Players don’t go looking for yellow cards but there’s something about the threat of suspension that focuses the mind. We all have our natural game and our way of playing but it’s possible to adjust your style when the situation requires it.
It’s also possible to placate referees with the way you behave and the way you deal with them. There were plenty of occasions when I was trying to skirt around a booking and avoid a ban and the first priority in those circumstances is to do nothing stupid. Don’t lunge into tackles, don’t commit to any that aren’t necessary and, the easiest of all, don’t talk back to officials.
You can go further than that by actively engaging referees: shake their hand before kick-off, tell them you hope you both have a good game and establish a bit of a rapport. That might sound like gamesmanship but it does work. Basically, you’re trying to keep yourself on the right side of the fence and keep yourself out of the firing line.
There’s another means of doing that, obviously, and one that Garry Monk might be tempted to take up this weekend. As it stands, he’s got Luke Ayling and Kyle Bartley on nine bookings. One more against Queens Park Rangers tomorrow and they’ll serve two-match bans. The fact that the Football Association’s amnesty for 10 yellow cards kicks in after this fixture gives Garry a bit of a dilemma.
One train of thought says he’d better to leave at least one of them out, if not both. Take a one-game absence to avoid them missing two. But here’s the thing. Ayling and Bartley have been on nine bookings for a while. They’ve kept their noses clean at a stage of the season where the games get more and more competitive and it goes back to the earlier point I was making. Players can actively try to avoid yellows. You saw from Bartley’s reaction in the recent victory over Sheffield Wednesday – distraught when he thought he was getting booked for a Ross Wallace dive – that it was on his mind. He clearly doesn’t want to bow to the inevitable.
The Wallace incident was interesting because it was very much down to interpretation. Rightly or wrongly, other officials would have seen it differently and yellow-carded Bartley. I always think as well that some players can be magnets for stricter punishment. Take Pontus Jansson. He’s a big, aggressive-looking footballer. He’s had a lot of bookings this season and I’m not saying he’s an angel but subliminally there must be some aspect of referees thinking ‘I’ll keep him in check. He’s not going to dominate me’.
You’re often at the whim of officials, regardless of how hard you try, and that’s one reason why Garry might be tempted to use other players this weekend.
With Bartley, personally I don’t think it’s an option to leave him out. His partnership with Jansson is too good and in many ways it’s greater than the sum of its parts.
When I watch Leeds, I don’t see too many big voices or personalities in the team but they get huge amounts of drive from two proper hairy-a***d centre-backs – and I mean that as a compliment. Break it up against QPR and you’re asking for trouble. That’s not a criticism of someone like Liam Cooper. It’s just a reflection of how vital the combination in central defence has been.
Ayling is slightly different. First up, his daughter was born earlier this week and he’ll have had a tiring few days. But aside from that, Garry can play Gaetano Berardi at right-back and Charlie Taylor on the left without causing major disruption. Ayling has been one of the cornerstones of Garry’s team and the right-back position deserves to be his, but if Leeds are trying to avoid a situation where Ayling and Bartley both miss Brighton next weekend and Reading after the international break, this is probably the best way to do it.
There is, however, definite risk involved with taking tactical decisions like that. The last thing Garry will want is for people to think that Leeds are taking their foot of the pedal with 10 games to go. A win over QPR tomorrow takes the club to 68 points and from there they really would be a stone’s throw from the play-offs. It’s a convincing argument for going full-strength here and now.
I accept that if Bartley and Ayling both play and get booked then it would look like an error but the impression I get with Monk is that nothing in his preparation is ever left to luck.
He’s meticulous and most of what he does seems logical. In the world of fantasy football you can leave out key players and cross your fingers but this is the sharp end of the season and it’s not really the time to take gambles. I can see an argument for protecting Ayling, much as I rate him very highly, but Bartley has to start. A sudden loss of impetus is the only threat to Leeds now.
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