Dirty and Leeds are two words in the English language that effortlessly belong to each other, like heavy traffic, rich history or strong coffee. Collocations they are called. There are also others that we have become intimately acquainted with over the past few years: white elephant; broken promise; and expensive flop, to name a few.
The dirty Leeds tag goes back a long way, to the Don Revie side of the 1960s and 70s, but it has been difficult to shift, at least in my mind – similar perhaps to the concept of the ‘West Ham way’ under Greenwood and Lyall. So entrenched was the dislike of Leeds that their financial woes and fall into the third tier of English football during the noughties was largely greeted with a sense of schadenfreude.
Revie’s Leeds team contained had some exceptionally talented individuals, but their playing style was often characterised by bone-crunching tackles and unrestricted thuggery. It was a perfect fit with the stereotypical view of the typical no-nonsense Yorkshireman, and was eminently successful – delivering a clutch of league titles as well as domestic and European cups.
Quite what the temperamental modern-day footballer would make of the game back then – shuddering challenges, quagmire pitches, lambchop sideburns, jumpers for goalposts – can only be imagined. Along with the terraces, such agricultural tactics were consigned to football’s history many years ago, as the game rebranded from full bloodied confrontation to slick TV friendly marketing event. No doubt, many of the changes were out of necessity and for the better, but by no means all of them.
Just as we have seen the demise of the tackle from behind and the pass back to the keeper, there is now a possibility that there will come a time when heading the ball is also prohibited. It seems implausible right now but could it happen? The physical side of contact sports is under increasing scrutiny and the recent focus on ex-players with brain disease, together with the threat of litigation, might well lead to changes in the rules. A further VAR check for accidental head-ball after each goal is scored, perhaps.
Moving on to tonight’s game, and West Ham will be looking to bounce back from the disappointment of the Manchester United defeat last Saturday. Looking eminently comfortable and good for another win during the first hour of the game, everything changed when the ‘wind of God’ turned a wild clearance that had clearly gone out of touch into an assist for the assister. The Hammers earlier profligacy, their decision (by then) to sit back and protect the lead, and the introduction of Bruno, all leading to our eventual downfall. When the equaliser went in, all momentum was with the visitors.
With Michail Antonio once again absent tonight it will be a sub-optimal West Ham who take on Leeds at Elland Road. With our best starting eleven, there could, at least, be a hope of challenge the top six – but on a depth of squad basis, we are no better than mid-table. I wonder what the January sales will bring, if anything?
When I originally drafted this article the only potential change I could see for this evening was the popular call from supporters to start with Said Benrahma in place of Pablo Fornals. A test of David Moyes attitude to risk. Fornals to provide the off-the-ball hard work to counter the energy of Leeds; or Benrahma to offer the absent creative spark that could test the vulnerable and further weakened home defence. With Fornals proving so ineffective on the ball in recent games, I expected Benrahma starting to be the only change. However, the news that Arthur Masuaku is now unavailable raises a new set of questions.
I don’t envisage Moyes tinkereing with the formation even though the current setup does have a lopsided look. The pairing of Aaron Cresswell and Masuaku had compensated well for the absence of a specialist left back – but with Angelo Ogbonna and Fabian Balbuena operating mostly in the centre, it exposes an over-worked Vladimir Coufal on the right. While Jarrod Bowen offers excellent support it is not his primary role. It compromises his attacking threat, especially in the latter stages of games, when he is clearly exhausted. To my mind, Ben Johnson as a replacement for Arthur feels like the least disruptive option.
Elsewhere, I see no alternative to Sebastien Haller continuing to deputise for Antonio.
Leeds under Bielsa are this season’s maverick side, and the best equipped of the three promoted teams to prosper. El Loco is one of the game’s characters and his high-octane style of play is geared to providing goals and entertainment. It is a far cry from the Revie days and quite possibly the most flamboyant thing to come out of Yorkshire since its eponymous pudding. Leeds have something of a defensive injury crisis at the moment, but we can be certain that whoever plays, will not be lacking in effort.
Patrick Bamford is key to the Leeds attacking threat, not just for his goals but also for his movement and ability to create space for others. In his various loan spells from Chelsea as a youngster, it looked like he had the makings of a top class talent, before apparently losing his way at Middlesbrough. He has now found a perfect niche in the Leeds setup and will be a real danger today.
The game will be another big test for Moyes team. Leeds with a hard press, quick counters, lots of movement, width and direct passing will require his team to have extra high levels of concentration. The hosts have weaknesses at the back, but do West Ham have the tools to exploit that by striking on the break? Without Antonio, out-ball options are limited, and they may struggle to break the press often enough and quickly enough. Instinctively, this should be a high scoring game, but I believe it will be tighter than that. It will be an interesting clash of styles that I’m finding difficult to call. Maybe a 1-1 draw!