Leeds’ 2-0 defeat to Rochdale United in the FA Cup on Saturday was the team’s poorest display since Brian Mcdermott took the reigns at the club in March of last year. Though we created one or two decent opportunities early in the first-half, the team were outfought and bypassed for the majority of the game, as Rochdale racked up one chance after another in the second-half with only Paddy Kenny preventing an even more humiliating loss with some great goalkeeping.
That the players were out-battled so constantly says something about the tiredness in Mcdermott’s favoured players, and the manager has to take a great share of the blame for not using this game as an opportunity to introduce one or two of the less-featured players. Not just for the sake of it, but because they would have been better suited to getting in behind the tough but relatively slack back-line of Rochester. The way Sam Byram was scythed down twice in the opening half-hour by players clearly not amenable to defending against pace and trickery was the clue that Brian should have heeded.
In spite of this the only players with genuine speed on the Leeds bench in Dom Poleon and Gboly Ariyibi remained sat there, with the bizarre arrival of Noel Hunt on 84 minutes giving Leeds none of the pace and direction desperately needed. The game was gone at that stage, but if the fouling of Byram was anything to go by, Poleon and Ariyibi could certainly have provoked more of the same panic in Rochdale legs that Byram sporadically delivered, scaring defenders into more late challenges and perhaps a red card to help The Whites cause. Even without Poleon and Ariyibi on the pitch, this punishment looked a likely occurrence with Byram running with the ball every chance he got, drawing two yellow cards with a couple of charges forward. However, Leeds needed more than one player doing this, and as Byram’s runs fizzled out so did the teams only threat.
Thus we return to that special word, pace, ever uttered or mused upon wistfully by Leeds fans as the panacea to heal all the weaknesses that our team currently possesses. Though virtuoso displays of creativity are sought after as well, the players who harbour such talent are often delivered their space to act by pacy players stretching opposition backlines by running in behind them or simply darting faster than their adversary to claim a stray ball. At all levels of football, speed is a thing looked upon with a mystical romance by pundits and fans alike. A gift that anyone could have, and without requiring quite the same level of practice needed to augment technique on the ball or any other football skill.
Today, it is valued immensely, particularly as most players at the top level now have a greater strength of fitness ever seen before in professional football. Due to this, those who are able to burst past these heavily drilled players are prized like no other. Think of Theo Walcott for Arsenal, Jesus Navas for Manchester City, Aaron Lennon for Spurs or Fernando Torres in his Liverpool days. The first three are often looked to by their managers and their fans as the players who can give the team that exhilarating, cavalier surge out of nowhere when things are tight, or race onto through balls when the game is stretched. As for Torres, the collective regretful anguish one hears when the once lethal Spaniard is unable to reach a seemingly gettable through ball is something that is propounded or has been propounded by every football pundit working for the last ten years. “He’s lost that yard of pace” and “5 years ago he would have made that” are statements that will be fixed on a loop for viewers of English football as long as Torres sticks around.
The benefits of speed can be immense, which Nottingham Forest provided further evidence of firstly in their defeat of Leeds on 29th December, and then for a second time in their 5-0 devastation of West Ham United in the FA Cup. On the 29th, the same United side that had been picked at indecisively against Barnsley and Blackpool was assaulted at the City Ground by the home team, whose pacy frontline of Abdoun, Landsbury and Mackie tore into The Whites defence with frightening ease on many occasions in the game. Behind the nimble attack was Andy Reid, another slippery, diminutive customer whom Leeds struggled to handle. It could, and should have been more than 1-0 by the time The Whites snatched a miraculous equaliser from Ross McCormack, only for United to have that momentary ray of sun blackened just a minute after by a wonder-strike from Matt Derbyshire.
The game in general was a showcase of the way in which this Leeds side can be got at mercilessly with pace and skill without a great deal in the way of reciprocation. Watford did the same, but that day Leeds had fight, determination and a loud Elland Road crowd on our side, with the first two the most disappointing absentees in the game at Forest. As the matches came regularly over the Christmas period, and tiredness set in, and Mcdermott’s favoured side has grown not in confidence but in inefficiency, and fatigue, with the knock on effect being a dreary state of football devoid of much life.
