Leeds United signed a striker! (in January) - The Square Ball 9/8/22


Written by: Rob Conlon

Leeds United Under-21s won their first match of their Premier League 2 Division 2 campaign by beating, no, thumping, Derby County 5-2 on Friday. And if it’s good enough for the Yorkshire Evening Post to note in their headline, it’s damn right good enough for my intro: the result puts Leeds top of the table. You heard it, we’re top already! I don’t want to get too carried away, but… We! Are! Going! Up!

With the best of the kids needed to fill the first-team bench last season, Leeds were relegated from the top tier of the academy competition. There is a renewed sense of intrigue in the rebranded U21s thanks to the signings of Darko Gyabi and Sonny Perkins, as well as new boss Michael Skubala. But Friday’s win belonged to one of the old new boys, Mateo Joseph, signed in January from Espanyol’s YouTube channel but shielded from the immediate hype by sharing his handful of appearances between the Under-18s and Under-23s.

Max Dean’s injury means Joseph has first dibs of playing up front for the U21s this season. Within half an hour at Pride Park, he had scored a hat-trick, and Dean was probably considering asking his agent if there was still any chance of that loan move to Harrogate. Joseph’s second and third goals were standard fare; a header from close range after Derby’s goalkeeper parried a shot from a corner, and a penalty after Archie Gray had twisted and turned for so long that a defender fouled him to save any remaining semblance of self-respect. His fourth — yes, he scored another in the second half — was much the same, heading into the net from within the six-yard box after Sean McGurk’s free-kick was put back across the goal by Kris Moore. But that was only because he’d put a night’s worth of swagger into the first goal:

Between this and Brendan Aaronson’s winner against Wolves, Leeds have revealed the equation underpinning Marschball. Three forward passes = goal. Hopefully this season Dan James, captaining the U21s after asking to play while he’s suspended for the grown ups, will spend more time dancing past two defenders and creating chances for strikers. I endorse that. But the goal was all about the aesthetics of Joseph’s finish, the touch to get the ball out of his feet, and the shape of his body allowing him to arc the ball into the far corner and continue the movement away into his celebration without skipping a beat. Joseph celebrated his heavily deflected goal in the first team’s friendly win over Blackpool with the vigour of a Premier League debut in front of Elland Road, and it was the same at Pride Park. The boy loves scoring goals. I endorse that, too.

Derby briefly threatened a Cagliari comeback, scoring twice in quick succession at the start of the second half to make it 3-2. It gave their fans an excuse to cheer something, and lord knows they need one. They were the only side to finish below Leeds in the Premier League 2 Division 1 last season, cut adrift twelve points behind, but remain committed to youth football at its zaniest. Wayne Rooney’s younger cousin, Jake, was making his debut in defence (you’d never guess they are related). Centre-backs were taking goal-kicks, nudging the ball to the ‘keeper in the six-yard box just so he could hoof it away himself. They almost opened the scoring, trying to catch out Leeds’ stand-in Darryl Ombang by shooting from the halfway line.

But apart from the two-minute wobble in which they conceded twice, Leeds were always in control. Coach Skubala was disappointed his players only scored five. Much like the grown-ups’ first half against Wolves, Leeds were tearing around the pitch pressurising Derby’s defence, even if it meant four attackers closing down one defender. While Darko Gyabi replicated Marc Roca’s silky distribution in midfield — his first touch was to nutmeg a Derby player and get booted in the air before he could get the ball the other side — he was partnered by Jack Jenkins, who now feels like the old head of the youth team, mirroring Tyler Adams’ role of sprinting wherever there was a tackle to be made. The delays in getting the new away kit delivered seem to be affecting not just the fans; Leeds were wearing last season’s away shirt, inspiring LUTV commentator Ben Parker to compare the sight of their pressing to a fleet of “Blue Arrows”.

With a couple of better choices on the edge of Derby’s penalty area, Leeds would have scored a few more. Perkins played as the inside right behind Joseph, cutting in onto his favoured left foot and showing an ease on the ball that made him so highly rated by West Ham. He’s still working his way through the Red Bull handbook, so there were occasions when he took too long on the ball or chose the wrong final pass, but Derby’s goalkeeper was kind enough to give him a debut present, dropping a Dan James cross at Perkins’ feet so he could add his name next to Joseph’s on the scoresheet.

“As a club we have to be patient with Sonny because he will get it, but his role is slightly changing within our philosophy, so we have to give him time,” said Skubala, who worked with both Perkins and Gyabi for a year with England Under-18s. “No doubt he will be a success for this club in my eyes. He’s just learning the way that we want to play and our philosophy.”

Joseph has benefited from his own period of adaptation. His energy off the ball was as noticeable as his goals, and he was showing off an eye for a pass whenever he dropped deep to create openings for teammates.

“What an athlete Mateo is and what a kid he is, first of all, what a human being he is,” said Skubala (he said this about every player he mentioned). “He works so hard. If I’m watching as a fan, I’m thinking wow, you know, I want him in the team.”

I don’t really know much about Skubala other than he’s the futsal guy, but I am already starting to rate him as an astute judge of character. I was watching as a fan, and now I’m thinking, wow, I want Mateo Joseph in the team.

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