsson and Doukara that was a prelude to calamity.
A long clearance set Sanrio character Biamou clear at the corner of Leeds’ box, where Silvestri and Coyle tried to deal with him but, through a mixture of shirking and incompetence, only succeeded in buffeting him to the floor between them. The referee waited before giving anything; Coyle got up from on top of Silvestri and, as Deacon tore into the box to get the ball, kicked him, and that was well and truly a penalty. It was scored, of course it was scored.
You longed for a Jansson or Bartley to come on and sort things out, but they were in Leeds trying to make what they could of BT Sport’s rainsoaked broadcast. Luke Ayling was on the bench, and he might have done for us, if he could play in attack, defence and midfield all at once. Garry Monk opted instead to replace Dallas with Hadi Sacko, hoping he could outrun Sutton on the 3G; and then Doukara with Malik Wilks, for an emotionally charged debut three days after the murder of his brother, Monk trusting the young man’s temperament to see him through an increasingly scrappy, tetchy match. Wilks did see it through, to his credit, and hopefully to his long term benefit.
Billy Whitehouse tried to claim a penalty when he was barged out of Sutton’s area; Matt Grimes tried a Doukaragol, with predictable results. Silvestri, his showboat now ashore, settled for some panicky juggling and last ditch clearances of backpasses; and Kemar Roofe rather than Ayling replaced Whitehouse, Monk preferring artistry to effort, while Sutton tried to pull off backheels along the wing, and Sacko was needed at the back to stop Biamou. Roofe was welcomed to the game, dumped to the floor on the halfway line by Nicky Bailey, who was booked.
With a chance to swing a freekick into the box from wide, Matt Grimes pinged it low and hard at the two Sutton players forming a half-hearted wall in front of him, summing up he lack of quality and leadership that had got United into such a mess; a lack that wasn’t helped when captain Liam Cooper was sent off for a second yellow card that was so inarguable it was almost boring. In keeping with the game it wasn’t violent, or malicious, or outrageous, it was just sad; a Leeds player shown up by the greater desire and intensity of the opponent racing past them.
The red card ended any fightback before it began, if it was going to begin. Antonsson did engineer a chance for himself, but turned and booted the ball over the bar and towards a distant forest. Sacko was booked for a late tackle. Sutton stayed on the front foot until the final whistle and their fans’ celebratory pitch invasion; ah, romance. You can keep that, too.
The transfer of Alex Mowatt last week stirred some longing, in me at least; a long, successful career for Mowatt, coming from the Academy to the first team at Leeds, would be such a happy story that it’s fair to pour a little whisky on the sawdust of his departure. That can get misinterpreted as an unfair bias towards any Leeds youth player to the point of blindness to their faults, when it’s just a preference, really; we all love the story of the hometown hero in sport.
It doesn’t override practicality, though, and nobody watching Leeds against Sutton will have been thinking, by, I hope we don’t let any of these go. I’d love Phillips to become a world beater, I’d love Denton and Coyle to be our full-backs for the next decade, but if there’s a danger in the not-so bulletproof tactic of picking a second string, it’s the bad taste a performance and result like this — that the press will broadcast with glee — can leave. That side is now the side that lost at Sutton; unfair on some of them, but for others, well deserved.
The other unwanted result is the increased pressure. Garry Monk no doubt hoped to easily rest his first team players before the Blackburn and Huddersfield games this week; he now has to guarantee Leeds win both those games, or this decision will look even worse. And Andrea Radrizzani and Massimo Cellino are under more pressure to invest in what should — could — no, should — be a promotion challenge. “I don’t let him invest anything yet,” Cellino said when Radrizzani arrived. “We have too many players. We don’t want to get in a mess because we want to help too much.” But we’ve seen the ‘too many players’ that are around the edges of our over-performing first team, and they don’t fill me with much confidence should they be required to fill in.
All of which could have been avoided. Play to win, and win, and you never have any of these problems; lower the percentage chances of your own victory and you begin to gamble. Gamble, and you just might lose.