Forest however, have not had to deal with these afflictions, not over Christmas at least, with a 5-0 demolition of West ham topping off a condensed Christmas schedule in which they won three of their 5 matches, drawing the other two. The performance against Sam Allardyce’s team was especially impressive, with not only Abdoun and Landsbury but young and speedy striker Jamie Paterson providing ample problems for The Hammers defence, thus highlighting the reserves of dynamic quality that Forest can call upon in stark contrast to Leeds at this moment in time. Paterson scored a hat trick, in what was an eye-catching performance, but Abdoun is the consistent outstanding performer in this team. Blessed with a turn of pace that can have defenders scrambling and a superb eye for a pass, a player of his ilk would transform this Leeds side the second he walked onto the pitch. It wasn’t just Abdoun who highlighted for me what United are missing though, with a seemingly innocuous piece of play by Gonzalo Jara contributing to my thoughts also. In the 78th minute of the game, Jara, from his right-back position, ran fast and powerfully with the ball at his feet for a good fifty yards, only to stop halfway into the oppositions half to lay the ball off to a team-mate. It wasn’t spectacular, you could even call it inconsequential, but it was an example of something that has been fairly non-existent in Leeds’ play recently.
How useful and helpful it must be for a team to have a player sprint with the ball out of defence, driving the team up the pitch quickly without needing to go through the usual manufacturing of the ball through defence and then the midfield. What’s more, Jara is known to regularly gallivant out of defence, taking the initiative to form the basis of an attack without shifting the responsibility onto another player. You need players like this, especially in the Championship, where there often won’t be much of a disparity between the technical ability of the midfields lining up against each other, meaning a little thrust of ingenuity is required to open up space for others to operate. Forest can deploy this, but for Leeds it is an uphill struggle.
The change of formation to 5-3-2 for the Birmingham game has survived up to now because it was practically a last resort for Mcdermott to make the best out of what he had after all else had failed. For the majority of his time at Reading, the Leeds manager played a formation with wingers, with these channels acting as the main and most propitious ways through which his team attacked, particularly during their promotion season. The Reading of 2011/12 also boasted great class in the middle with Jem Karacan, a player who set off attacking moves with his adroit technique. One gets a sense of the difference of settings with Mcdermott on record late last year praising his 5-3-2 system at Leeds chiefly because it reduced the risk of the team being “overloaded” in the forward and midfield positions. From this one can read that Brian feels he has to play the percentages with the players he has to get results. Although the system has got the best out of the team’s sole experienced and top-class performer Ross Mccormack, the formation change was also a desperate bid to include all of the players in the Leeds squad who could produce moments of quality with industry in favour of those who performed solely the latter. You could include Diouf in Mcdermott’s preferred bracket, but his continuous absences this season has precluded the manager from picking him. 5-3-2 was also a way of ensuring some kind of stability and threat in a side that looks alarmingly suspect with just two at the back and without the required panache in attack since Robert Snodgrass left the club.
Most of all it is this positive energy that Leeds lack, the kind that Forest displayed most vividly first against us and then against West Ham. Of course, the team Forest played in the third round was in effect the West Ham youth team, but the displays in these games only serve to highlight the devastating effect that pace can have on opposing sides, as well as the advantage Forest have over our side. When at the start of the Christmas period of fixtures many proclaimed Leeds and Forest to be equally matched as promotion contenders, our face-off collision for the play-off places turned out to be rather one-sided, with Forest looking abuzz with life in comparison to our abject display.
Post-Forest, a sense of disappointment and resigned frustration was palpable, but after the fiasco at Rochdale last Saturday, these complaints were made to look like chicken-feed compared to the all-pervasive wave of scathing vituperation that came lashing down with a seething venom after The Whites FA Cup loss. It was a mass of disgust from fans the likes of which I haven’t seen for a long time. The whole setup of the team was questioned, with some even calling for the head of Brian Mcdermott or dismissing nearly the entire team as expendable but for three or four survivors. Although it was an unforgivable defeat, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Mcdermott has for me performed miracles in keeping this side right in the mix for the play-offs, especially with a team practically devoid of fast players willing to run with the ball or just about fast-enough for their momentum to set up two-on-one situations developing or overlaps in wide positions.
Of course you could say Brian takes some of the blame for that in his purchases during the summer that featured no new wide player, but I feel that his acquisitions in the summer were astute in terms of the potential of the players brought in (barring Noel Hunt). This January, attaining wide-players looks to be foremost in Mcdermott’s mind, and as the team stands in the league, just a point off the play-offs, with the greater funds the manager has at his disposal, a legitimate promotion challenge looks viable. Addressing the lack of speed is essential; as if we do not the insipid performances produced recently will continue. Leeds evidently do possess players of the capacity to run past opposing players in Dom Poleon and Gboly Ariyibi, but I don’t expect that Brian has pins his hopes on these two to provide the winged zeal required, especially the latter, whose quality of decision-making still needs refining.
If another striker is brought in, Poleon could see his chances decrease further, or perhaps he will continue to be use as an impact sub, either way, there is work still to be done. Ariyibi is an even younger player whose role I don’t expect to be much larger than that of Poleon’s. Composure is built by experience and is a great beneficiary of raw pace, power and technical skill. Mcdermott will be looking at these attributes in the players he brings in, rather than just blindly taking any speed-merchant he can find, which leads us to another problem for Leeds which is again beyond parallel with Nottingham Forest’s situation. Whereas Forest’s attacks against Leeds and West Ham were driven by the agility of their front players, they were also beneficial in lending the space for the players sat behind them to seek them out with long passes, giving them constant options on the ball when they looked up. From a technical standpoint, Leeds’ midfielders aren’t being granted these options.
