What a few weeks it has been; from the sleepy-eyed apathy that comes from yet another damn International break, to beating comfortably outplaying a Garry Monk managed Middlesbrough, to getting absolutely, savagely Weinstein’d by Wolves, to then comfortably outplaying Barnsley. It’s actually difficult to know how to feel at the moment because for all the excellent work that sits around it, that Wolves game still hurts a bit.
Hand someone a pile of steaming dog excrement between two beautifully baked, exquisite slices of fresh bread and they’ll still tell you “mate, this is a s**t sandwich”. And for all the happiness that I’ve taken from Boro and Barnsley (the bread), Wolves as the filling still leaves me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Not just because it’s becoming increasingly clear how much better they are than anyone else in this league, but because the gulf between the two sides was one rarely seen outside of the cup.
That’s where tomorrow’s Villa game comes at a good time; we’re not entirely sure if we’re playing well or not. Or at least, we’re not sure if we can do it consistently. But hypothesising about it won’t help, so let’s talk about the current hot topics at Leeds and ponder the meaning of existence.
Alex McCarthy, Felix Wiedwald, Andy Lonergan and that goalkeeping position we fear
For years the answer to Leeds’ problems in attack was “sign Billy Sharp”; a response that had become almost instinctual yet its origin wasn’t fully understood. The goalkeeping question keeps coming up at Alex McCarthy is also the de-facto response, again, for reasons that are hard to understand. That’s not to say that Alex isn’t a good keeper, because he certainly seemed to be when he played 6 games for us in 2011/12 (ironically, stepping in to cover an injury to Andy Lonergan since Paul Rachubka had imploded). These 6 games have been enough to cement him as most Leeds’ fans #1 choice for a goalkeeper due to his combination of assumed availability, Englishness (I’ll explain in a moment) and previous good form. I’d pose genuine questions about the suitability of someone who hasn’t played regular first team football in years, too. His Englishness is a supposed desired quality, because there’s a growing argument for keepers who trained in other leagues having a greater propensity for behavioural traits that don’t suit the English game. Fear when claiming crosses, or perilous punching of easy catches, etc. I don’t necessarily buy this argument, but if it keeps our fans happy as a cheerful bi-product of his ethnicity then I’m happy).
Alex McCarthy is a recurrent symbol of what’s wrong, though. While Felix did get a clean sheet against Barnsley, he was barely tested, and he did look anxious and uncertain when dealing with the minimal action he was involved in. Andy Lonergan is a nice fella, but he wasn’t good enough first time around, let alone half a decade later. Most fans (myself included) would look at the situation and ponder why we didn’t sign Leeds fan and free-agent David Stockdale. A promotion winning keeper who happens to support Leeds AND is available on a free? Ordinarily you’d have expected the club to bite his hand off, but seemingly we were after a ball-playing goalkeeper and Felix fit that mould more than anyone else.
If I were an optimist, I would reflect on the troubled start David De Gea had at Scum and how he was dropped from the first team for making mistakes and looking unstable. Over time (and with protection) he became one of the best goalkeepers in the world. I’m not implying that Felix is capable of an equivalent transformation, but it’s too early to write him off. Though if he doesn’t find his feet before the transfer window opens, you’ve got to expect that Leeds will look to do business in January (if Bailey Peacock Farrell isn’t deemed ready to step up) because it’s too important a position to gamble on long-term. McCarthy is an easy reference point, though I think people should be cautious in assuming he’ll be the silver bullet to any woes in that position. The real villain in this piece is why Ken Bates sold Kasper Schmeichel for £1m, as he’d have been a suitably brilliant option for years at that point.
Lasogga, Ekuban, Roofe, Grot and goalscoring
An equally poisoned chalice after Wood’s departure and one we still don’t fully understand. Leeds 2017/18 is a very different squad to 2016/17 because we have dangerous wingers, attacking midfielders that genuinely unlock sides and therefore what we need/want from a centre-forward is not totally clear anymore.
Lasogga seemed a good option initially because he could finish and seemingly proved effective as a battering ram (the closest like-for-like replacement for Wood we have), but demonstrated the burden he places on the wider team in other games. Not hugely mobile and either ineffective (or unwilling) to put in the same kind of defensive shift as others it showed that in games where Leeds were second best, we were worse with him in the side. That’s not a condemnation of him as a player or the removal of him as an option, but a striker for all occasions he doesn’t appear to be.
Ekuban showed against Barnsley what a different dimension in attack could offer; a very pacey engine of sorts that chased every ball, pressured the back line and defended deep. This tireless endeavour meaning he was as present in defence as he was in attack and this tenacious display really worked. With players like Alioski, Saiz and Hernandez behind him, there’s less onus on being the single outlet for all goalscoring threat meaning he is more free to simply be “another” attacking player, rather than the “only” attacking player. That makes a big difference. It’s hard to mark, too. Ekuban deserves more chances as first choice.
Roofe falls into this category too; his mobility and entwined flexibility with the 3 behind him makes him harder to mark and opens more doors. He may not have the “razzle dazzle” of other players, but he tries hard and gets results. I’m not 100% sure what system suits him best, but his record isn’t bad and he’s been fairly effective when employed as a striker.
Jay-Roy Grot is a challenging subject and one I’m keen to resist lamenting. He’s young and he has the physical attributes nailed. He’s simply too green to be truly effective yet at this level – he strikes me as someone who needs a season loaned out somewhere to find his feet in the English league. TC has a propensity for deploying him as another attacking option and I’m unclear if this is done because he believes he’s ready to be an impact sub, or because he’s merely shouldering the need to blood him, 10 minutes at a time.
Do Leeds need a goalscorer? Well, it’s hard to look at our performances this season and argue that Chris Wood wouldn’t have improved us. £15m strikers aren’t easy to replace without spending £15m, so we’re really looking for either Lasogga to come good or one of our “gamble” signings to find their feet. I like the look of Ekuban and would like to see more of him before making a judgement, but when you see players like Jordan Hugill appear to be “all-rounders”, I often think what a player of that innate ability could do in this Leeds side. But our transfer policy doesn’t really allow for expensive, established players. I doubt we’ll see much activity in January up-front.
Until then, we’ve got Aston Villa to contend with. They’re above us in the table and in rich form. Time to see what form we’re actually in.
“There were piles of bodies everywhere, the stench of burning flesh… They say you can leave the war, but the war never leaves you" pic.twitter.com/1jtwQoPWfH
— I Hate Leeds (@ihatelufc) November 30, 2017