There’s an exchange in the film Argo (2012) where security operatives are discussing the plan to send a CIA agent into Iran to release American hostages under the guise of making a Sci-fi film on location. The whole plan appears overcooked and over-ambitious. When one operative questions the plan another states ‘This is best bad idea we have’. And so it seems that whilst Steve Evans has instilled some level of calm, some level of stability and some level of passion into a team that languished in 18th position in the Championship when burst his way through the revolving managerial doors of Thorp Arch, there is still a claim to be made that Leeds Utd’s current run of 7 unbeaten is very much a case of the best bad ideas dragging us along.
Evans’ achievements in football have been impressive, albeit at lower league level, but as Leeds sit 9 points away from the play-off zone Leeds need to close that gap as soon as possible to have a realistic chance of a late season surge than even many ardent supporters might claim we have not totally deserved over the curse of another turbulent season.
Of course, Steve Evans will be busy scratching his head, analysing Pro-zone and creating all kinds of data and formation charts. I agree with broadcaster and football fan Danny Baker in his belief that we live in a bubble where only those who have played the game to a professional level are held fully capable of understanding the finer machinations of team formation, tactics, transfers and tenacity. To this I say hogwash. Football is a closed community, more so than ever before in these days of lucrative contracts and image rights, but that does not stop the ‘fan in the stand’ from being every bit as insightful as the ‘droid in the dugout’. Of course, we constantly hear in post-match interviews that player X (Doukara, perhaps) has been amazing in training for the past few weeks and deserves their chance in the first team, whilst player Y (perchance, Botaka) has looked off the pace on the training pitches and needs some time away from first team action. What those who pay their hard earned money to stand and cheer on their team often see is player X lolloping around the pitch like a chicken minus one head, whilst bemoaning the lack of player Y as an option, given the pace, tricks and element of surprise said player has brought each time they have come off the bench for their 10 minute cameo appearance.
So, in the spirit of football revolution, here are one Leeds Utd supporter’s thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of Leeds Utd on Thursday 7th January 2016.
Firstly, in an ideal world, with the resources at our disposal here is the team I would field for Leeds (in general terms):
GK: Marco Silvestre
RB: Lewie Coyle (Gaetano Beradi if fit)
RCB: Scott Wootton
LCB: Liam Cooper
LB: Charlie Taylor
HMF: Liam Bridcutt
CMF: Lewis Cook
CMF: Alex Mowett
RW: Stuart Dallas
LW: Sam Byram
CF: Chris Wood
In an ideal world I believe that Leeds Utd need another, experienced and quality goalkeeper. Silvestre is a good shot stopper but his general play and distribution are poor and whoever has played in front of him in central defence have been deferred to too much and he has lacked the authority to boss his defenders around. Leeds have tended to try and play out of defence in the past couple of years and still have too much of a tendency to use the goalkeeper as an in play option for a pass. This exposes Silvestre’s weaknesses and makes us vulnerable to teams trying to force us onto the back foot to exploit these fragilities.
Whilst most managers, post Warnock, have wanted to play out through the centre backs, we now have Liam Bridcutt sitting deep and tied to the back two. The languorous and cavalier manner in which Sol Bamba attempts to caress the ball to Scott Wootton at right back (currently) does not sit neatly in the rough and cut of Championship football. This was more than in evidence in the recent dour performance against MK Dons. Even when the game was there to be won in the last 8 minutes Silvestre insisted on persisting with the tactic of rolling the ball to Bamba, who then took what felt like an age to stroke the ball to Wootton, in which time MK Dons had regained their shape. In this league you need two big, solid, no-nonsense defenders who can mix it with opposition strikers and make them not want to come back for more. That said, the whole back four have to learn to keep the line and step up together to play the offside trap effectively. At present both Wootton and Cooper are susceptible to quick at heel strikers who can drift past them in the blink of an eye. If this pairing can work on the muscle and discipline of centre back partnerships they would make us a solid unit at the back. This, of course would free up Beradi (ideally) and Taylor to be able to make more attacking contributions so long as they understand the importance of never over running the line when returning to defensive duties. What both full backs also need to work on is not allowing opposition attackers to get in the gap between them and their central defensive partner. So many attacking opportunities, and goals, have come from such positions this season. It’s all down to defensive discipline.
