Christmas time is upon us, and aside from tacky decorations and drunken merriment, English football goes fixture crazy once more, with many teams likely to play 4 games between Boxing Day and Jan 9th. For Leeds United, it is no different. Often it is in these pressured times when games come thick and fast where you really find out about the mettle of not just your first 11, but the entire squad. Whilst weekly matches can reveal player weaknesses and frailties, if results remain steady, as they have done for The Whites, individual mistakes can be glossed over with the first team remaining unchanged.
However, in this condensed period of games, players once thought infallible will likely make mistakes that cause us to question their involvement. Contrarily, players kept firmly on the sidelines for much of the season could pop up with telling contributions, causing perhaps a rethink of the entire style or formation. Such tactical vagaries were predominant at the start of the season for Leeds. When it seemed as if Mcdermott’s wingless 4-4-2 diamond formation was working, a decidedly joyless run of 1 victory from 6 matches matches without a win caused the manager to change tack. He went with a 4-3-3, replicating Warnock by fielding makeshift strikers or midfielders as wide players, like Luke Varney or Rodolph Austin, in order to address the teams lack of width as well as providing more defensive security and greater attacking potency. This however, did not yield any real difference to the last system, and it was scrapped. With things looking pretty average, Mcdermott’s next tactical rejig has been a revelation, coaxing the best out of the teams star performers whilst also involving players who had been thought to be past it or just not good enough. 3-5-2 has been the saviour, and the Leeds manager was recently extolling the virtues of a formation that has gathered 20 points from 30 since its inception by positing the notion that in this style the balance in the team is perfect, with no areas overloaded as they were previously.
Throughout this jaunt through ‘tacticsland’, Mcdermott has slowly crafted a team that find uses for players frozen out under Warnock, like Jason Pearce and Danny Pugh, whilst gradually cutting a few of Warnock’s certain starters out of the loop, like El Hadji Diouf, Luke Varney, Michael Tonge and David Norris. Now though, as the hectic nature of Christmas season football takes hold, these players will most likely come back into the fold at some stage (probably not Norris – last word was he had been told to train with the under 12’s). In what is the most frenzied period of the season for Leeds fixtures wise, the Whites face Blackpool on Thursday this week, with Forest to come three days after, and then Blackburn at home just three days after that, with an FA Cup tie at Rochdale quick to follow after another paltry three day gap. Out of these games, Mcdermott will hope a 7 point haul is attainable, with a win at Rochdale setting us off nicely for the fourth round draw in the cup. In these games, 1st team players and eager subs will swap around like hot cakes. Indeed, we will probably get glimpses of sights we all missed or dreaded seeing again, such as Michael Tonge’s comically geriatric running motion, which grows increasingly frantic and ungainly when he has to run backwards. Paul Green will probably make a return to show-off (or conceal – you decide) his deceptively passive but eerily all-action style of play, popping up in places you could have sworn he was nowhere near just seconds before, despite sporting a vibrant ginger mop. Noel Hunt and Luke Varney may soon be seen getting stuck into something in some inconsequential or marginally beneficial way so stay tuned for that. Diouf and Ariyibi anyone? As for the former, the enigmatic Senegalese trickster will hopefully want to set aside a pretty absent season so far to really kick the team into gear. Despite the years on his clock, he remains one of the few players in the squad who posses that ability to produce something truly class out of nothing. It would be great to see what impact he can have on this team, as despite not featuring regularly this season, he has had moments in which his enduring ability has been revealed. Take the game earlier in the season against QPR for instance, where all game Leeds had struggled to create anything of note against a rigid defence. On came Dioufy for the final 15 minutes, and all of a sudden crosses from wide were being aimed with precision onto the head of Matt Smith from the wingman, with the 6ft 6inch striker having had to deal with long punted balls all day long up to that point. Though conversion proved elusive, this combination was interesting in its brief effectiveness.
In recent weeks, with Smith a regular starter now, the problem of getting accurate and consistent service to the striker has reared its head in recent games, particularly against Barnsley. In spite of the chances the 24 year-old has missed, the team certainly haven’t been getting enough diagonal balls into the penalty box for Smith to really do some damage. In these next few games Diouf should get the chance to provide them. Gboly Ariyibi is an interesting one. Bought recently on a short-term deal, and looking all the while like one for the future, the gaffer’s announcement the other day that the 18-year-old is “knocking on the door” of the first team was revealing. He must be reaping havoc in training. One can imagine him tearing Adam Drury to shreds repeatedly, taking such ease in the enterprise that he is able to perfectly coordinate every trick and nutmeg just as Mcdermott turns to look in his direction. Or maybe the livewire Dom Poleon, young and full of spunk, watched the Youtube videos of Ariyibi we all did and challenged the new kid to a running race, only to lose with Neil Readfern looking on studiously. Levity aside, if this kid is already close to the starting XI as the boss says, and if he can come anywhere near replicating the kind of direct dribbling skill he showcases repeatedly on those clips in games for The Whites, we could quite possibly see an effective, winged formation in the coming matches. At the back, Marius Zaliukas’ arrival and the splendid form and experience he has given to a once fledgling Leeds defence has been very refreshing. In spite of this, you’d start to worry if more than two of United’s centre-backs had to pull out with something. Tom Lees, Jason Pearce and Zaliukas have developed such a good understanding that you would hate to see them broken up. If they were, could their replacements adapt? Could Stephen Warnock put a decent shift in as part of a back three? My guess on the later is yes, but beyond the former England international and steady-going Lee Peltier, the options become slightly less appealing. Whatever happens though, there should be enough experience in the team’s second-string to shepherd us through these games without too much bruising. Although a little lost at the beginning of the campaign, we now look like the kind of team that responds to dips in form with a collective desire to set things straight immediately, like all good teams have. From the positive noises coming out of the camp in recent weeks from the likes of McCormack, Pugh and Lees, the team spirit appears to be very strong in this group, with every player willing to give their all for the cause. If anything, the next few games will be a massive test of that resolve.