Graham Smyth: Patrick Bamford and Leeds United won a battle, now comes a war
Patrick Bamford is a giant-slayer, the White knight Leeds United dust down after battles and send straight back onto the field to champion their cause.
The striker showed every ounce of that new-found aggression he talks about against West Brom on Tuesday night.
He’ll need it, all of it, yet again on Saturday at the Den, a land of giants.
It was another bruising, physical encounter for the lone striker, when he came face to face with 6ft 4ins pair Semi Ajayi and Kyle Bartley on Tuesday. Both of the Baggies’ big men were booked for putting the boot in on Bamford.
Bartley flew in and would have left the frontman with a battlescar to remember had Bamford not leapt to safety in a first-half flashpoint.
Later in the game, Ajayi went in on the back of Bamford’s ankle to halt a promising break.
The number nine was straight back on the horse, running after balls into the channel, holding it up, welcoming collisions, giving his fellow soldiers a much-needed breather.
There were moments of real skill in his performance but it was brawn and then brains that allowed him to lead the line with ‘great spirit’ in the words of Marcelo Bielsa’s.
The battle won, he left the field, wearily, to a deserved ovation.
He has little time to lick his wounds.
Saturday’s hosts Millwall boast a big defence, another big defence for Bamford to challenge.
In 6ft 4ins Jake Cooper, the Lions have a centre-half who has won 78 per cent of his aerial duels – more than anyone else in the Championship.
Alex Pearce is a little smaller, standing at 6ft 2ins, but still wins over half of his airborne encounters.
Millwall as a team are more successful in the air than all their divisional rivals.
Bamford won’t be the only Leeds man looking up into the eyes of the man marking him when the two sides clash in Bermondsey this Saturday.
The injury sustained by Liam Cooper will keep him out of this one, meaning 6ft Ben White and 5ft 10ins Gaetano Berardi are likely to find themselves bumping into a man Whites fans are familiar with, a mountain of a man.
Matt Smith, all 6ft 6ins of him, competes for the ball in the air around 22 times per 90 minutes. He is a targetman in every sense. Millwall have scored a league-leading five goals from corners, Smith has three of them.
As statistics go, that one is an air raid siren, given Leeds’ struggle to adequately defend corners this season.
But the Lions will find it difficult to play the game in the air or even win corners if they don’t have the ball.
Millwall have ‘enjoyed’ the least amount of possession in the Championship this season.
The task for Leeds is to keep the ball away from the hosts and do what Fulham did to them at Craven Cottage.
Fulham played 978 passes to Millwall’s 164 and the Lion’s share of possession was a minuscule 16 per cent.
Millwall had one corner.
Leeds have got to do the same and Bamford has to play smart if he is to give his side an outlet and bring others into attacks, ensuring the ball remains out of Millwall’s control.
If it does turn into a fight, Leeds United have at least had a warm up bout – they went toe-to-toe with a footballing side in West Brom and stood up to pressure, pace and physicality all over the pitch, particularly after the break.
Sometimes it’s not about magic, it’s about digging in.
The absence of Pablo Hernandez looked costly at Charlton last Saturday, Leeds lacking the flair that was needed to break down a stubborn Lee Bowyer-inspired defence.
In midweek Leeds did it all, they were creative in the first half, combative in the second.
That performance, that ability to grind out a result should give everyone around the club a little more confidence. Leeds aren’t just a pretty face.
Aggression, the good kind, the kind that lets Bamford muscle a marker aside and create space and time for the cavalry to arrive, the kind that allows Gjanni Alioski to hunt down an opponent’s first touch and force an error, that kind of aggression will be as big a part of any potential success this season as skill.
It will be a minimum requirement against a side whose own manager Neil Harris says their ‘very tough and aggressive’ approach will not change.
At Elland Road this week Leeds won a battle.
Now comes a war.