As Chris Wood followed Hadi Sacko forward in stoppage time against Aston Villa last weekend, a familiar scene was unfolding.
The Villans were virtually beaten. Already behind on the scoreboard and with time winding down, marooned defenders turned into traffic cones as Sacko turned on the jets. He got past the first defender, a second and a third, he was clear on goal. A showdown with Aston Villa shot stopper Pierluigi Gollini awaited.
The Frenchman had fashioned a chance from the depths of his defensive half; it was an opportunity to kill off the latest victim of Leeds United’s renaissance tour.
A worm burning drive was propelled on goal and Sacko prayed it was enough to beat Gollini. The answer to his request was sort of; the Villans keeper altered Sacko’s moment of glory without completely ruining it.
A deflected football now rolled towards the goal line as Sacko retreated to the corner flag, undoubtedly dreaming, for a split second anyway, of jumping into the arms of his 30,000 friends seated at Elland Road. Whether Sacko would be able to rejoice alone was now a fate beyond him, a race in three developed while he drifted into (potential) bliss. A trundling football, Aston Villa’s Tommy Elphick and a certain New Zealand international: these were the parties left to decide whether Sacko could celebrate his second goal of the season.
Personal vanities aside, the odds were heavily stacked in Leeds United’s favour. Even if Elphick won the day, United would still be leading with just 60 seconds of football remaining. Three points would almost definitely be coming home, a feat that would have been acceptable just three months ago. But times have changed. Holding on for victory is not sexy, and definitely isn’t what Yorkshire’s newest manager wants to see.
Garry Monk has called for his growing side to develop a Conor McGregor like mentality; winning on the scorecard isn’t enough. A knockout blow is now required. This was the beauty of Sacko’s foray forward in the 94th minute of football. His side was ahead on the judges’ scorecards and arguably should have played it safe; instead Sacko went looking for a knockout punch with his opponent wobbly at the knees.
So regardless of how the triple-threat battle would eventually end, it was Sacko who had set the tone. He evidenced the growth of an evolving Leeds United organisation by creating a chance when one wasn’t necessarily needed.
Sacko had lived Monk’s mantra, but he wasn’t to be rewarded on the scoresheet. A slowing leather object would prevent a Sunday morning byline, and allow a familiar name to take centre stage. Chris Wood won the race of three. Yet again, he was Leeds United’s Johnny-on-the-spot.
Wood has been central to the footballing revolution taking place at Elland Road this season. He has been empowered by Monk and is very clearly the number one attacking option on United’s squad.
Statistically, the New Zealand international is enjoying the best season of his convoluted career, a journey that has already seen him play for West Bromwich Alboin, Leicester City and Birmingham City before heading to Yorkshire. Wood has netted 13 times this campaign, matching his goal-scoring tally from the 2015-16 season in less than half the games.
Leeds United is undefeated in the 13 matches where Wood has scored this season, claiming 11 victories and two draws. Leeds collect an average of 2.7 points per game every time Wood finds the back of the net, and there have been four occasions where Wood’s goal has been the sole reason victory was achieved. This is highlighted by United’s three game winning streak over Cardiff City, Blackburn Rovers and Ipswich Town in September. On each occasion, Wood’s goal was enough to support a clean sheet from Rob Green and secure victory.
On first glance then, it appears Wood is driving United up the table. There is an unmistakable correlation between his goals and victories.... or is there? While it may seem strange that Wood can be the sole distinguishing factor in successful football, not much has changed since the days of Uwe Rosler and Steve Evans.
United was also undefeated in the 12 contests in which Wood scored during the 2015-16 season. While the successes were not as pronounced – Leeds was riddled by draws and only collected 1.8 points per game when Wood found the target last term – the better moments of a difficult campaign occurred when he scored. There is now an 18 month trend.
Wood’s goal-scoring rate is dramatically improved this season, as is the output of his team, so what has changed? Did Chris Wood suddenly grow talents over the summer break? Or is the ecosystem around him elevating the goal scoring opportunities? The correct answer is probably both, meaning a deeper dive is required to determine where the credit really should lay.
The backline is an obvious starting point. The additions of Kyle Bartley and Pontus Jansson speak for themselves at this point; they have turned a perennial weakness into a league-leading strength. United can now keep things tight at the back and less attacking impetus is needed to collect points.
