Australia 2022 Tour
Brisbane Roar 1 Leeds United 2 CBUS Stadium, Gold Coast
Leeds United 0 Aston Villa 1 Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Leeds United 1 Crystal Palace 1, OPTUS Stadium, Perth
There is no point in me going into great detail about the tour Down Under – there are plenty of detailed match reports and videos available on the various clubs’ websites. So I’ll keep my comments pretty general, a sort of overview if you will. Suffice to say I travelled to Oz with Mrs W and good friends Derek and Shirley who we meet before every game at Elland Road together with the other Old White Harters; we watched all of the games, travelling initially to Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast, then moving up the coast to Brisbane and finally flying to the other side of the country to Perth for the final game, a friendly against Crystal Palace.
Leeds began their second pre-season tour of Australia inside three years with a game on the Gold Coast against Brisbane Roar in the Queensland Champions Cup tournament that would also feature Aston Villa in the three-team competition. It started with a bang – Rodrigo sliding in to fire a low Dan James cross into the roof of the net. That one was ruled correctly offside but Leeds raced into a two-goal lead within the first half hour; Dan James smashing a shot just inside the right post from the corner of the area and then Joffy Gelhardt heading in superbly at the far post from a Dan James chip from the right. Dan James looked on fire at this point and Leeds were good value for the lead. But, five minutes before the break, Brisbane scored when some sloppy Leeds defending and a lucky bounce of the ball presented a Brisbane trialist with a simple goal six yards out.
Leeds had started with a strong line-up and that XI was too strong for a young Brisbane side. At halftime, and again at the hour mark, Leeds made changes and so it’s hard to be too critical but much of the early potency seemed to disappear and by the end, Brisbane were unlucky not to get a draw, Kristoffer Klaesson producing an excellent late diving save to tip the ball around a post . I summarised that we looked sharp and fit but I had to remember that this was only an Oz A side.
Our second game in the competition was against Aston Villa and Villa played a very strong side that could easily feature for them in the Premier League this season. Leeds started with a strong side too including Patrick Bamford up front and five of the six new signings getting time on the pitch. This game, played in front of 41,000 fans in the impressive Suncorp Stadium was marred with some dire officiating, including the award of a penalty against Tyler Adams for handball when it looked on replays on the big screen in the ground to have hit him in the chest! Despite protests from the Leeds players and fans the penalty was awarded despite the ref appearing to watch the replay himself! Justice was seen to be done though as Illan Meslier made two superb saves from Coutinho from the Brazilian’s spot kick and the rebound!
Villa made nine changes at halftime while Leeds made just one but Leeds continued to find it hard going against a near brutal Villa side that seemed to be treating the game like a cup final. Leeds then made several changes on the hour mark and that sparked even more brutality from Villa and the game became a bit of a slug-fest! Almost immediately Villa went ahead as Leaf Davis was adjudged to have handballed in the area and Danny Ings this time put the kick away. Archie Gray was one of the substitutes and he was soon displaying that aggressive tackling we saw from him up at Blackpool – but this time with his socks fully up and his shin pads on thankfully. The referee took issue with one such challenge and booked Gray and then, within minutes, he was being stretchered off as McGinn seemed to take revenge for the earlier Gray challenge. It was a nasty tackle by McGinn that got him a yellow card too in what had become a bad-tempered encounter. Villa held on to win the game 1 – 0 but the manner of their play suggests they will continue to be reliant as much on muscle as on skill this season. Leeds need to learn how to deal with such teams; we came across a few like this last season and often came off worse. It should also be noted that the pitch was not in great shape having hosted the State of Origin game only days earlier.
My overriding feeling on this one was that we just lacked anything special in the side; we have loads of midfielders available now but it is hard to pick out any one of them who really inspires, someone who catches the eye and looks like they can make a real difference in a game. Premier League sides need that. Villa have Coutinho who pretty much directed everything they did. It is a worry for me even allowing for the fact this was a “friendly”. We also looked lightweight up front with Patrick Bamford looking way off the form we saw from him back in that first season in the top flight, a sign that he has been out of action for so long no doubt. Villa beat Brisbane Roar 1 – 0 to win the tournament.
We all then flew across Australia from East Coast to West, a trip of five and a half hours even by plane! There we were taking on Crystal Palace in the OPTUS Stadium where we were walloped by Manchester United three years earlier. This time the game had clearly not inspired the local fans and only 33,000 turned up which meant the atmosphere was a bit muted in a 65,000 stadium to go with a similarly uninspiring game.
This was not a strong Palace side so the hope would have been for Leeds to show how far we had progressed but again I was disappointed. We probably bossed the first half but our final ball and our finishing was poor and, as with the previous games, no one in midfield put their stamp on the game. Joffy Gelhardt replaced Bamford at halftime and, for me, he was the one player who lit the place up. Twice he broke through but was caught inches offside and then he did it again and this time forced a tremendous save from Guaita in the Palace goal. Later still Joffy cut inside and hammered a left foot shot that again Guaita tipped around the post. The lad is just in a different league and if he doesn’t start against Wolves I’ll be distraught! It was laughable that the local TV crew wheeled out Paddy Bamford as Man of the Match after the game and not Joffy.
As to the game itself, well, Crysencio Summerville won us a cheap penalty when he went down under a challenge from Joel Ward; Rodrigo squeezing his spot kick just inside the left post. But Palace equalised when Ayew cut through us and laid the ball across goal for Mateta to slot home.
So, what to make of it all? I remember this time last season we had looked lacking in quality in pre-season and most people shrugged it off as “it’s only pre-season” and yet in the Premier League season that followed many of the issues we’d seen in pre-season remained to haunt us right through to the end and nearly cost us our place at the top table. We’ve brought in six players, seven now if we include young Sonny Perkins, and I’ve seen them all in action. They all look “OK” as players go, but for me, we are lacking a few star players, the one or two players every Premier League side has that can regularly influence or change a game – Villa have Coutinho for example, a world class player. Palace have Wilf Zaha and Eze albeit neither was in Oz for them. We did have Raphinha of course. I worry too that we are still short of a striker or two; Bamford is clearly nowhere near his best and there is no guarantee he’ll find his best for weeks or months to come. Joffy is a class act but he’s young and there is no clear sign Jesse Marsch is going to play him regularly. If those two are injured we are in deep trouble. Defensively I think we are OK. We have two top keepers in Meslier and Klaesson and, apart from the vacant left-back spot which you’d hope we’ll fill soon (it’s a mystery to me why Leaf Davis has been allowed to depart), a back line containing any of Kristensen, Strujk, Llorente, Koch, Heljde and, when fit Luke Ayling would be pretty decent I reckon. It’s that lack of a world-beater in midfield and a 20-goal-a-season striker that worries me.
We have one more pre-season game to come, against Cagliari at Elland Road, and I’d expect the starting lineup to be the one we’ll put out against Wolves in a couple of weeks. If I had to predict the Wolves score now though… I’d be tempted to suggest we might lose it.