The funny thing about Jimmy Kebe, as Brian McDermott and Sam Byram have noted in the past few weeks, is the statistical analysis of his performances.
In an average game he runs further than most players. He runs faster than most players too, and more often. Leeds United don’t make this stuff up. The data is generated by Prozone and compiled match by match. “We get all the player stats and Jimmy’s at the top pretty much every week,” Byram said. “Sometimes it goes unnoticed.”
That’s where interpretation comes in. Effort and impact are not the same thing but the statistics put to bed the idea that Kebe is refusing to try a leg. He has a casual, languid posture and a lackadaisical style but criticism of him is on dodgy ground if it relies on the thought of Kebe being lazy. A player once said to me that Prozone is like a school exam – disputing the scores is a denial of hard, indisputable facts. If you’re bottom of the pile you’re bottom of the pile. And everybody knows it.
From time to time there are students, just as there are footballers, who can coast along and pull up trees when it matters; inattentive but effective. That was Jermaine Beckford’s reputation at a time when Leeds operated without Prozone or any means of proving otherwise. Beckford cut an aloof, carefree and individual figure for much of his career at Elland Road. He is also the most prolific striker in a single season with Leeds since John Charles. In that form, what other statistics matter? There was never much call for Beckford to double as a full-back and spend half a match shielding his own box.
That, unusually, is a useful aspect of Kebe’s game. He’s defensively sound and well aware of gaps and problems behind him. But wingers who take credit for defending are like strikers who don’t score: prone to a loss of patience among the crowd around them. Managers might see that as a simplistic view but they’ll also tell you that football’s a simple game. Even McDermott would not pretend that he signed Kebe for no other reason than to pair up with Byram or Lee Peltier inside his own half.
Watching Kebe for the past two months has been like watching a firework with a slow fuse the length of Elland Road. You know he’s better than this because you’ve seen him play better than this. His was the name we looked for when Reading came to Leeds and the name which, through injury, was sometimes missing from Reading’s teamsheet. You took encouragement from the fact that Leeds would be spared 90 minutes of him annihilating the right wing.
There was ample opportunity for Kebe to do that at QPR last weekend, especially after half-time; chances for him to cut loose as QPR’s attacks faltered midway inside United’s half. That he was sitting so deep is indicative of the tactics McDermott has being using away from home and it would help Kebe to have the bulk of a game in his natural position but the equation is simple: a player whose confidence could be higher and who can hear dissenting voices around him equals a player who needs Prozone to speak for him. The pressure is conspiring.
Kebe has in general been no less influential than Cameron Stewart, the other winger signed by McDermott in January. But Stewart is 22, a less familiar commodity and a signing who is here for another three years. You expect less of him than you do of a winger who was synonymous with Reading’s title-winning season in 2012 and skilful enough to set this season alight. It would be a good start if Kebe set himself alight.
But for all that, he is part of an unproductive trend of dropping loanees into fire-fights that are already getting out of hand. It has been going on at Elland Road for a long time. There are players like Jack Butland – so inherently stable – who can fall in and perform without thinking twice but so many loan signings made by Leeds are thrust into a team lacking form. If confidence is Kebe’s issue then bringing him here in this spell of performance, amid a takeover so disruptive, was not the optimum scenario. Had he signed last August, you’d probably be looking at a different player.
Every year, a heavy weight falls on individuals brought into envigorate a season that isn’t quite happening. There was Steve Morison 12 months ago, and Barry Bannan and Jake Livermore in 2010-11; potentially good recruits who were blown out of the water in a matter of weeks as United’s campaigns went the same way. In defence of Jimmy Kebe, this is a hard club to play for at the best of times. And who in Leeds can remember the best of times?