And so another manager departs Leeds United. This time it is the curiously appointed Darko Milanic who has been pensioned off, following on from the more blunt dismissal of Dave Hockaday earlier in the season. But whilst the aftermath of Hockaday’s sacking brought a sense of, ‘well, what now’? After Milanic’s briefest of tenures Leeds stand in a not uncommonly strange position of being able to immediately replace their former manager with a replacement who could realistically get the team back playing and winning fairly quickly. Neil Redfearn is this man, and the cheery possibilities his reappointment brings come from his extremely capable steering of Leeds earlier this season, when he gained 10 points from 12 as caretaker manager.
His popularity amongst the squad is obvious as well as his thorough knowledge of the team. Now he is being called back again, sheriff Cellino travelling back to a dusty saloon bar to take the experienced but rusty gunslinger under his wing once more. But it’s the real deal now, not a fleeting and carefree caretaker role but the manager’s chair that Redfearn will occupy, or at least we think he will in name, since you can never be too definite these days. In any case, there are many tactical questions and possibilities that should occupy Redfearn’s mind as he steps into the breach. Foremost of these is the issue of Leeds’ 4-4-2 diamond, a formation that grows increasingly suspect with every game. The biggest problem of all with this system as it is being deployed by Leeds is without question to be found in the pivotal wing back positions, specifically the personnel occupying them. Let’s begin on the left side, where Stephen Warnock has been seen trying his level best to operate with some degree of efficacy both offensively and defensively for much of the season. It has become increasingly obvious throughout the season though, as it was last season, that telling Stephen Warlock to play as a left-wing back, and attend to the requirements the position entails, is now tactically blinkered. Warnock is 32, and has never been the sort of player to provide the kind of attacking thrust that you need from a wing-back.
Berardi too is not the kind of player delivers what is needed in that position. Much less willing to gallop forward as Warnock, the 26-year-old is sound defensively and clearly enjoys this side of the game rather than attacking. If wingers is a term of too distinct in meaning, then Leeds need or certainly will need players over the course of this campaign to occupy the wide positions with some degree of frequency. Time and again this season, we have either been defensively susceptible to attacks down the flanks or stunted offensively. Without the regular outlet of enterprising full backs to provide an out ball into space, United’s approach play often becomes bogged down in crowded central areas if the opposition is set. The lack of a wide option then takes away the possibility for the full-back to have any chance of overlapping or getting down the sides of an opponent, something that has been an incredibly rare sight this season. This tunnel vision is borne out by the stats. Take Stephen Warnock’s crosses per game ratio for the season, a lowly 0.3 per game, whilst Sam Byram’s and Gaetano Berardi are similarly profligate in this area, with the former’s tally standing at 0.4 and the latter’s at 0.1. The trend continues throughout the Leeds squad, we just aren’t a team that crosses very much.
The numbers cited for the full backs might not have been as meaningful if we played with wingers, since the full backs would then have less attacking responsibility, but for wing backs these numbers are far too low. Not that Leeds play a crossing game, pinging balls in at every opportunity, but even a passing team, any team for that matter, will realise the value of getting down the sides of the opponents penalty area to zip balls into oncoming attackers. Leeds don’t get into these positions with anywhere near enough frequency, as has been the case for a fair few seasons. On the one hand, the wing backs in our 4-4-2 diamond formation are somewhat reluctant to make regular runs down the flanks without being absolutely sure that the shape of the team is secure. This is largely down to the fact that Leeds don’t have the all-round technical ability in the current team to have controlled possession in the opponents half, or just in general. Without this insurance, United’s full backs are often in a state of flux.
Occasionally willing to try to get forward when Leeds have the ball in an advanced area, for the most part their attacking impetus is stymied because of the frequency with which the ball changes hands, and so a sense of cautiousness dominates, since there is usually only one centre back covering the space that they have vacated. What’s more, aside from Sam Byram, Warnock and Berardi, Leeds’ most used full backs this term, are not natural wing backs for reasons given before. They would be much more effective in attacking play with wide players in front of them. But, since there is no one ahead of them to play to, they often have to play inside, back into the quagmire. Byram is also a player who, with someone permanent in front of him to play off, could be more willing to come forward and show his talents. As the only player on the right flank however, the problem of Leeds not having enough controlled possession again negates even a full back as sprightly as Byram from coming forward too regularly.
There is simply too much at stake if the ball is lost. The technical problem compounds the formational one in a sense.