In spite of the scorn levelled at the quality of the midfield at the weekend and throughout this downturn in form, there is talent there. Not the sort of talent that can receive the ball in tight situations, turn a man, then dance tiki-taka style into the oppositions penalty area. No, (although Mowatt and Byram have that potential) for the most part the midfield and full backs like to have space to send long passes into the channels to look for runners. At the moment however they find these options are at a premium due to the dearth of players available who look to run in behind opposition defences to create space for an outlet. Having a target man as that outlet is fine, but the idea is to have this man surrounded by fast players who can support him, look to run on to knock-on’s or get into wide areas up the pitch to provide crosses.
Unsurprisingly, with the lack of pace in the team it is these wide areas that Leeds have struggled to break into with any regularity of late. As far as getting to the byline is concerned, well forget it, at the moment many of the players look so surprised they have managed to reach it that their quality disappears with a wayward cross or miscue the typical result. It was incredibly wearying watching Leeds attempt to put crosses into the box against Rochdale, as the ball was fumbled about sloppily, with the eventual cross the direct spawn of such ponderous build-up, drifting sadly and slowly into the box.
There’s no getting around it, the 5-3-2 worked for a time, certainly against the lesser sides, but our shape is now being exploited quite blatantly from better teams such as Forest to League Two Rochdale who look to attack the yawning space available down the wings. Virtually all teams in the Championship play a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, and whilst Leeds have coped manfully in fighting out a scrap for 6th, it looks now as if Mcdermott will have to follow the trend. United, as the table stands now, are in a bracket of teams of similar quality like Watford, Ipswich, Brighton, Reading and Wigan, for whom some kind of missing link is needed to complete the puzzle. It could be anything from a sterner defence to a goal-scoring striker. Leeds already have the latter in McCormack, thankfully scoring goals regularly and kept from the prying gaze of Middelsborough last summer. Matt Smith is another name that deserves a mention as a unique player Leeds have available, for there is no other player in The Championship quite like him. Indeed, despite the criticism from Leeds fans, the young striker playing his first season of Championship football has notched a creditable 6 goals in 10 starts despite a meagre supply line. At the moment, Smith is mostly having to deal with balls flighted into him from afar, and though he can knock a ball down into a team-mate’s path through this method, just think of how many more chances for goals the 6ft6inch striker could get if he was feeding on fast balls coming in from the byline.
It’s an exciting prospect. Once zip is installed into this Leeds side, the wide areas will be accessed more readily for our players, and with a more regular supply from wide areas closer to goal, Smith’s aerial prowess could turn into a monstrous asset. It’s no wonder those playing in white have been repeatedly pumping the ball long to the 24-year-old for the past few games, since without pace, trickery and a hunger flattened by tiredness, the outlets are clogged and are either unreachable or unrealistic. Danny Pugh is an example of someone whose skills could benefit massively from changes to Mcdermott’s tactics. Here we have one of the best crossers in the league not able to use his greatest asset to its fullest degree because of his position. Without pace around him, overlapping opportunities are few and far between, whilst his assigned role also curtails his topmost skill. Being a wing-back, defensive duties are never far from the 31-year-old’s mind. In his games played this season, Pugh averages 1.6 crosses per game, a number that if increased to four or five could benefit the team immensely. If a 4-4-2 is adopted, I feel Pugh would be utilised best in a left-midfield role, with Warnock to return at left-back, giving us a safety at the back that has been lacking at times in the wing-back system. With change though will probably come a balancing act as new players arrive and new systems are tried, a challenge that will be Mcdermott’s biggest since taking charge.
Forest showed us like no other team this season what can be achieved with twinkle-toed tyros sprinting past defenders, aided by technically proficient players working behind them with customary Championship bluster but also the room to express their technique. Leeds United have the bluster, but need that added vigour to lift us out of our slump. As Eddie Gray has said this week, even one new addition to a side can make a massive difference to the way a team plays. If a technical, pacy wide player is brought in, suddenly we have a new dimension to our attack, an option in behind the defence with his speed or just someone who can carry the ball at speed, throwing players off balance or out of position, with space now available for those who’ve not had it before. This Saturday it’s Wednesday away, a massive game, and gladdenignly live on television, which means most will hopefully get a chance to see the game, with the much mooted arrival of Cameron Stewart into the team something to wet the appetite. If the deal does happen, hopefully the team will attain another string to their bow in open play, a requirement a long time in the making.