A tough game for Leeds United, a calm result and Victor Orta holding his nerve - Daniel Chapman
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.
“Tough game,” wrote Ian Poveda on Instagram after Saturday’s match with Manchester City. “Calm result.”
Ah, the precocious wisdom of the young. I doubt Benjamin Mendy has calmed down yet, sweating himself awake as a curly-haired grin chases him laughing through the rain whenever he tries to close his eyes.
It was a tough game for Mendy, more than most. He was coached by Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille, and a clip from one training session still circulates, of Bielsa lecturing the young player on what it takes to reach the top.
Mendy could be the best left-back in the world, says Bielsa, but he has to know that it won’t be fun. Choosing to be the best means choosing to have a bad time.
Bielsa took that choice out of Mendy’s hands when he brought Poveda on. Now Mendy was having a bad time whether he wanted to or not. It must have been like meeting up for drinks with an old friend, who brings up from nowhere that thing you did at school you’d been happy forgetting.
Mendy couldn’t overcome the vertigo of his memories and left for the bench, while the rest of the players did what they could, under the circumstances, to maintain order.
A lot is said about the genius of Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola, and Saturday’s game could be a case study.
One idea of creative genius – it’s the poet Edna St Vincent Millay’s idea, about herself – is that it’s a way to put chaos to good use for, in her case, a sonnet, or in Bielsa’s case, a football match.
“I will put Chaos into 14 lines,” wrote Millay. “I have him. He is nothing more or less than something simple not yet understood ... I will only make him good.”
Substitute 90 minutes for 14 lines and that was our Saturday night. Simple things we can’t understand, like why kicking a ball around is so captivating, transformed by genius into wild poetry. Tough game, calm result, as another great poet once said.
Other Premier League matches over the weekend tried barging into the party. Manchester United 1 Tottenham 6; Aston Villa 7 Liverpool 2. Even Newcastle versus Burnley, the Ovaltine chaser after Leeds’ sherbet and Tizer cocktail, coughed up four goals between snores.
The scoreline at Elland Road makes that game seem the poorer, but the truth is that Leeds and City were more serious in their play. Other results were just that, results, all surface, with shallow explanations.
Manchester United lost heavily because they have a squad of players who don’t want to be there, a manager who can’t bear to leave, and executives who would rather be anywhere else.
What happened to Liverpool is harder to define through Jurgen Klopp’s clenched, positive teeth, but it seems to start with a defence like one of those tricks to prove paper is the world’s strongest material. It might be, until it gets wet. Aston Villa were scoring so easily it was like Virgil Van Dijk wanted a Fair Play Award.
TV executives might have got more from those two matches because they could pack the highlights with goals and show them all around the world. Leeds against Manchester City doesn’t work as a highlights package because the goals and incidents say little about the game.
Seeing Rodrigo hit the bar won’t mean anything unless you saw Mateusz Klich and Kevin De Bruyne chasing each other from one end of LS11 to the other all night.
The foul by Stuart Dallas at the end, that could have meant a red card, was pure clip fodder, for slo-mo replays and debates about the referee’s decision. Committed in front of Chelsea’s bench, for example, it would have become a diplomatic incident. But it says a lot more about this game that, after he was booked, nobody there cared much. Everyone had bigger things on their mind.
The Premier League demands easily-digested chaos: see also, transfer deadline day. Leeds United’s summer spending has earned them an invite to this circus, as did the collapse of Michael Cuisance’s transfer.
But while Manchester United scrambled for Edinson Cavani, who they don’t need or really want, chaos master Victor Orta was holding his nerve.
Leeds’ transfer policy is precisely opportunistic. Orta has his big list of players, and everything else is patience, waiting for the moment one of them might be available. Hello, Raphinha. But no moment, no transfer, no drama. Sorry, everybody.
But also not sorry. Scorelines like 7-2 against a top team might be rare, but two teams competing as completely as Leeds and Manchester City is more valuable.
Tough game, calm result. That’s Leeds in the Premier League so far.