Leeds United 0-1 Aston Villa: We go way back - The Square Ball 17/7/22


Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman

I’ve been tired of Aston Villa for a while, at least since Marcelo Bielsa gave them The Fairest Goal at Elland Road in 2019. We now seem doomed to perpetual, boring conflict. They should be a pleasure to play, with nice kits, decent players, Gary McAllister on the bench. Sometimes we beat them handily, other times they beat us (the 1996 League Cup final is still a sore point). Football as it should be, which is perhaps why our clubs were signed up together for an Australian tour.

I took no pleasure seeing Villa’s name in our pre-season fixtures, though, nor Crystal Palace. The idea of a ‘friendly’ against teams from the same division sounds great in theory, as in, a marketing meeting. What better way to sell the Premier League around the world than to have its teams facing off right there? But there are problems in practice, as this match showed. How friendly can a friendly be, between two teams who were going full pelt against each other a few months ago, and will be again a few months from now? Familiarity breeds contempt, until you get to Australia where you’re supposed to ease off?

Under any circumstances you’d hope for kinder than John McGinn’s late studs into the ankle of Archie Gray, but you can’t guarantee it. Gray had just come on, into a game that didn’t have the best spirit in the first half — Tyrone Mings clipped Marc Roca off the ball to teach him not to mark so close at corners — and was turning mean in the second half, when Villa brought ten players on to play fifteen minutes against Leeds’ mostly unchanged eleven. Pat Bamford didn’t like a challenge from Diego Carlos, who sent him up and down as they went for a high ball; Bamford got revenge by sweeping his legs after a pass soon after, leading to pointed fingers between them and Roca looking for any Clarets ready to kick off. Calum Chambers stayed out of that, until he got the chance for an unpunished high block on Bamford elsewhere. Leeds made a bunch of outfield changes on the hour, and that brought sixteen-year-old Archie Gray into this febrile, childish atmosphere. He went in hard on Emi Buendia; a foul, but it seemed a harsh way to get the first yellow card of a game that had seen worse. John McGinn’s retribution was worse. Not a lunge, just malice, a foot brought down late right where McGinn — 27 years old, 381 career appearances — knew it would do damage. Gray stayed down on his back on the floor, except for the wobble of his shoulders as he cried; his hands still over his face, his leg in a brace, he was eventually stretchered off.

The referee was Adam Kersey, and his mistake seemed to be trusting the players to manage things among themselves like old pals, but the nature of an all Premier League friendly doesn’t allow that. By the time of the foul on Gray, both sides had grievances. The friendly format is difficult anyway for United under Marsch, because of the emphasis he puts on aggression, high pressing, winning the ball at all costs. It isn’t a style fostering mildness. As Leeds build up to the new season, provoking some hostility will help testing, but it might be better to have opponents who don’t already, for example, institutionally hate Pat Bamford, or arrive ready to develop new grudges for the Premier League. Somewhere in this uncanny hinterland between kickabout and full league match, someone risks getting hurt, especially a schoolboy trying to work out how things work, where a bitter clogger thinks he can teach him.

Leeds started the game in the nearest thing we’ve seen to the new first eleven, Tyler Adams and Marc Roca together in midfield, Brenden Aaronson behind Bamford with Jackie Harrison and Dan James either side. That started well, with the press doing its job of winning the ball high, but making chances out of that stayed tough. It took nearly twenty minutes, Harrison squaring to Aaronson squaring to James, along the edge of the eighteen yard box; his first shot hit Bamford, his second was well saved. James had another chance ten minutes later, after an Aaronson through ball and a shot saved from Bamford, but tried to place the rebound instead of repeating his Brisbane trick of smashing it. The fizz had gone out of Leeds’ attacking by then, though. The best stuff had come by pressing Villa’s left — Mings, basically — so Villa pushed the ball over to their right, and short-circuited United’s imagination.

Villa had two big chances to score. First, a clue that the referee wasn’t all that, when he gave a penalty against Adams after the ball was flicked up into his chest. The ref turned his back on the big screen the Leeds players were pointing to, while Rasmus Kristensen went off to the touchline in search of old telly he could convert into a VAR monitor. Illan Meslier had this covered, though, a superb save on the penalty, diving right and lifting his left fist to block Phillipe Coutinho’s shot, then even better on the rebound, up and diving the other way to block Coutinho again, this time with his legs. Soon after, more Meslier, after Robin Koch stumbled in midfield and let Coutinho and Ollie Watkins through on Llorente; Coutinho’s pass bypassed him, but a big one-on-one save put Watkins’ shot over the bar. Kalvin Phillips, Raphinha, whatever; after the game, Jackie Harrison answered a question about interest from Newcastle with a surprised, “Er, we’ll see what happens.” Whatever. Last season Meslier conceded seventeen more goals than any other goalie and was by a distance my player of the season. Defending like this, Leeds will need his best form again, but I’d love to see him getting the clean sheets his performances deserve next year. And the end of season awards he deserves, if the club don’t duck the subject again.

Another penalty settled the game for Villa, Leif Davis doing his best to pretend a ball hit his face, not his hand, but it was one thing the referee did get right. Danny Ings sent Meslier the wrong way. That was just before the injury to Gray, which along with the substitutions took most of the steam out of the game’s end. I have a quiet suspicion, from the Brisbane match and his half-hour here, that Adam Forshaw is in really good form. Rodrigo’s touch in his half-hour said he’s still not. Of the starters, an hour helped Bamford getting his game back into his legs, but the players behind him need more creative ideas than chipping straight balls at his upper body. There was a little stretching of Marsch’s definitions early in the second half, when Bamford popped out wide right and Harrison onto the left touchline, but otherwise it’s still the full-backs supplying the width with three in the middle trying to win the ball and pop it into the box. The best of that, apart from the two chances for James, was an Aaronson backheel that just missed Bamford. There will be more to come of all this as the new players get used to each other, with Luis Sinisterra still to get a start.

Whether this sort of game is the right way to get things together will only be clear later. Both Marsch and Steven Gerrard, speaking afterwards, seemed happy with the intensity, the competitiveness. Gerrard also seemed happy with McGinn’s tit for tat. “We wish the young kid very well,” he said. “Hopefully it’s not a long injury. John’s got the ball” — reader, this is debatable — “he’s been unlucky in the follow through.” Again, this is one view. “There was one just before by the same boy on Buendia and my heart was in my mouth,” he concluded, trying to inspire sympathy for his player who wasn’t hurt. Here we go again with Villa, then — we play them at Elland Road on 1st October, before you ask. Marsch said Leeds are waiting to see how Gray’s ankle is. “We’re hopeful that it’s not too bad. He was in some pain initially. When they assessed it after the match they’re hopeful nothing is broken, and that it’s just an ankle sprain, and then we’ll see exactly the severity of it in the next couple of days.”

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