Pablo Hernandez could thread a needle from a yard away and nutmeg a player from a distance of ten, and if you close your eyes at Stoke City, you can see the execution of a goal that left an imprint on the brain: Adam Forshaw’s pass, Jack Harrison’s lay-off, Hernandez’s knife-through-butter moment and Stuart Dallas’ unerring shot.
Forget what they say about Stoke away, on whichever day or whatever the weather; beauty is achievable in the Potteries with the right tools and enough grey matter. Leeds’ attack in 2019 was, some reckon, the bones of the best goal they scored on Marcelo Bielsa’s watch, or the most technically sexy of all his 257. You could argue the toss about that all night.
Stoke, of course, took Bielsa’s scalp in the previous season, a bitter afternoon catching Leeds cold, and Nathan Jones — Stoke’s coach for as long as he could cling onto the job — saw the result marked by the club framing and hanging a photo of him at full-time in the corridor outside their press room. As if to prove that nothing lasts forever, the image of him is long gone, a glimpse of Jones as king for a day.
The point is that on the weekend of the Hernandez goal, Leeds were incredibly happy in their own skin. The players were honed, the world was right, and the parallel before Stoke away yesterday was that Leeds, surreptitiously, had been growing in levels of contentment, almost on the quiet. A club who were making hard work of getting to the men’s room a couple of months ago were well down the path towards getting a grip, or so it seemed.
But that was before last night, when the cliches about Stoke kicked in and Leeds’ trip there produced a spectacle which only an empty seat could love. Patrick Bamford missed a penalty, his first memorable interjection for Leeds since the last time he missed one. Daniel Farke’s choice of team went against him and Stoke dug out a 1-0 win when Wesley’s header from a corner — a few minutes after Bamford’s miss — struck the crossbar, hit Pascal Struijk on the head and bounced into the net, everything Dallas’ masterpiece was not.
For the duration of the match, too much was wrong but not for the first time — and who knows if for the last? — everything zoned in on the penalty. Bamford missed two last season, one against Arsenal and another against Newcastle, both costly missteps in a year ending in relegation. His second, at home to Newcastle in April, had wholly unpalatable consequences: threats and abuse, online and in person, which raised a debate about whether Bamford, after five years in the building, might be minded to move on. They were big moments, stressful moments, that helped to define a shockingly bad campaign all around.
Aside from Bamford’s sketchy record, a very average rate of five conversions from 10 attempts for Leeds, it was apparent after Newcastle that for any future penalty kicks, he would be in a bubble of pressure 12 yards out; so much so that it was questionable whether exposing him in that way again was optimal or asking for trouble.
Put simply, there were other players who could have had a go at Stoke after Ben Pearson clipped Bamford’s heels with 16 minutes left. There were other players without the same history. Crysencio Summerville asked for the ball and suggested that captain Pascal Struijk pull rank, but Bamford laid his hands on it, placed it down and whipped it slackly over the crossbar. Worse was to come.
Joel Piroe was Farke’s designated penalty-taker but was off the pitch, having been substituted earlier in the second half. “I wanted Piroe to take it,” Farke said, in answer to the question of who should have done. “Piroe is our main taker.” Farke planned to speak to Bamford today and conceded that in light of the forward’s other misses, leaving him on penalties was a risk, with prior criticism potentially in his head.
“Under my regime, it was his first miss,” Farke said. “Right now, after he missed it, probably for the next game a different player will take one.
“Patrick is the most disappointed player in the dressing room. I don’t need to criticise him. (Maybe) he wanted it too much to prove the doubters wrong, that he can take penalties, but he doesn’t have to prove anyone wrong. He’s scored many penalties.
“But if you’re on such a run, it’s perhaps the right decision next time to let a different player take a penalty. Otherwise, the pressure is mounting even more. He wanted to take the responsibility. I think he’s experienced enough to deal with all the criticism which comes.”
But it was fair to ask how many failed attempts it should have taken before someone intervened and steered Bamford away from a scenario which keeps blowing up in his face. His confidence in grabbing the ball is not there in the strike that follows. Stoke cashed in and went through some low gears, pushing forward in the 80th minute, forcing a corner and scoring the only goal when Struijk turned in a rebound he could not avoid touching. Leeds had no way back.
Bamford’s penalty, objectively, was not the whole of the plot. Farke made changes to his line-up — Willy Gnonto, Ilia Gruev and Jaidon Anthony in for Summerville, Glen Kamara and Dan James — and had cause to regret it from an early stage. Gruev, on his full debut, found that while quality can sag dramatically in the Championship, the pace of the division is uncompromising and non-negotiable. Anthony took until the second half to stop possession running away for him and Gnonto was never truly in it. The energy of substitutions was called for when they came.
Georginio Rutter, a class apart and the sore thumb of quality, did what he could and his ball to Bamford — sent on for Piroe with 70 minutes gone — drew a stumbling foul from Pearson. That was the moment for Farke; the chance to show again that if you do not knock this Leeds team out, they will find a way to chin you.
But in the Championship, there is only so much a team can get away with in one evening, a chilly one at Stoke or anywhere else. Leeds were a clean strike away from talking about the type of result good teams grind out. As it was, a clip around the ear was not so far off what they deserved; self-inflicted, and brought on themselves.
(Photo: Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)