In games where Wood has scored over the past two seasons, the defence is conceding 0.5 less goals per game this season when compared to 2015-16. That is a big difference. It means those 1-1 draws from last season (like Wood scoring in the 70th minute against QPR and the defence handing it right back) have been replaced with 1-0 victories, such as the Blackburn and Ipswich salutes mentioned above. The defence has zero to do with Wood’s performance, yet they now allow his run-of-the-mill goals to become match winners.
The best way to judge Wood is by looking back at the goals themselves. For now, we will ignore the chances missed (of which there are many) and solely look at all 13 times Wood has scored this season. Below is video of each goal, a TIAT description of the play from the match recap and my additional anecdote.
Chris Wood penalty v Fleetwood #LUFCPosted by We Are Leeds MOT on Wednesday, August 10, 2016
TIAT match recap description: Beautiful through ball was placed for Antonsson, who was brought down in the box, and the ref didn’t hesitate to award Leeds the penalty. Moments later, Chris Wood confidently stood up over the ball, and slotted it home past the keeper.
Mallis comment: Emphatic finish to tuck away the penalty. Wood played no part in winning the spot kick and did his job from 12 yards.
TIAT match recap description: I’ll admit I have a strong love-hate-love-hate relationship with Wood. In a manner that only the big Kiwi can pull off, he missed a number of easier chances against Fulham, only to bang home the most difficult one of all in the dying moments.
Mallis comment: A very juicy bicycle kick from the big Kiwi. While one could argue the keeper should have done better here, this was undoubtedly a classy finish.
TIAT match recap description: Immediately after I started to panic on the live-tweets, Chris Wood came through off a cross from substitute Kemar Roofe.
Mallis comment: The more I watched this goal, the more I was impressed with Wood’s ability to slide the ball past Keiren Westwood. A great cross from Roofe was given its just reward.
TIAT match recap description: After great work again by Hadi Sacko on the right, he beat his man and drove the ball through the box, leaving Wood with an easy tap in from 3 yards.
Mallis comment: This one falls under the heading of easy tap in for mine. Wood deserves credit for getting into the correct position, although this finish should be expected from a professional striker.
TIAT match recap description: For the entire game, the hustle and bustle at corners was just ridiculous, from both teams. However Cardiff took it too far on the hour mark as Pontus Jansson was manhandled like a liberal at a Trump rally. Chris Wood stepped up to take the penalty and as all natural goal scorers do (chuckle) he tucked it away nicely. This almost makes up for the other two clear chances he fluffed, but not quite.
Mallis comment: Rinse and repeat my comments from goal number one. A striker doing his job from the penalty spot, that is all you need to know about this one.
TIAT match recap description: Wood needed two attempts to convert the hopeful ball in from Kemar Roofe, after his initial contact was parried right back to him by Rovers stopper David Raya. Wood met the rebound cleanly enough to send a looping header over the scrambling keeper for the game's lone goal.
Mallis comment: This might be the ugliest goal I’ve seen all season. Wood finds space at the back post and (eventually) finishes off Roofe’s great work.
TIAT match recap description: The Ipswich doors began to creak and as Charlie Taylor found himself on the by-line after being slipped in from a cute pass, he dug out a cross that found Wood waiting at the back post - he didn't need much convincing to head his fourth goal in as many games.
Mallis comment: Wood showed off some great attacking instincts on this one. A superb in and out run allows him to break free from Christophe Berra and convert Taylor’s looping cross.
TIAT match recap description: Wigan pressed Leeds well in the first 25 minutes until, on the half hour mark, Hadi Sacko got away from his man and crossed the ball from the right. Chris Wood controlled it beautifully and then volleyed it hard to the left-hand side of the goal. The goal was an absolute beauty; I love Chris Wood’s ability to peel-off defenders and find space in the box.
Mallis comment: This is Wood’s best finish of the campaign, and it isn't even close. Great touch to control Sacko’s cross was followed by a raging half volley into the glory zone. So much sex appeal by Mr. Wood right here.
TIAT match recap description: Following a trademark venture into the box, Sacko put a driven ball across the box that missed everyone... except Chris Wood, who was there to tap home at the back post.
Mallis comment: You have to question what the Norwich defence was thinking here, up a man at that. Wood was allowed to run uncontested to the back post and tap in the easiest finish you will see all year.
