1. High Press
After four pretty dispiriting performances and results, I would guess that I was not the only one who would have bitten off a nearby arm for a scrappy one-nil win. It’s therefore little exaggeration to say that to emerge from a tricky-looking tiff, against an in-form mob, with a breezy three-nil was not far off manna from heaven.
So the usual roll of back-slaps and high fives are in order. More specifically, a noticeable improvement in the piece was that our first two goals came about by virtue of the central midfield pair pinching possession in the sort of areas of the pitch that they have dared not tread in recent weeks.
The final third, the attacking third – call it what you will, but generally it has been strictly off-limits to most in lilywhite, with even Messrs Sonny and Kane only making the most fleeting visits over the last month or so.
And yet there, in glorious technicolour, strode first Hojbjerg and then Winks, intercepting misplaced passes just outside the opposition’s own area. Hojbjerg fed Bergwijn, who nobbled himself a fortunate penalty; Winks fed Kane, who slipped in a peach of a pass for Sonny.
Given that their regular posting is around sixty yards further south, as well as the fact that Jose comes across as the sort of cove who would rather chew off his own arm than let one of his underlings stray from a defensive station, one can only surmise that this tentative dip of the toes into the world of higher pressing came about by design rather than accident.
Presumably it was a tactic tailored to the opposition (as Leeds certainly did play an interesting brand of ‘fast-and-loose’ with their distribution from the back), so we should probably not settle back, order popcorn and watch out for the sight of our midfield anchors roaming the final third on a weekly basis. But nevertheless, it was a joy to behold, and, pointedly, brought great reward.
2. Attacking Ambition vs Defensive Safety
So it was all very welcome stuff – and yet…
Having shown a little ambition, and been richly rewarded, I don’t mind committing to paper the fact that I was a mite disappointed to see the ambition-reward approach dispensed with for the final twenty, as our lot sat back and defended for the last quarter of the game. Dismiss me if you will as a misty-eyed romantic of the all-action-no-plot ilk, but I was rather hoping that we would continue in the vein of the previous half hour and keep probing for more.
I suppose if Jose were asked to justify his approach to these things he might do worse than point to today’s opposition. Such was the adoration lavished upon Leeds today by the voices at BT Sport that one might have thought that were running away with the game, but The Book of Facts clearly states that for all their commitment to attack they were still taking a bit of a hammering. (I suspect a few English managers would goggle with incredulity at the adulation received by Bielsa for steering his ship to a 3-0 defeat.)
Pretty pictures count for little if you troop off three down; and conversely, spending 20 minutes casually swatting away all-comers from the edge of your own penalty area is a lot more palatable when three-up.
But be that as it may, the reversion to deep defence for the last quarter of the game did seem a tad over-the-top. For around a third of the game – specifically, the couple of decent chunks either side of half-time – our lot, while not quite purring, were well in the ascendancy. We were giving Leeds a working-over, as I’ve heard it put, and moreover were making a bit of hay while we were at it. Sonny’s goal was a reward for some enterprising play, and while Toby’s was not directly brought about by any slick attacking, the corner from which it emanated was a decent legacy of the creativity with which we streamed forth.
We were making chances, committing men forward and scored enough to wrap up the points nice and early. For around thirty glorious minutes one could forget that the last four games had ever happened.
And then, having established the three-goal ascendancy, there seemed a quite deliberate decision made by all in lilywhite to trot back to their posts and casually repel for the final twenty or thirty minutes. It just seemed a bit much.
Again, I accept that the principle did make a heck of a lot of sense. Few amongst us will need reminding of the horrors that can befall when failing to take due care over a three-goal lead, so just shutting up shop was an absolute dream for the pragmatists. On top of which, Leeds’ over-commitment made them pretty ripe fodder for the counter-attack.
Nevertheless, here at AANP Towers, I’m still inclined to mutter – even as a restorative 3-0 win materialises in front of my eyes – that a lead can be more securely held if we actually have possession of the ball, as was the case after half-time, rather than letting the other lot have a free hit for twenty minutes, sitting quite so deep and inviting them to do their worst. Hugo did not have to make a taxing save; but when we surrender possession the risk is there. A corner here, a deflection there – why not eliminate these possibilities by instead hogging possession ourselves?
3. Winks (and Sissoko)
After the unceremonious happenings at Wolves, in which his radar was not so much a tad wonky as completely malfunctional, young Master Winks may have considered himself a little fortunate to have retained his spot today. Mercifully for all concerned, this was a vastly improved showing.
His energy levels have rarely been in doubt, and he applied himself with the usual zip, quite possible benefiting from improved fitness too. More to the point, his passing seemed more accurate, albeit I have no idea whether the stats would support such wild claims. And on top of all this, the young beagle seemed imbued with a spirit of positivity today, that inclined him to pass forwards as often as not, which has not necessarily always been the case.
I have heard it postulated that whereas Sissoko is the bean one wants alongside Hojbjerg when lining up for a bit of a scrap, in which possession will be surrendered and off-the-ball work-rate is everything, Winks will be the egg of choice on a stage in which we do actually see something of the ball and have a bit more need for creativity.
In fact, one might say this theory was neatly proved today, with eighty-odd minutes of Winks-based front-foot play eventually giving way to ten minutes of Sissoko, at which point the drill was very much to protect what we had and keep Leeds arm’s length from the front door.
Make no mistake, Winks still has room for improvement, but this struck me as one of his better days, and justified his inclusion ahead of Sissoko.
Having barely registered that Doherty was on the pitch, or has even contributed to the cause at all this season, the chap made his presence felt in the dying embers, funnily off by ensuring his presence was removed.
One can generally argue with second bookings that one or other of the yellows was heavy-handed fare from the resident arbiter of the law (although I’m not sure today anyone has a word of protest), but the AANP counter-argument tends always to be that the player concerned deserves to have his head flushed down a toilet for even giving the referee a decision to make.
And with that in mind, Doherty is deserving of censure, for a challenge of that ilk (in the last minute, with the game won and when already on a yellow card) was strongly indicative of a vacuum between his ears.
Of the seven summer imports, Doherty has made a fairly robust case for being the most underwhelming. Even Joe Hart, for all the on-field jitters he can bring, has, in the AANP book on these things, been a welcome addition if for no other reason than being a vocal presence who holds his teammates accountable, within a squad that traditionally errs on the timid side.
Doherty however, has come across as a chap still letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”, as they say. When opportunity presents for him to be of value in the attacking third – supposedly his forte – he has an air of neither-here-nor-there about him, as if not sure if he should really be so high up the pitch, and when thus stationed seems curiously prone to passing backwards, often errantly, thereby sucking life out of our attacks.
A lot has been made of the adjustment he has had to make from wing-back to full-back, and frankly I think this is indulging him a little. He has enough experience, he should be able to make the necessary tweaks and get cracking.
No, it’s been a disappointing couple of months, with his biggest contribution seemingly the inadvertent improvement he has brought about in Aurier.
All that said, I fully expect him to come good, if not in the latter half of this season then at some point in the next, and if it takes him a year or so to find his feet then he wouldn’t be the first. But in the shorter-term, he has the opportunity to sit out the next game and ponder on his sins.