International breaks are torrid things for most teams; a horrible, lengthy pause in the middle of a run of games often does little more than disrupt progress and invite injury on your better players. Key figures are distributed around the globe, subject to jet-lag, training and additional competitive games (or worse, friendlies). This one, however, feels very much like we were saved by the bell. Leeds were on the ropes, reeling from heavy punch after heavy punch. Similar to the David Haye/Tony Bellew fight – we were Haye, with one leg, anchored to the spot, inviting an absolute battering.
Fortunately the bell went, giving us two weeks to recoup and rethink. With form only suitable for relegation and performances so fragile that even a whisper of conceding a goal would result in an avalanche. Where Leeds could look good, like we’ve turned a corner, then the nagging doubt enters your mind and prophetically all positive things drain away and you’re left, bruised on the floor staring at a 6th defeat in 7 games.
Two weeks of double training sessions and a stiff reminder of what it means to be Leeds was required, and seemingly this worked. Though there are few games this season that will have so much anticipation or pressure than playing Boro at home. Not just because they’re big-spenders intent on bouncing straight back up into the Premier League, but because Garry Monk elected to jump ship from Leeds because he felt Boro were going places we simply weren’t. Which is insulting, if not understandable.
After years of false-dawns and Cellino ownership, it’s forgivable that you’d look at a Steve Gibson owned club and consider that a better option, but with Radrizzani coming in, most thought that would be sufficient for Garry to stay. Alas, not. So when this fixture was announced it became implausibly important. To us, at least. I doubt Boro felt so spurned. But when you factor in how poor our form had become, beating an expensive Boro side who were climbing the table seemed unlikely, as did beating someone we wanted to prove wrong.
Leeds played well and were comfortably the better side. That’s not to say that Boro weren’t without chances, but they were without shots. Where Leeds had previously been late to every second ball and a yard slower than their opponents, the tides had turned and we exerted the same qualities over Boro. Vieira and Phillips in midfield were ever-present; whirlwinds of energy going box-to-box. The front four of Pablo, Saiz, Alioski and Roofe was far more mobile than its Lasogga-included alternative, meaning that the Boro back-four were struggling to hold their shape with 4 white shirts running at them, around them, through them.
The first goal was testament to this. George Friend, struggling with Alioski on the right (who had, in fairness, still struggled to shine) failed to block a low cross into the box. Phillips was entirely unmarked to glance the ball towards the far post – taking some of the speed off the ball and changing its trajectory just enough to evade the two red shirts behind him. Pablo had anticipated a spilled ball and timed his run to the back post with perfection, firing it into the roof of the net with the side of his boot. Elation.
The second goal was more Pablo magic, though I think Roofe deserves as much credit. The forward managed to dribble past 3 red shirts before being overwhelmed, punting the ball forward for Pablo has he is pulled to the floor. Hernandez hit a perfectly measured ball at the perfect pace at the perfect angle to evade the goal-facing defence yet hit Alioski’s outstretched boot. The Macedonian winger had nothing to do, such was the perfection of the assist, he merely had to be where he was and Pablo made it happen. Sublime.
Leeds had two other opportunities to go further ahead, with Saiz hitting the post after a piece of direct running and Cooper missing a free header after an unusually-clever set piece that left him entirely alone in their box with ample time and space.
A ridiculous penalty presented the away side with a way back into the game, which Assombalonga cooly despatched. The introduction of Adama Traoré caused genuine problems (such is the quality of the player), though Leeds quickly twigged and started closing him down quickly and violently. Whenever Traoré received the ball he was immediately swamped by 3 white shirts and kicked into submission.
Despite the late scare, Leeds held on for a comfortably deserved victory and one that comes at a really convenient time. With Wolves and Barnsley our next two games – it’s conceivable to think we’ll lose both – so having a win to break a losing streak is really important. And if you can beat a Garry Monk managed Boro, you can beat anyone. Not because he’s so good, but because we know Leeds struggle to overcome bogey situations and there are few scenarios quite so inviting to lose as trying to beat someone who dumped you for a new partner who is much, much more wealthy.
Radrizzani had littered Elland Road with flags to symbolise a sense of togetherness, and while these often became rudimentary missiles, the sentiment carried through. “Us against them” is a thing even the most fractious Leeds fans can embrace, and when the “them” is a manager who dumped us for a lack of ambition or plan, it’s quite satisfying to be able to walk away the victor.
But as both coaches were keen to assert at full time, it’s not about the people involved or anything as personal as that, it’s about the result. And on that front Leeds can be very happy, not just with the 3 points but with the performance. We were good. Not perfect, but good. More of this and we’ll be deservedly spoken off as playoff contenders. More of what happened at Brentford and we’ll be in trouble.
Wolves are next and while it’ll be a difficult game, it’s no longer inconceivable that we could get a result there. See you again in March, Garry.