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A Leeds Fan’s Quandary

17 September 2015
A Leeds Fan’s Quandary
A sage observer within my earshot commented as Saturday’s game versus Brentford drifted towards the now inevitable 1-1 draw, that Leeds would have been better off losing their previous home games to Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday and winning one other game, rather than drawing five out of the opening six games of this pivotal season for the club; eight points derived from two wins and two draws rather than one win and five draws, seemingly creating more of a positive vibe to this fan.

It’s the kind of skewed logic and tap room wisdom that in-the-moment frustration and four or five pints on a match day can bring, but still it is symptomatic of the sense of stasis that Leeds fans find themselves in. You can see it either way, and fans are evenly split on the buoyancy of gaining points in every game and remaining unbeaten or the despondency of dropping two each time as other clubs race away.

Personally, where Leeds United are concerned I’m very much a glass half-empty person – years of real life evidence dictate this – but I’ve had a Tomas Brolin-shaped bellyful of seeing my team lose, particularly at home, and there is something refreshing, not to mention fortifying, about being hard to beat. Furthermore, there are clear signs of ‘something’ in this side, and simply having a squad of players who, almost to a man, I ‘quite like’ is bordering on revolution. ‘The Invincibles’ is a title maybe still used with tongue firmly in cheek by Leeds fans to describe this team, but it sounds much better than some of the names I’ve heard slung towards the players at Elland Road or from away ends up and down the country in recent years, as we’ve filed out heads bowed to mingle with our gleeful conquerors.

Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Brentford, salvaged by a 76th-minute strike from the galvanising force that is Mirco Antenucci, was deemed to be a fair result “for two teams who wanted to win” by manager Uwe Rösler. It is true that Leeds wanted to win in the last 25 minutes of the game, and perhaps should have done, but it was the first time in the match that they had shown such inclination, and managed to wrestle the initiative from a sprightly Brentford team that cut through Leeds with frequency and ease in the first hour. Brentford could have been comfortably ahead.

While Rösler was satisfied with a point, a number of things will have quietly alarmed him: Firstly, the mad but mercifully brief period in which captain and colossus Sol Bamba made three horrible errors. A Botaka-like shuffle to side-step the ball past an onrushing Brentford forward was ‘Samba Bamba’ at his best. It drew ‘olés’ from the crowd and we all dismissed the fact that it was Bamba’s worrying penchant for dithering on the ball that invited the situation and prompted such emergency action in the first place.

This would all have been forgotten hadn’t Bamba then under-hit a backpass moments later, onto which Brentford debutant Marco Djuricin raced and homed in on goal, before Liam Cooper slid in to the rescue. Bamba couldn’t hide on the 26th minute, however, when his self-destructive period culminated in Alan Judge catching him off balance and almost non-existent as the Bees midfielder sped past and fed the Austrian Djuricin in the penalty area for Brentford’s deserved opener.

Another aspect of Leeds’s performance that will cause Rösler some concern is the re-shaping that is required to spark some life into the team when playing at home. There were no calls for Mirco Antenucci to come off the bench at Derby two weeks ago, where Rösler’s preferred 4-3-3 formation had largely controlled the game and dug in for a well-merited victory, albeit with the Italian forward contributing to the last few minutes. On Saturday, Antenucci was the indisputable choice to replace the ineffective Alex Mowatt – thought to be carrying a pre-match injury – and for the second home game running it required ‘Plan B’ to be implemented in order to rescue the game.

Against Sheffield Wednesday in the previous Elland Road encounter, Leeds laboured in the first half, and only when they went behind did they play with any kind of potency and cutting edge. Then, it required the off-colour Sam Byram and Kalvin Phillips to be replaced by Mowatt and Luke Murphy – and perhaps more pertinently, the moving of Stuart Dallas from the left to the right wing - to create the shape for Leeds to pose more threat. On Saturday it was the movement, hold-up play and vision of Antenucci that brought more attacking verve from Leeds. It paid dividends when Dallas robbed substitute Ryan Woods of the ball forty yards from goal and fed Chris Wood, who in turn found his strike partner Antenucci. The bearded one showed customary composure to create the opening and curl a now-trademark finish into the Kop end net. The 31-year-old’s limitations were perhaps evident in injury time when he didn’t have the pace to advance further on David Button’s goal and instead shot tamely into the ‘keeper’s arms with the last action of the game.

Rösler is now charged with finding a way for Leeds to start games with the same intensity that they finish, with a swift solution required as Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich Town arrives for Tuesday evening’s intriguing clash. All three home games so far have seen Leeds chasing a winner in the closing period. It is a characteristic you would expect from the hosts in any game, and particularly at Elland Road, but so far Rösler’s promise of a hard-pressing, ferocious attacking approach – the much-discussed ‘heavy metal’ football – has failed to materialise. Leeds fans are used to a comatose atmosphere in the first 45 minutes and so often it takes the opposition to rouse the passions rather than their own side. The key to Elland Road dominance is finding that spark from the first whistle. Central to that could be the introduction of pace to Leeds’ play, something conspicuously lacking for more years than any football fan should rightfully expect. Congolese winger Jordan Botaka did not even make the bench for Saturday’s game, and reading between the lines it seems Rösler felt he wasn’t physically ready. Sam Byram retained his right wing position against Brentford and while he had a productive game, particularly in the second half, much of this was cutting inside and supporting the build-up play in a more central position. In Rösler’s preferred formation Byram is located to provide more direct attacking threat from the right wing and the German head coach may soon be thinking that his philosophy would be better implemented by a more natural attacker. This leaves Byram in a difficult position with Gaetano Berardi looking increasingly assured and immovable in the right back slot.

In addition to the strong calls for Antenucci to break into the starting eleven, the control and nerve held by Luke Murphy and the responsibility he took in wrestling the game back under Leeds’s supervision is another quality that Rösler can perhaps ignore no longer, particularly with Alex Mowatt currently failing to reach the heights of last season.

Unbeaten and unbowed, Leeds head now towards another Elland Road meeting with Ipswich Town on Tuesday. With no home win since the last time the Tractor Boys chugged north in a 5mph convoy in March 2015, Rösler needs to shake the fans’ mind-set out of ambivalence and equivocation. Points mean prizes and only a win will do.

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.