The presumption of Ronaldo Vieira’s footballing craft is no greater outside Leeds United than it is within the club.
It was Leeds who gave Vieira his debut in the week that he signed his first professional contract. It was Leeds who deduced that he should bypass their development squad without playing a single game at that level. It was Leeds who made the teenager the emblem of Andrea Radrizzani’s takeover by putting him first in line for a pay rise and a four-year deal.
Vieira is still young, even in a league where debutants appear at the age of 16, but there must be a part of him, consciously or subconsciously, which feels like a debt of sorts is owed to the club. His childhood and his migration from Africa to England via some happy years in Portugal gave his career as a footballer little chance, but here he is: an England Under-20 international and a 19-year-old in a man’s body. The staff who coach him like his style and his swagger but no-one watches Vieira without focusing on his physique.
A wall-to-wall schedule last summer and tendonitis in one knee has tempered it this season, one reason why Thomas Christiansen made so little use of him until October, but the impression that Vieira’s game has sagged is not an illusion. The quality of his passing is diminished in almost every respect, less accurate and lower in number, and his combative streak, his inherent strength, has dropped off too. In the context of expectancy, the factor blamed by Paul Heckingbottom last weekend, this year has not delivered what his first year promised. But in that regard Vieira is no different to his club.
Saturday’s game against Bolton Wanderers and the second half at Fulham yesterday reprised Vieira’s most effective role: breaking up play, attacking from deep and establishing a base from which other players can cut loose beyond the halfway line. It is a specific, tailored job which requires the discipline to stand and work in a fairly small area of the pitch but, at Leeds, it has become the generic fashion. All of their midfielders are in that mould, inclined to sit and unable to offer the team variety. There is no box-to-box player and no goalscoring specialist with the figures of someone like George Saville at Millwall.
Kalvin Phillips tried to reinvent himself under Christiansen – more advanced and more attacking in the early months of this season – but United’s midfield regressed to the point of becoming a holding pattern behind their front four. Fulham are a good example of a team with players in that area, specifically Tom Cairney and Stefan Johansen, who press the opposition box and pick their moments to get beyond the last man. The pair nicked goals in that way at Norwich City last Saturday and Cairney, despite a subdued evening, was there to lay on the decisive finish in Leeds’ 2-0 defeat at Craven Cottage. Kevin McDonald sits in and guards the gate, in the way that Vieira is capable of doing. The philosophy is fertile and effective, not least because of the standard of player Fulham have invested in.
That environment provides an education for a kid like Ryan Sessegnon, the winger who Fulham blooded as a 16-year-old at Elland Road last season. Sessegnon is a freak of nature, already beyond the standards of the Championship and a talent who looks primed to improve and cope at every level he climbs to, but he has ample guidance around him. Cairney is to his right and when West Brom tried to talk Fulham into selling the Scotland international in January, Fulham said no to £15m. Continuity was unbroken and Sessegnon has scored 10 times since Christmas. Ahead of him he has Aleksandar Mitrovic, an expensive loanee who Fulham banked on in the same window. Mitrovic is sharing the load with 10 goals in 11 appearances.
With that nous in his corner, expectancy is less of a tangible problem for Sessegnon. His talent exceeds that of Vieira, which is how life goes, but the streak of class in Fulham’s squad is nurturing him nicely. At Leeds, in the midst of a team without form or consistency, Vieira is almost fending for himself, exposed by a dearth in excellence alongside him. Pressure grows and expectation goes unfulfilled. It seems closer to the truth than the theory that expectancy itself is at the root of his performances this season. He seems less a victim of pressure than he does a victim of Leeds’ slide into mediocrity. When so many around you are losing their heads, what can a 19-year-old do?
At Leeds, in the midst of a team without form or consistency, Vieira is almost fending for himself, exposed by a dearth in excellence alongside him. Pressure grows and expectation goes unfulfilled.Phil Hay