Leeds were not quite so dominant yesterday, but certainly they weren’t three goals worse than their much talked-up opponents, and if Aitor Karanka’s men are the red hot favourites to earn automatic promotion, then on Sunday’s evidence Leeds should be encouraged that they more than matched them. Yet, while the 3-0 Riverside defeat left a number of positives to dwell on, as has happened after several games this season, it doesn’t count for much when you look at the league table. And that’s where Leeds United have to neutralise the influence of elementary good and bad luck.
The standout stat after a curious 90 minutes of action, was that Leeds had lost 3-0 to a team that had only achieved two shots on target. Truly a stat that you feel only Leeds United could contrive, and much like the 2-1 win at MK Dons last weekend, the real story of the game isn’t told by the simple nature of the final result . If in the past a football pundit somewhere invented the word ‘bouncebackability’, then on Sunday Leeds United plucked ‘shootfootability’ from their football lexicon, to describe the nature in which they handed the game to Middlesbrough through a showreel of self-inflicted implosions.
Indeed, Leeds played much better as an attacking force than in last weekend’s away victory, but as a defensive unit were guilty of errors which unfortunately are never far from the surface. This, worryingly, is the case with both the centre halves deployed on Sunday. Head coach Uwe Rösler made two changes to his back four; something you would never advocate after a win in the previous game, and if no factors force you to do so, certainly at centre half. The first, however, Gaetano Berardi returning to his right back slot in place of Scott Wootton, was pretty much nailed on. But the appearance of Guiseppe Bellusci at centre half in place of the dependable Liam Cooper dismayed many a Leeds fan before kick-off. While Cooper is not always a convincing defender, he has been consistent of late and certainly can point to the more critical failings of others around him when arguing his case for a first team start.
All three goals conceded to Middlesbrough were horrible gifts, with Bellusci providing solid grounds for being hauled off at half-time. In the second minute he failed to connect with a clearing header, with David Nugent picking up the scraps – via a handball which nobody appeared to notice – to give ‘Boro the early lead they craved. Leeds, though, didn’t allow the home team to build up any momentum and played the game at their own pace, slowly getting back into their stride, which made Bellusci’s second calamity all the more galling. With 32 minutes on the clock and relative calm restored, a cross from George Friend was skilfully headed past the awaiting clutches of his own goalkeeper by the hapless Italian and the game was as good as up.
But in between such moments Leeds passed and probed confidently and caused ‘Boro more problems than a lot of teams will this season. Congolese winger Jordan Botaka was starting his first game for the club – somewhat surprisingly given the opposition and possibly ahead of schedule if you consider the current Sam Byram situation – and while he was involved in the game in patches, he was sitting too deep to really trouble the home side’s defence.
In the second half Botaka addressed that, and in the twenty minute period after half-time Leeds did enough to get back into the game……and they did. Leeds scored. Mirco Antenucci buried his fourth goal of the season on 56 minutes and the linesman didn’t raise his flag to signal it was offside. In the linesman’s eyes it was a good goal. Middlesbrough protestations prompted the referee to discuss the incident with his linesman and somehow the decision was overturned. TV evidence showed the offside was very marginal and could have conceivably been given either way. That said, the benefit of any doubt is supposed to favour the attacker. You have to assume that benefit was given to Antenucci because the linesman didn’t raise his flag. His first impression therefore must have been that the Italian was onside. Quite why the referee felt compelled to interject on this occasion rather than for the many other marginal decisions that linesmen make in every single game, I cannot fathom.
It’s easy to blame the officials for Leeds’s defeat and ignore our own self-destructive failings; so we will. Middlesbrough forward Christian Stuani could easily have seen a second yellow card for persistent fouling, specifically of the harassed Charlie Taylor, and was eventually substituted by the wily Karanka for just such a reason. The Uruguayan’s replacement, Diego Fabbrini, was therefore on the pitch to round Silvestri and score the third goal on 80 minutes, after Sol Bamba had slipped on the lush Riverside turf and presented him the ball. Rather than having ten men, Middlesbrough appeared to have 14, with both Leeds centre halves and the referee doing their best to gift wrap the three points without the home side having to break sweat.
Of course it would be churlish to suggest Leeds deserved much from the game overall, but certainly the 3-0 score line was harsh on them, and had the Antenucci goal stood with over half an hour left, you just never know. Shortly afterwards Botaka crossed expertly for the Italian to plant a point blank header straight at the ‘Boro keeper, and Alex Mowatt – bandaged up like a delirious Basil Fawlty – also drew a fine save from a curling free-kick in Leeds’s best passage of pressure.
Rösler claimed afterwards that Middlesbrough had been “ruthless”, but that is surely being generous when all three goals were presented on a plate, with no hard-hearted finality required; despite that quite clearly being in their locker. Rösler also rather cryptically referred to his five changes not necessarily being what he wanted to make, but then suggested we should not look to deeply into why Sam Byram was omitted from the starting line-up. It is certainly possible that Byram was put on the bench simply because his head wasn’t right – and Rosler is better placed than every one of us to judge that – rather than through a sinister directive from above. But you have to question why Byram wasn’t introduced in the second half at 2-0 when Leeds could sniff something in the game. Yes, Byram has been suffering from indifferent form, but what convincing case has Souleymane Doukara put forward during his numerous invisible appearances from the bench? Doukara, as ever, was hesitant, on a different wavelength to all his teammates, and quite simply ineffective.
So on the face of it, a 3-0 defeat may seem dispiriting but there will be plenty for Rösler to work with in the performance; from elements both good and bad. Doubtless pressure will now be raised on his stability in the head coach position, but how can Rösler legislate for the defensive errors made yesterday? Except for the fundamental fact that by selecting Bellusci in a starting eleven, you pretty much accept that one calamitous errror per game, via questionable concentration levels, is pretty much his modus operandi. This, therefore, is where Rosler leaves himself open to criticism, and where tangible results, rather than simply signs of encouragement, are what we need to see now.
The German is surely long enough of tooth to realise that luck evens out, and if maybe Leeds had things going their way last weekend in Milton Keynes, celestial forces were against them on Sunday by the sunny industrial wasteland of Middlesbrough. After last season’s two smash-and-grab wins for Leeds, Middlesbrough will care not one jot for Leeds’s claims for the unjust; they will point to karma. Uwe Rösler needs to very quickly instil in his team the qualities to affect games themselves via things they can control, not with costly errors, but with the burgeoning talent that is clearly there, but too often not evident in the final score.