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the square ball week: mowatt genre

the square ball week: mowatt genre

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In his first season, I couldn’t understand Alex Mowatt. I couldn’t understand what there was to understand. I was looking for complexity and couldn’t find any.

‘Generic’ was the word I used, because I don’t know how else to describe a midfielder these days. New formations, new tactics and new styles of play have made the midfield so important that a team like Barcelona might experiment with playing extra midfielders in place of strikers or defenders; but the attempts to describe the new roles formed by the new styles have almost eliminated the midfielder from football’s language.

Attacking midfielder. Defensive midfielder. Holding midfielder. False nine. Ten. False ten. Trequartista. Regista. Fantasisti. Central winger. Midfielder? Yes, but what kind?

That was the question nagging me about Alex Mowatt. Here was a player with the barrel body and short legs of Diego Maradona, but who didn’t go on those Ski Sunday runs like Diego, evading every challenge. He could pass, but he wasn’t a fulcrum, passing and receiving, dictating the play. There wasn’t much evidence of tackling ability, so we weren’t able to giddily compare Mowatt to Batty the way we can with Cook. In attack, he was tidily effective but not inventive; he’d find a striker with the right pass, but he wouldn’t reveal him as if by magic the way Luke Murphy pulled back the curtain on Antenucci last week, to the gasps of the astonished Huddersfield Town defence.

Alex Mowatt was a midfielder. And what use have we got for one of those in this day and age?

That lack of a speciality might be why Mowatt, along with Sam Byram, is one of the first against the wall when it comes to accusations about unfulfilled potential. Lewis Cook is still too new; he’s immune. He’s also consistently excellent. Charlie Taylor is the opposite to Mowatt, in that he embodies what it is to be a left-back so effectively, in defence and attack, that there’s little doubt about the standards by which we should judge him.

Byram and Mowatt, this season in particular, have suffered by an unfortunate combination of over-familiarity and an unfocused drifting. (With Byram there have been the extra elements, of contract (non) negotiations, Premier League interest, murmurings of a lack of concentration due to noise off.) The questions about them both this season have been, one, where are they going to play? And two, why is that even a question?

Both Byram and Mowatt have had silly buggers played with their place in the team while Uwe Rosler attempted to play 4–3–3 with one winger. Both have begun to play with a lack of form so ragged you might think they’ve torn it. Byram will never be a Premier League right-back because he’s no good as a Championship right-winger in a hesitant 4–3–3; Mowatt will never make it as a… whatever he is, because he couldn’t immediately adapt to his own place to the left of Adeyemi and Cook.

It was no surprise that Steve Evans, when he took over, immediately dropped them both; but given their talent, it should be unthinkable. Can Tom Adeyemi do anything with a ball that Alex Mowatt can’t? I don’t think so. And yet he edged out the more talented player in Evans’ first two games because he could do the one thing football managers of a certain stripe love to have a player do: a job.

Well, there’s still no sign of Byram; he and Evans are going to have some down time this week, motivational videos and chill, and if Evans doesn’t emerge holding in his hand a piece of paper that commits Byram’s future to Elland Road, then there may never be peace again for Sam Byram at Leeds United. Alex Mowatt, though, is back.

The teamsheet says left wing, but look at him against Cardiff. Antenucci fights to win the ball; his heavy touch had given it away in the first place. Emerging the victor, he plays a steady pass inside to Alex Mowatt, who is at the centre point of Cardiff City’s half of the field, and who, from the moment he gets the ball, is looking at the top corner. He looks; shuffle shuffle. Looks; shuffle shuffle. With options to play the ball right and left, is this creative play? Alex Mowatt is going to create something. He’s going to score a goal. Look, touch, shuffle shuffle. Look, touch, shuffle shuffle. And then he shoots.

After the ball leaves his foot and begins to travel on a curve as beautiful as those that sweep through photographs of a sunrise taken from outer space, Mowatt is thrown into the air like a child throws a ragdoll, a spectacular confusion of flung limbs. When he lands, it’s 1–0.

Then look at him against Huddersfield. He turns the ball to his left and towards the goal with one sharp touch with his foot and a tap from his knee, and sets off in pursuit. When he catches up with it, it’s all hell. Mowatt’s body is again a scribbled out drawing out of itself for a moment, while the ball takes care of all the art.

Two breathless minutes in 180, and Alex Mowatt is a player with a purpose again. I don’t know if there’s a name for it; midfield-destroyer is reserved for hard-tackling beasts who dominate physically. Mowatt doesn’t destroy midfields, he destroys games. There was little else to recommend Leeds United v Cardiff on a rainy night in Beeston, so Mowatt simply destroyed every other memory of the game. Against Huddersfield he didn’t only destroy Town’s chances of coming back into the match from 2–0 down, but he destroyed the rest of the game as entertainment. Town had no answer, and Leeds only had to retain bare control, and soon Sky resorted to showing replays of Mowatt’s goal to lighten the boredom. Was it a fair exchange? A tense second half waiting to see which team would win, given away for one second of watching a football fly from Alex Mowatt’s left boot into the top corner of science and art? Yes. Yes it was.

Those goals were enough to revive Mowatt’s reputation, and to revive interest in him from the fans, at the point where pound signs had begun to stray into conversations about his future. If someone offered so many millions, would we…? But, why would we, when if Mowatt is on the pitch, he might with one shot destroy everything that isn’t right about a game of football? Like Byram, he’d strayed a little out of form, a little out of our affections. Back in the team, scoring wondergoals, one of them is firmly back in the fold.

I wonder how Alex Mowatt feels about that. Because the only reason we can have it both ways is because this is football, where you don’t have to be rational or even-handed, unless someone catches you in the irrational, impulsive, whimsical act. When Billy Sharp destroyed Huddersfield in similarly memorable fashion last season, he celebrated by charging straight into the away fans, his goal a long-awaited excuse to reignite a lukewarm relationship with the Leeds support that ought to have been passionate smooches all night long but had cooled to air kisses as he struggled for goals.

Alex Mowatt’s celebration was an expression of wild disbelief, and it was really nothing to do with us. He was wearing the same yellow shirt as many of the people in the stand in front of him, and as he ran to celebrate, his eyes passed across that delirious tide. His eyes passed until they reached the goal, still just upright after bringing physics to bear to catch Mowatt’s shot in its net, and the sight of the goal with the ball in it confirmed to Mowatt’s brain what his every sense was signalling: that he had just done something incredible.

Then he lost himself in himself. His head snapped back, his eyes raised to the clouds, his hands spread in front of him ready to catch whatever glory was about to rain from the sky, this was personal: Alex Mowatt versus football. Some goals, maybe like the one Gordon Strachan scored against Leicester in 1990, are important because of what they mean for a football club. Some goals, like this one, the third of three in a mid-season win at a mid-table peer, are important to the fans because they’re beautiful and important to the player because… well, he’ll have his own reasons. And a memory to treasure for the rest of his life.

Mowatt might become a memory to Leeds fans before long. The club has an uncertain future, and takeovers past have tended to be drains on resources rather than booty claims; while Alex Mowatt still has to fight to earn his right to play in whatever formation whoever the head coach is chooses to play. Right now, he’s first choice left-winger because of how good he is in central midfield; and because, if you put him on the pitch, something beautiful, destructive and unforgettable might happen.

Generic. If only beautiful, destructive and unforgettable were Leeds United’s genre. I’d take a team of Alex Mowatt’s, if only to share for a second their celebrations.

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