So, that brings us into midfield. Bridcutt has been a wonderful, and almost talismanic, figure in his role of sitting just in front of the back four. He has a comfortable first touch and a lot of energy. What he does lack, at times, is the ability to play the 10 yard pass with accuracy. Equally, whilst expert at winning the ball in dangerous situations he has also been guilty of being robbed of the ball in this same area of the pitch. He has shown an ability to ping 40 yard passes to the wing and so the key is to stop him from doing what he’s not good at (sitting on the ball or trying to play 10 yard passes) and getting him to move the ball on quickly, and Cook and Mowett need to provide a link for him here, or looking for movement from the wings in order to get those passes spread quicker and more effectively to put us on the front foot and utilise the energy that is abundant in this side.
All good teams are built on a spine and with Cook to the right and Mowett to the left . For Cook and Mowett this set up allows them to play on their natural foot and occupy areas of the pitch where they are most effect. Their job should be simple; either link play from the centre to the winger (once again, both are adept at a neat cross-field ball to change the direction of play), or, fake to play to the wing but switch the ball up to Wood’s feet as quickly as possible. Like the defence, this midfield duo have to work as a defensive unit.
This brings us the holy trinity. Wood as a focal point has been far more effective than many fans have given him credit for. The issue has been that often Leeds have not played to his strengths. It became apparent in pre-season games that, whilst a big target man, Wood is much more comfortable with the ball to his feet. Not since Mark Viduka have we had a centre forward who is equally comfortable either holding the ball up or creating something from nothing with footwork that wouldn’t look out of place on Strictly Come Dancing. Wood is not a player who is most effective with his back to goal. His most productive work for Leeds Utd has been when running into space, with solid passes to feet. His recent goal against Derby demonstrated where he is most dangerous with his head; five yards from goal running onto a neatly whipped in cross. For all his athleticism and energy, Wood is clearly a player who requires good service in order for him to convert that to goals. We also have to take into consideration that he’s no Ross McCormack. Remember Ross’s 29 goal season for us? Wood’s best season return is 11. This means that we have to ask more of our midfield, encouraging Mowett to swing that nine iron boot of his and knocking the timidity out of Cook when he gets within shooting distance.
For Wood to thrive we need to see more consistent service from Byram (whilst he still wears the white shirt) and dazzling Stuart Dallas. Here is where I would make the most simple, but possibly most effective switch. Whilst no-one can deny the effort, energy and efficiency Dallas has brought to the team, his wing work has mainly been down the left flank, where he has offered superb defensive cover. His best and most effective work has come when he has been playing off his natural foot on the right wing. His magnificent goal at Wolves came from that position and a number of his most devastating passes have come from the same direction. Dallas is a clear winger, with the devil of a shot when he does get himself inside the space occupied by opposition full backs. Alternatively, Byram is what I call a ghosting player. In all the times I’ve seen Sam play in advanced roles his greatest attribute has been to glide past defences. Thus far, this has not been the most precise trait in the Dallas armoury and by giving Byram the opportunity to change the direction of play by drifting in from the left wing whilst carrying the ball it offers the prospect of changing the direction of play, whilst also enabling Sam to get into the box and add to his already increasing goal tally.
To certain sections of the Leeds Utd fan base the name Brian Clough is still uttered as a blasphemy against Don Revie but Clough’s football philosophy, which may seem very old hat these days, was to play to the strength of your own squad and think about how your team are going to beat the opposition, rather than worrying about how you were going to stop the opposition beating you. Look at our most rewarding period over the past few 20 years, when O’Leary’s babes and battlers took the game to some of the best teams in England and Europe to such impressive effect. O’Leary let his players play to their strengths. For me, that particular bubble burst on the day we played away to Fulham and to accommodate his new vanity signing Robbie Fowler he moved Alan Smith to the right wing, thus breaking up the Viduka/Smith partnership that had terrorised defences all season.
Steve Evans, for all his clear passion and dedication, is trying to be ‘modern’ football manager, without the required skills or squad to play this way. For a couple of games it appeared that getting Mowett to smash one in from 30 yards was the new devilish tactic. Then, at Wolves, it appeared he’d pulled off a managerial master-stroke by replacing a clearly ill Adeyemi with Doukara, who proceeded to shock Leeds fans by looking like Little Red Riding Hood on speed as he ran 11 Wolves ragged. The problem was that Doukara then became the go to man for the next few games. This tactic came unstuck against MK Dons in a game that saw Doukara’s limitations exposed to the full.
This Leeds squad clearly possesses talent and desire but at present, despite a healthy unbeaten run, they are not playing to their best capabilities and it still appears that the ideas being implanted are the best bad ideas. Maybe it’s time to let the players express themselves on the pitch, rather than try to replicate what is written on a dry-wipe tactics board.