Middlesbrough 3, Leeds United 0
Uwe Rösler‘s pre-season promise of “heavy metal football” – high-energy, high-tempo, high-pressing stuff, as we were assured – has started to take on a rather hollow ring. The only resemblance between the Leeds United showing at Middlesbrough‘s Riverside Stadium, and any type of rock-star behaviour, was a marked tendency to auto-destruction.
It would be difficult indeed to imagine Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious or even Michael Hutchence doing a more comprehensive job of self-immolation than that perpetrated by the Whites today. United were slain almost entirely by their own hand, with Middlesbrough in the incidental role of witness bystanders who then promptly picked the corpse’s pockets and made off into the night.
Middlesbrough’s callous opportunism in exploiting Leeds’ suicidal defending was compounded by their occasionally agricultural approach to winning possession, showing no scruples when it came to scything down any white shirt near the ball. The true villain of the piece though, from United’s point of view, was the referee. Lancastrian Neil Swarbrick could and probably should have dismissed Boro’s Christian Stuani for the second or third of his trio of crude challenges on United’s Charlie Taylor. The first had earned a yellow card – but it was really no worse than either of the others.
These things happen, as they say – but Swarbrick’s decision to disallow Mirco Antenucci‘s 55th minute strike, for the most marginal of offside calls, was at least as inflammatory for suffering United fans. Was Antenucci offside? His beard might just have been, by a gnat’s hair, if the ball got a Leeds touch on the way through. There was plenty of room for doubt though, and the laws say attackers should get the benefit of any such doubt. Not here, though, not today. Not for Leeds United. ‘Twas ever thus.
This was a pity for the sake of the game, if nothing else. A goal then and Leeds would have been one behind, with over half an hour to go – and well on top in general play. All this after inflicting on themselves two mortal wounds early in the first half. Giuseppe Bellusci was the guilty party on each occasion, first waving his head ineffectually at a passing cross, for David Nugent to gather in and score – and then diving brilliantly to beat his own keeper with an unstoppable near-post header. At that point, the Leeds defender was nailed on for the Boro Man of the Match award.
After the ref’s questionable decision to disallow Antenucci’s second half strike, Leeds mustered only one more threat of note, Antenucci again being denied when he headed straight at the Boro keeper from Jordan Botaka‘s quality right-wing cross. After that, a discouraged United side slowly ran out of steam, and we were just waiting for the fat lady to sing and end this Wagnerian tragedy.
In true operatic style, Leeds had taken a long time to die and were awfully messy about it. With Boro’s creative vacuum filled by Uniteds’ defensive calamities, which provided all the victors’ goals, there had always seemed a chance that the Whites might claw their way back, given a little inspiration of their own. The coup de grâce, though, was yet another self-inflicted injury when it arrived on 81 minutes. Sol Bamba uncharacteristically slipped up in his own area, to present the third goal on a plate for a grateful Diego Fabbrini – and that was enough to finish off Yorkshire’s finest.
It’s not easy to find positives to take from a day when nothing went right. Such a very, very bad day at the office would normally see the place burnt out with the loss of all staff and possibly the entire building. Leeds don’t do bad days by halves. And yet some of the Whites’ play showed promise, with flashes of brilliance from Taylor, Lewis Cook and Botaka in particular. It was difficult to see beforehand the reason for Liam Cooper‘s replacement by Bellusci, and that decision seemed dafter the longer the game went on. But Leeds will play worse than this overall (though not in defence) and win. Some belief, confidence and the sorting out of the chaos in front of the hapless Silvestri is what we urgently need now.
With little home comfort so far this season, Leeds now face two tests at Elland Road in Birmingham City and early leaders Brighton, either side of another international break. After those two encounters, with not far off a quarter of the Championship marathon completed, we should have a reasonably good picture of exactly where we are and what this season might hold. Certainly Rösler should by then have a better idea of exactly what kind of music his mixed band of players are able to make.