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Hard Currency

25 January 2016
Hard Currency
“A game only a mother could love”. These were the words my friend used to greet the final whistle of Saturday’s 1-0 win over Bristol City. It’s a long time since we collectively skipped off home high on the fumes of an exhilarating performance from Leeds United, and this was another exercise in having to remind yourself that we had actually won the game.

Many fans will have entered Elland Road minutes after witnessing the epic finale to Liverpool’s 5-4 win at Norwich City on live TV. As an exhibition of attacking football and high drama you could be forgiven for thinking the fare served up by Leeds United v Bristol City was a different sport altogether. Certainly, the separation of only one division is alarming, but then arguably Liverpool’s crazy injury time win was as error-strewn as the confused ninety minutes that passed for entertainment in LS11. Category A prices for the kind of football that defies categorization. Liverpool and Norwich just know how to score goals, and not necessarily how to prevent them.

But then, football is about winning; and wins award you with points. Leeds did that with a 100% success rate in terms of shots on goal. One shot, one goal. It’s hard to argue with that kind of ruthless efficiency and economy of wastefulness, even when the remainder of the game was a laborious effort, rather like a German industrial techno concept album. But if football is about winning, then goals are its currency; and Leeds did manage to score one.

Norwich v Liverpool served up nine goals, and there could have been more. Scoring four goals at home and losing is rare of course, although I’ve seen Leeds do it twice in my lifetime, and there is a lot to be said for clean sheets and hard-fought victories. So in the big scheme of things, Saturday’s 1-0 win over Bristol City will remain in the record books forever more as three points gained, and we won’t worry too much in a few years’ time about how they were earned. But we probably should worry a bit right now, because Saturday’s clean sheet was only Leeds’s sixth of the season, and you only need a fairly basic grasp of maths to work out that not scoring goals will usually lead to not winning football matches.

If goals are football’s currency, then Leeds fans can certainly feel short changed at the moment. Indeed, bodies of people have taken industrial action when offered more favourable returns than Leeds fans have come to expect this season. In 14 home games in 2015/16, Leeds United have scored just 12 goals. Two of those were own goals. Leeds have scored more than once in a league game at home only twice. Perhaps most depressingly, taking Leeds’s games both home and away into account, players in the starting line-up on Saturday had scored only four league goals all season; one each for Charlie Taylor, Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas and Souleymane Doukara. Indeed, own goals were the top scorer.

As prophecies go for a dearth of goalmouth action, it was an accurate one. Doukara netted his second league goal of the season on 59 minutes to settle matters, pouncing on a loose ball in the box and finishing neatly with an opportunist strike. By this time Leeds’s top scorer Chris Wood had entered the contest as a 54th minute substitute, significantly upping the likelihood of seeing a goal, despite the £3million man facing heavy criticism this season.

Prior to Wood’s appearance, Leeds had persevered with a lone front man, a role which doesn’t suit Doukara, and a formation that appears unimaginative and almost blasphemous for a Leeds United side at Elland Road against anyone, never mind a team in the bottom three. Notwithstanding Wood’s unfortunate injury, Leeds have never looked a slick attacking unit all season, however, bar 15-minute cameos at Derby and Wolves, and at home to Hull City. Somehow, whatever the personnel and whatever the formation deployed, the result is a scarcity of flair, bravery and fundamentally, looking dangerous in and around the penalty area.

Saturday’s first half saw a ponderous succession of sideways and backwards passing, before any attempt to inject some tempo into the game resulted in the move inevitably breaking down, or an artless lump forward to nobody. In fairness, an influential player like Lewis Cook is currently searching for some consistency in his game, elsewhere Liam Bridcutt had a bit of an off-day and Stuart Dallas and Mustapha Carayol saw little of the ball in wide areas, partly, it must be said, because Bristol City didn’t allow it. At the other end, Guiseppe Bellusci was solid and had to be, with Marco Silverstri spilling shots and causing anxiety again, as he had at Hillsborough last weekend.

Watching Leeds fail to break down an organised defence for the first 45 minutes has become a staple part of our lives; like the first cup of tea in the morning, an obligatory something you have to negotiate before getting on with your day, just a lot less pleasurable.

Most teams are now aware of Leeds’s shortcomings, and approach visits to Elland Road with this firmly in mind. It’s hard to see how new signing Toumani Diagouraga, a holding midfielder from Brentford, is going to change that, unless his solidity in front of the back four enables a fairly radical change in formation. That is not to say Diagouraga isn’t a welcome signing, and anything that improves what Leeds currently have, which he just about does by all accounts, is encouraging. However, this doesn’t address the main problem Leeds have had all season, scoring goals to put it simply, and this must be Steve Evans’s primary target this week, after Tuesday night’s visit, ironically, to Brentford.

On Saturday, Bristol City, for their part, followed the same pattern that so many other teams have at Elland Road; they soaked up some tepid passing and attacked on the counter. Their only enemy was maintaining a focus and concentration while Leeds passed idly and endlessly around them forty yards from goal. At half-time, when Leeds were booed from the field by a sizeable proportion of the crowd, you felt thankful for the team’s recent unbeaten run, which had taken them a comfortable enough distance from the bottom three. You sensed Leeds still needed wins to maintain that distance, and the sooner the better. But you consoled yourself with the fact that there were definitely three teams worse than us in this division, and that will have to do for now. Except, you then remembered that one of the them was Bristol City, and they weren’t looking like they were worse than us, and in fact they were to continue to squander presentable opportunities at fairly regular intervals throughout the ninety minutes.

As ever, there is a very fine line between Leeds being a good side and a bad one. Steve Evans attempted to put a positive spin on the nature of the victory, claiming that not only do great sides win games without playing well, they also don’t lose three games in a row. Great sides can lose two games back-to-back, as Leeds did against Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday, but they don’t lose three. He is right of course, but it is hard to see how he can genuinely put Leeds in the category of a great side, based on what he has seen from his three months in charge, even in his most zealous attempts at motivating his players. Great sides produce more than one shot on goal in a game, even when they’re struggling for form; great sides have more than four league goals in their starting line-up; great sides have won more than four home games all season. Leeds are where they are for a reason, and until a team is produced that can score goals, or even look like they know how to, any victories that do occur will be hard-earned and hard to watch. Goals are hard currency; reliable and stable, and they will always carry the same value. Leeds have been given some cheap ones this season, although maybe not as many as they have given away themselves. Now they need to remember that goals are a habit and a very good one, and maybe that will enable them to work out how to turn hard currency into an easy life.

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