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the square ball week: you make me feel so weak

the square ball week: you make me feel so weak

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After the Fulham match LUFCData’s ever-interesting Twitter account offered up some stats that weren’t interesting in the same way that watching an alien autopsy would be interesting, which is to say, they were terrifying.

In the last couple of games, against Birmingham City and Fulham, this sort of stuff has been going on: 50 shots at our goal, 15 of them blocked, another eight saved by Robert Green; he’s done twenty saves in the last seven games, third most in the division; across the rest of the defenders in the last two games were 115 clearances, 44 tackles and 38 interceptions.

That, like my heart rate just thinking about it, seems abnormally high. And then, like some perilous new rollercoaster that you’re too frightened to even look at, everyone had to go and be so excited about it. As if this was good news!

I suppose, in a way, it is. Did anybody get excited about our defensive stats last season, with Silvestri, Bamba and Wootton in the team? Well, Giuseppe Bellusci famously did, maintaining and then revealing on Twitter his own spreadsheet to prove he was less of a bastard than everybody was saying; it proved the exact opposite, which is the best metaphor for what our defence was like back then. It’s good, now, to be able to look at the sheer numbers of blocks, tackles and saves being carried out in our club’s name and reflect that, for all that, we only conceded two goals.

It’s good, too, that some of those interceptions were glorious bits of lore that ought to be treasured in the Leeds United archives, even if only as GIFs. Jansson and Berardi’s synchronised diving blocks to stop Jordan Rhodes against Sheffield Wednesday? Glorious. And glorious, too, was Berardi against Fulham; back on his right side, the right side, he pulled off the complete ‘nothing wrong’ performance. That’s not the same as an ‘everything right’ performance, but we’re talking about defending here, and Berardi did what was asked of him, which was nothing wrong.

These stats also rightly elevate Robert Green, which is a good thing, ahead of his 600th appearance against QPR; he’s been in excellent form, and should have had a clean sheet against Fulham, if only as reward for the quality of his late save from a header that, at the time, looked like it was as good as a goal for us. Goals against us number 36, the fifth best record in the league, so something at the back has been going right. We’ve got a goal difference of plus fourteen, for chrissakes. We haven’t finished a season with a positive goal difference since 2010/11; when, incidentally, we missed out on the play-offs by three points and one place. But perhaps now’s not a good time to get into that.

But we can’t go on like this. It’s not as if Silvestri, Bellusci and co were letting in ten goals a game back in the day, although they tested that potential a few times. But back then football used to happen so god damn slowly that there was very little for them to actually do; games used to just pass by and nothing would happen, and as long as nothing was happening, our defenders would cope just fine. Give them some defending to do and it was a bloody disaster, but apart from that they were great, great lads.

The problem we have now is that we’re good at football again, and that means there’s more of it happening. We’re good at all of the football, both scoring and defending, so at the moment it’s fine, and in fact one thing that I will say about the increased heart rate is that it feels good to feel alive while watching Leeds United again. Whenever somebody used to ask me if I enjoyed the football at the weekend, I’d just glare at them, and then when they asked why I even bothered going, I’d go to the bathroom and glare at myself in the mirror, asking the same question.

At the end of the Fulham game, though, while I wasn’t glad about Fulham’s equaliser — Lee Probert, I will curse your Reg Hollis off The Bill face forever — I was glad to be feeling an emotion at the end of a game. It wasn’t the result that I wanted, but it was definitely the game I loved.

It’s March, though, and Leeds United are in the play-offs. Championship football is not, at this stage of the season, a game; it’s barely a sport. That talk is abroad, of the riches of promotion, of parachute payments, of the expense for us fans of a Wembley hotel in May. Bottom lines, profit and loss, league placings; numbers. Not numbers of saves or numbers of blocks, but numbers of points and the number next to the team’s name on the league ladder; 3, 4, 5 or 6 would do; 1 or 2 would be ridiculous. Seven? There’s not an infographic in the world that could make that look good.

Of all the questions that will be asked about Leeds United between now and the end of the season, here’s one for this week; can their new found ability at football continue to be compatible with putting ourselves under such extreme defensive pressure, and still come up with the results that will get Leeds into the play-offs? Or do United need to cool it on some of the football stuff and get real about what is required for promotion, get away from the hero stuff for a while, and get us safely into the play-offs?

But then, what is Berardi without heroism, what is Pontus? And what is football without heroes? And what are hearts without beats? As long as we’re not beaten, it’s all good.

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