Without a wide outlet, Leeds often go central, and though sometimes this has yielded rewards, it cannot always be this way. Sometimes you need to be more direct, to get down the sides, circumventing an opponent. Most teams in the championship understand this, as the majority of sides in this division play with wingers, or at least players who position themselves mainly in wide areas. This is due to the fact that there isn’t quite the technical ability for teams to feel sure that they will pass their way through an opposition at will during a game. Using wide players is a good way of not having to rely on a slick incisive passing move to break down an opposing team, since there is always a chance to switch the ball wide and either create an overlap or cross the ball in to apply a different kind of pressure. From a good cross any number of things can happen, and it is hurting Leeds that these advanced wide areas aren’t being accessed enough. Indeed, until Leeds possess team with a mixture of energy, technical skill, creativity, strength and pace (think Liverpool last season), then the diamond will never work for us as a viable system.
This season it has been deemed the sufficient system to fit the personnel in the most feasible way, but it has proved unfeasible and we do not in fact have the personnel to play it well. A 5-3-2 could be better, but I think again that opposing teams would force us into reshaping this formation as each game progressed. Although reforming a team is a standard part of the game, I think it is time that Leeds utilised a system that wasn’t always at the mercy of the opposition’s playing style. In my view, a 4-3-3 system would best integrate the disparate parts of the Leeds squad, as well as maintaining the goal threat that we possess in Micro Antenucci and Souleymane Doukara, whilst adding a little diversity to go with the dynamism of this pair.
Rcb/Lcb: Bellusci / Pearce
Cm: Cook, Mowatt, Austin
Doukara is the big question with this system, playing on the left, could he still provide his goal threat for the team? Well he played inside-left quite regularly in Italy and is hard-working, so I feel he’s the best option for this position. As far as the right hand side is concerned, I seriously don’t know what the best solution would be out of the players listed. However, I would very much like to see if Nicky Ajose, a forgotten man at Leeds at the moment, could suit the role. Still relatively young at 23, Ajose is in the unfortunate position of being the sole player that came in during the Hockaday era that the comically named manager was able to sign on his say so alone. Although Ajose didn’t set the world on fire on arrival, the difficulty and altogether mediocrity of the Hockaday reign made it hard for anyone to stand out. However, in his three appearances for the club this season, he has registered one key pass per game and holds the highest pass accuracy percentage of the entire Leeds squad at 87.1% (Zan Benedicic has a 100% rate but played only for a minimal time). The Englishman did look to be technically tidy and I recall a quite lovely chipped through ball to Billy Sharp in the earlier stages of the 1-0 victory against Middlesbrough that the experienced striker should have put away. Ajose also appeared to be pretty swift and would make for a more in tune players at this level than the other listed candidates. But, hey ho, if Cellino’s involvement in first team affairs is as influential as they say then I don’t suppose Ajose is a player he is too fond of.
Contrarily, perhaps with Redfearn’s tact in handling young players Ajose could at least be given a sniff of the first team. The defence in the main speaks for itself, but I feel that Jason Pearce’s place could be given strong competition by Liam Cooper in the coming weeks. The former Portsmouth player is a decent enough captain, always giving his all and acquits himself fairly well in defence, but he does have a rather unbecoming habit of slicing long balls forward when under the slightest bit of pressure. Bellusci doesn’t do this nearly as often and possesses the technical skills and calmness to play his way out of duress, and Liam Cooper shares these qualities with the Italian. In spite of Pearce’s captaincy I think the temptation to put two capable ball players at the back instead of just one will only grow, and it will be interesting to see how this develops.
In the centre of midfield, I think that Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook give us a good technical base, whereas I would use the admittedly more cumbersome Rodolph Austin over Tommaso Bianchi. This was a tough decision but I feel that the Jamaican’s all round energy and ability to drive with the ball from deep, getting the team up the pitch, showcased most vividly in Redfearn’s last game against Huddersfield, gives us something that Bianchi doesn’t have. What Bianchi does possess in technical ability and passing range could be covered by Mowatt and Cook. These two Thorp Arch graduates have also displayed the ability to drive forward with the ball and this is a feature of the Leeds midfield that I think should be given the most opportunity to flourish and become a real aspect of our play. This is not to totally divorce Bianchi from the first team. I think the Italian could perform in Austin’s place without detracting from the quality of the side. This change would even better the technical quality of the team, but I feel that Austin’s sometimes unstoppable energy, witnessed under Redfearn already this season, should be given the freedom to contribute to a Leeds midfield that can at any moment, individually and collectively, surge forward and thus bring the whole team forward as well.
It is difficult to know what to expect in this fairly crazy time, but there are certain things that are evidently problematic with our side tactically, which hopefully Redfearn will identify and seek to alleviate. We have a fine goalkeeper in Marco Silvestri, but even someone as wiry and dexterous as he cannot keep everything out. Leeds need to find a way of easing the pressure on the cat-like Italian, and this way lies in increasing the diversity and from that potency of our attack. As the man who inspired such effervescence in this area beforehand this season, there should be no-one better placed than Redfearn to reinvigorate the Whites front line. Points stand to won, and at the moment they need to be.