the square ball week: showboat showsBack
‘Nimble.’ That’s the first adjective I can find that I ever used to describe Marco Silvestri. Admittedly I was comparing him to the Paddy Kenny of summer ’14, but I like to think I got that right.
‘Showboaty.’ That was the second. Given that all this analysis was based on one three minute YouTube video of Silvestri playing for Padova, I’m pretty happy with that snap assessment.
Then again, it was hard to conclude anything else. The first shot of Silvestri in meaningful action shows a header going well wide of the goal — and the young goalkeeper flinging himself after it, full stretch, like someone pretending to be Superman for a souvenir photograph at the National Media Museum. He didn’t even have to move to ensure the ball didn’t go in the goal, but if he hadn’t moved, his highlights reel would have been five seconds shorter.
Some other parts only look familiar with hindsight. Colliding with two of his own defenders as they outjump him to meet a cross? Ah, hello Marco. That made it into the video because of the way he jumped wristed the rebounded bicycle kick over the bar as the debris of defenders cleared; if only we’d seen a bit more of that over the last two seasons, instead of just the first part.
We saw a lot of it against Cardiff on Tuesday night, and to be fair we’ve seen match-winning Silvestri performances before; he was unbeatable at The Riverside last season in the 1-0 win at Middlesbrough. He made ten saves that afternoon, and ten more on Tuesday night; nobody has made more saves in a single Championship game this season.
That’s what it took for Leeds United to win. Leeds United hadn’t beaten Cardiff City in Cardiff since 1984, and despite beating Bolton at the weekend, the team Steve Evans named — in fact, any team Evans could have named — didn’t look capable of changing that on Tuesday. Even at full-time, as a team, they still didn’t; ten saves from Silvestri means ten chances for Cardiff, and David Marshall, by contrast, made two. But Leeds scored two at one end, and had an individual in the absolute zone at the other, and that was enough.
Individuals in the zone have tended to be more of a hindrance than a help for Leeds over the past few seasons, because the zone they’ve been in has usually been a bloody moon base: see Sol Bamba versus Brighton, Scott Wootton versus everyone. Marco Silvestri has been as guilty as anyone, ruling his penalty area with all the authority of a toddler giving orders to the family’s twelve year old cat.
That’s partly been a symptom of the poor overall quality of the squad, partly a lack of backbone from the individuals expected to carry the team. While Silvestri was wowing the Twitter statisticians, so was Ross McCormack: he’s been personally involved, either through an assist or by scoring, in 45% of Fulham’s 55 league goals this season; a throwback to his last season at Leeds, when he was involved in 60% of ours. That’s an individual effort that is above the ordinary, and at Leeds and now Fulham, it has been the difference between respectability and relegation.
And it’s something Leeds have lacked. Alex Mowatt has blasted a goal from nowhere now and then; his strike at Huddersfield is still ahead in my heart of Lewis Cook’s against Fulham; but they’re youngsters yet, not able or expected to take a game by the scruff and run it. Our more experienced players have turned out to lack maturity — Mirco Antenucci and Giuseppe Bellusci should be leaders, but the only thing they’ve ever led is a revolt, when they wouldn’t get on the bus to Charlton. And look at who followed them: Edgar Cani, Dario Del Fabro.
Doukara and Silvestri were part of it too, and the four who remained with the club at the start of the season faced a long journey back to trustworthiness. Antenucci has climbed to top scorer again, even though like last season it’s a struggle to remember what his goals have actually been like; Bellusci hasn’t changed, his every good performance turned into a YouTube video by his management company, his bad days still too numerous to ignore. Souleymane Doukara has played a bit, and a bit too enigmatically.
Only Silvestri can say, after Cardiff, that he’s shown the authority and the application to win a game on his own. Which makes no sense, because he’s one of the least authoritative goalkeepers you could think of. The greats I’ve seen in goal for Leeds — John Lukic and Nigel Martyn — were as much capable of defiant acrobatics as Silvestri; look at Martyn’s save against Roma in the Olympic Stadium, or at Old Trafford, where he made a save so impossible he actually injured his back and had to be replaced by Paul Robinson.
Or watch the way John Lukic keeps out Mitch Ward’s dipping volley at Maine Road in 1990 — it’s as athletic as anything Silvestri pulled off against Cardiff, but there’s a crucial difference from a camera point of view: when the ball reached Lukic, or when it used to reach Martyn, he was already there to stop it. All the hard work had been done before the camera was on him. Compare that to Silvestri, shooting across the goal in full plain view for a fingertip’s brush with the ball — he’s late, basically, and boy is it exciting when it works.
Martyn and Lukic became legends for the dependability of their athleticism. We knew they’d stop the ball. They weren’t flash, or at least weren’t seen as such; and given John Lukic has had the same haircut longer than I’ve been alive, the differences between him and Silvestri seem the most stark.
But of all the players at the club right now, Marco Silvestri seems the most secure. Players will leave this summer, it’s just a matter of who, and whether they’ll be leaving to cover operating losses — Cook? Taylor? Mowatt? — or for the good of the team. You could make arguments for replacing pretty much any member of the squad right now except for the young three — and Silvestri.
Not poor enough to prioritise replacing, and not good enough to tempt other clubs into offers tempting enough to accept, Silvestri has a contract until summer 2018, and every expectation of remaining as Leeds United’s number one at least until then. He’ll be up near 180 appearances, passing the 165 John Lukic made in his first spell at Leeds, closing in on Nigel Martyn’s 207. Only 82 players have played more than 200 games for Leeds, and Silvestri could, like Ian Harte wandered quietly onto the top ten European appearance makers list, the way Luciano Becchio suddenly popped in among the top ten goalscorers, find himself a place in the Leeds United record books.
The challenge for Marco is to deserve that place. We’ve seen both sides of his game; we’ve won games because of him, but we’ve lost games because of him too. In the long post-Robinson search for competence between the sticks Silvestri, at 25 years old, has the best chance of anyone at Leeds United to become, if not a Martyn-style legend, then at least a Mervyn Day-style stalwart. Who would have thought that possible a year ago? And will it still be possible a year from now?