Doubts may linger but Adam Forshaw has silenced the cruel jokes - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Leeds United 1-1 Leicester City - YEP 8/11/21

Leeds United's draw with Leicester City at Elland Road was remarkable not only for the entertainment it provided, but the appearance of Adam Forshaw.

By Graham Smyth

The doubts were only human, even if the jokes were not.

An absence that dragged on as long as it did was always going to put questions over the possibility of Adam Forshaw ever returning to play for Leeds United again. Complex surgery, a lengthy rehabilitation fraught with set-backs and inevitable muscle pulls and niggles made Forshaw both a figure of sympathy and the subject of cruel jokes.

Frustration at the club’s inactivity in the transfer market when it came to midfielders bled into the replies whenever Forshaw was mentioned.

‘What’s an Adam Forshaw?’ was a popular one, the kind of gallows humour that football fans use as a buffer between them and disappointment. It reflected the length of his time out as much as an irreverence for his state of mind amid a personal injury hell.

To put it into context, the sun rose 799 times between his last league start at home to Swansea in August 2019 and Sunday’s Elland Road meeting with Leicester City. After he exacerbated a hip injury away at Charlton as a second-half substitute, 85 Championship and Premier League games came and went without his name in a starting XI.

When it finally appeared on the team sheet, as the only change to the side who beat Norwich City, it wasn’t exactly a shock – he did well as a substitute in the previous game and it felt like Leeds needed something different in midfield against Leicester.

Doubts lingered, though. Prior to Sunday he was yet to manage more than 65 minutes in a single appearance. And even if he could last the course physically, more than four years have passed since he started a Premier League game and Marcelo Bielsa himself once highlighted the difficulty in Forshaw not only returning to play but to play as well as he once did.

Bielsa had shared the doubts felt by many over Forshaw’s future and yet was convinced by what he saw at Carrow Road and in midweek that the time had come.

The quality of the opposition midfield was no joke – Wilfred Ndidi and Boubakary Soumaré joining Youri Tielemans in a classy trio that was expected to give Leeds all they could handle.

What’s more, Forshaw wasn’t Bielsa’s only risk. He picked a line-up that could accommodate a back three or a back four, depending on what Brendan Rodgers did with his forward line, and when it transpired that Jamie Vardy was leading the line alone, it handed a left-back role to 6ft 2ins, 13-plus stone centre-back Pascal Struijk.

Leeds initially set out in a 3-3-1-3, Forshaw acting as the link man and doing it well. It was his pass, a tricky one to execute, that sprang Rodrigo into space through the middle for Leeds’ first attack and a shot that came from too wide an angle to bother Kasper Schmeichel.

The game was so open that the demands on Forshaw were great. There was a lot of defending to do and just as much attacking as the teams set a manic pace.

Illan Meslier had saved from Harvey Barnes at one end just before Schmeichel clawed Jack Harrison’s effort away from the top corner.

Set-pieces have been a long-standing problem for Rodgers and Leeds knew it, firing corners to the near post where Kalvin Phillips met one to force another stop from Schmeichel.

Switching to a back four put a solid foil of Phillips and Forshaw together in front of the defence yet Leicester still carried a threat, Vardy fortunately deemed offside as he stole in towards a loose ball and came together with Diego Llorente. VAR’s first act was to absolve Llorente of guilt.

It might not have been a familiar line-up for the hosts – the sight of Struijk making a dart into the channel to give Harrison an option was almost jarring – but some of the football began to bear a closer resemblance to what Leeds have become known for.

Raphinha and Stuart Dallas escaped pressure with a smart one-two, the Brazilian and Rodrigo also linking up smoothly to move Leeds forward at pace with first-time passes and intelligent movement. Raphinha has become the main man for the Whites and pulled focus again to delight Elland Road. He won a free-kick, took it and scored from it, a fierce shot curling all the way in to beat Schmeichel at his far post.

The stadium was still celebrating when Leicester kicked off, Jonny Evans launched a ball forward that Soumaré flicked over the head of Dallas into the path of Barnes and he unleashed a strike every bit as good as Raphinha’s to level.

What impressed about Leeds was the pressure they managed to generate in response to the set-back. It was heavy and intense and only relieved by fouls they conceded in the final minutes of the half.

The second half held more of the same, after a shaky start – Meslier gifted Leicester a corner then flapped at it, Tielemans driving mercifully wide of goal.

Leicester had a let off of their own when another corner was glanced on at the near post by Phillips and Harrison arrived three yards out only to knee the ball over the bar. The winger is going through a fruitless patch but continued to plough a determined furrow. Daniel James, playing up front, did too, pressing well and causing problems with his pace. Rodrigo pitched in to make life uncomfortable for the visitors as they played out and even if the ball reached the midfield, Phillips and Forshaw were tigerish, their level of aggression judged to perfection.

The sight of Tielemans passing straight to Raphinha told the story of which midfield was on top. The winger took that ball, fed it to Dallas on the overlap and his cross was slammed wide on the volley by Rodrigo.

The game passed the 65-minute mark and still Forshaw remained present and influential.

As for Leeds, they were good but not perfect. Leicester scored from a corner, Ademola Lookman tapping in from Vardy’s flick on only for VAR to intervene again on Leeds’ behalf. He was offside, just.

The hosts didn’t breathe a sigh of relief, they barely took breath at all before going back on the attack, Rodrigo winning the ball high up the pitch, Raphinha finding James who hammered over.

It was highly entertaining.

Leicester broke out again to forge a chance for Çağlar Söyüncü, who finished like a centre-back, and panic briefly threatened to set in for the home side, but even when Forshaw found himself in his penalty box surrounded by four opponents, he and Leeds survived.

The last word might have belonged to Raphinha, who lashed a late shot just over the top, but the day belonged to Forshaw. His 90th-minute ovation as he was replaced recognised his fortitude in even making it onto the pitch for kick-off.

Doubts are never far away and he still has a way to go to prove he’s the definitive answer to Leeds’ midfield problems, but he was the one laughing at full-time. Adam Forshaw is no joke, of that there is no doubt.

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