What a difference a week makes.
Seven days after being thumped at Villa Park and we’re 13pts clear of Steve Bruce’s men, who is now attributing his latest defeat to the snow, having scoffed at our own prospects in the wintry weather a few months ago.
The irony won’t be lost on many, nor the endless ad-libbing about most facets of our club in every press conference he sits in.
Bruce, more than anyone, should appreciate that actions speak louder than words. Our actions on the pitch against Burton Albion were flawless, as we cruised to a second successive home win to inch us closer to the finishing line.
Winning (against weaker opposition) is one thing, but the self-assured manner of both victories has been quite astonishing in the context of the season, when Bruce, Radrizzani and their Machiavellian colleagues were cranking up the hysteria levels in a pretty transparent agenda. A winter of discontent, in other words.
Thankfully, Nuno’s men were as expressive on the ball as the rest of the league has been on the microphones, typified by the outrageously good Ruben Neves, who dictated proceedings like a conductor with the Philharmonic.
As Dave Jones actually bemoaned at roughly this time of the season when the wheels were falling off, struggling teams will still comprise of 11 men who try to stop us from winning. This time around, we appear to have the players who – to borrow another phrase from Jones – aren’t afflicted by ‘safety first football.’
Again, look no further than Neves, who positively demands the ball at all times when the easier option might be to pass the baton. Costa, Cavaleiro, Saiss…All of them in fact, are also desperate to have it to feet and express themselves positively. To comprise a squad of players with this common similarity is actually quite incredible, if not illegal depending on who you listen to. The end result is a sight to behold and a side in old gold who look to be genuinely enjoying themselves.
The full backs are occupying positions in the final third like they always used to and the understated Saiss spearheads the ‘mid-press’ philosophy that makes us as compelling without the ball as we are when we’re on it.
This was a nerveless display overseen by a nerveless manager in Nuno, whose ability to ignore the peripheral noises and concentrate on the job at hand is commendable. A head coach by day and a therapist at night for us compulsive obsessives.
And whilst lavishing praise on individuals isn’t Nuno’s style, he can only have purred at the performance of Benik Afobe who, to borrow a quote from another past-manager, looks like the final piece in the jigsaw.
If there can be one legitimate criticism of our side (rather than the ethics behind it) then it’s the lack of a Plan B when unpicking the lock. Those sumptuous goals at home to Sheffield United will live long in the memory, but Afobe’s first goal – and strike at Leeds – demonstrates a more direct route to goal that I’ll relish equally. A through ball, pace in behind and bang! Old fashioned number 9s might not be en-vogue, but with this diversity in place of Bonatini’s more predictable play, we only look stronger in the areas that matter.
Burton’s high line always looked likely to be breached at some point, with the only surprise in how quickly it was. Costa dispatched coolly from a stunning Coady through-ball early on and Afobe was clinical thereafter. Aside from questionable defending from a set play (which will surely be addressed ahead of a trip to Tony Pulis’ Boro), this was a breeze.
A clinically icy performance to further divide a division.