TIAT match recap description: Superb vision by Pablo Hernandez gave Leeds the break they needed. Doukara found his chance to break, and Pablo hit him with a beautiful pass. Doukara was taken down by Turner for a Leeds penalty. Chris Wood smashed it home and gave Leeds the lead on 84 minutes.
Mallis comment: Just like our previous two spot kicks, Wood stepped up and converted an opportunity created by his teammates.
TIAT match recap description: Leeds took the lead after some sublime football between Sacko and Ayling set up Wood who smashed the ball home from 12 yards.
Mallis comment: An emphatic finish from in close. Sacko and Ayling did all the grunt work, while the big Kiwi deserves credit for a smart finish around his defender and over the keeper.
TIAT match recap description: Leeds showed their class with a lovely play down the left by Charlie Taylor, whose pass found Chris Wood on the 12-yard box, and he slotted the ball past Lee Camp in the Rotherham goal for a 1-0 lead.
Mallis comment: This was Taylor’s goal. A pleasant reminder of why Premier League clubs are chasing the left back helped create space for Wood to reach the dozen.
TIAT match recap description: Leeds went from strength to strength and had several chances to put the game to bed. When we did it was (of course) a goal from the big Kiwi, with a bit of reluctant help from Sacko.
Mallis comment: Another tap in, baby! Sacko made a sensational run and his selfishness led to another close range finish for Wood. Props to the big Kiwi for not giving up on the play.
At first, I was ready to discount Wood being perfect from the spot; I mean, shouldn’t every competent striker be expected to convert spot kicks? Apparently not is the answer. The Telegraph did a great job of tallying penalty kick conversion in the Premier League and across Europe in October. At that point, Premier League clubs were only converting 71% of their penalty kicks; the average success rate since the turn of the century sits somewhere around 77%. Wood’s sample size isn’t great but he deserves a tap on the shoulder for holding his nerve. With that said, it must be noted that his teammates earned each spot kick, making them the true reason for three of Wood’s goals.
As for the ten in-play goals, a few trends are undeniable. All bar one are one-touch finishes (we are counting goal number six as a one-touch finish because, well… it should have been. No credit for making life harder on your self).
This also means the majority of Wood’s strikes are directly attributable to assists from his midfield. Goals six, nine and twelve are great examples of this. While the big Kiwi deserves credit for getting into dangerous positions, the actual finishes themselves are Sunday league stuff. For what it’s worth, Wood has zero assists so far this season.
The strike against Wigan was pure class and the very reason Wood remains the great next hope of Elland Road. Same goes for the bicycle finish against Fulham. For as stupefying as these two finishes were, they are clear outliers.
I’ll admit there is a certain amount of nitpicking in this exercise, almost like pointing out the two percent of things that you don’t find attractive about Kate Upton, but it serves as an opportunity to truly understand what Wood does for this football side.
The first is that Wood’s finishing ability is a little overrated. Give him the chance to score, and he likely will. Force him to create attacking situations off his own accord, and you will likely be left scoreless. We have seen only two strikes this campaign that are undeniably above average.
But that’s not to say all is bad. The second important theme: Wood is one smart footballer, a characteristic perenially understated by most who write about him (this writer included). The above highlight reel offers countless examples of a striker who knows how to position himself and how to feed off his attacking wingers. Scoring impactful goals and getting into dangerous spaces on the football pitch can lift any footballer. Combine these talents with the height of Wood and a threatening force can arise.
Wood is enjoying a great season, arguably the best of his career, and is on track to score over 30 goals.
All the same, Wood’s goal scoring numbers overstate his impact so far this season.
He has benefited mightily from the structure of Garry Monk’s attack and has been on the receiving end of some great work from his supporting cast. That’s not a criticism or denegation of Wood at all; he has brought in and is playing his role to perfection. It’s just a much needed note to recognise the talents and performances of those around him, even if they don’t score the goals.
Players like Sacko are living Monk’s prophesy and looking for killer blows when the former incarnations of Leeds United would have settled for average. Monk has cultivated infectious growth mindset in just six months on the job.
The entire squad is inspired, and for the first time this decade, the players in white want more for themselves. They are playing selfless football, and Wood is reaping the rewards, and in turn rewarding the entire football club.
This is ultimately the point. When May 2017 arrives, it won’t matter how the goals were created, just that they were scored.
If Chris Wood can continue taking his opportunities, he will invariably garner ample recognition. Just don’t forget about those putting him in position to succeed.