For the first time in a while we embraced the International break with the warmness you normally reserve for much loved but infrequently seen family. Where it had all-too-often been an unwelcome disruption to a period of prosperity, the opportunity to watch England put on one dreary performance after another was more pleasing than watching Leeds fall apart further. After what a kind pundit would call a “humbling” sequence of results (though others would call it a shambolic collapse of form), a couple of weeks off was a good idea.
Leeds had been routinely and savaged pulled apart by Sheffield Wednesday, only days after being entirely undone by Cardiff, which came only days after being beaten by Millwall… It wasn’t a happy few games for us and each side seemed to have done their homework – our one tactical system had been worked out and while each side played out a different response to it, each found ways to win. Comfortably. So two weeks on then training ground being politely reminded how to play football seemed like a gift.
Though, as we all now know, it was all for nothing. Leeds’ unbeaten home form crashed to the floor at the hands of a very mediocre Reading side who – like Wednesday – were there for the taking. Mercifully, the lack of attacking threat from Stam’s side meant Leeds were second best for long periods but weren’t beyond saving at any point. Though in the final minutes of the game when the whites were trying to apply late pressure, a chance fell to Reading and ex-Leeds loanee Mo Barrow sealed the win. A 90th minute penalty in Leeds’ favour was awarded, but the resultant set piece from Pablo Hernandez was so weak it could have been struck by an asthmatic toddler with a BMI higher than Steve Evans’. His body language clearly signposted where it was going to be placed, and it was placed so gently that even an over-zealous fan behind the stand could have stopped it in its tracks with an un-blocked yawn.
This begs the question – what next? While our knuckle-dragging Facebook continent have been calling for various spellings of Thomas Christiansen to be sacked, while pondering exactly why Rob Green isn’t here to save the day. Or why we aren’t out of the EU yet.
But there’s validity behind question-marks over Thomas Christiansen. Not in terms of job security you understand, but in terms of what he chooses to do next. You see, when you attend a job interview with a dossier of tactical decisions you’d have made in key games that Leeds failed to turn around the previous season, it sets a precedent that you’ve got a number of plans to draw from. Though, crucially, we’ve not seen much intent from TC to change tactical systems either mid-game or as a result of it stopping working.
They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing multiple times and expecting a different outcome, which is certainly holding true at the moment. We’re playing the same players in the same formation and it’s not working. Though, in TC’s defence, this is also the same system and squad that won games at the start of the season. But since the Burton game where we looked like Barcelona vs. Histon Town, we’ve not looked as convincing. Millwall showed that a physical side that prevents short distribution totally nullifies where we cause problems and that message seems to have been shared throughout the entire league.
So, if 4-2-3-1 isn’t working, what do we do instead?
My view would be to pack the midfield more. We’re seeing sides control and dominate us leaving our more attacking options isolated. It’s looking less and less likely that we’re able to facilitate 3 flair players in the squad at any given time, because it forces too much reliance on two central midfielders. Kalvin Phillips and Eunan O’Kane have done very well so far this season, but I don’t think we can rely on them to control entire games. I’d be more inclined to bring Vieira in and utilise him as a Moussa Dembele player; when we’ve seen him play he picks up the ball and runs forwards. We need this dynamism. Not that EOK and KP don’t do this, but I consider Vieira to be particularly good in this regard.
Saiz is a no-brainer with regards to selection as even when we’re playing poorly he looks to be a league above anyone else. He can’t always make it work and he still needs to develop, but his mind and ability are huge assets. I’d also consider Alioski to be core to this side too, though he will be under pressure from Hernandez, Roofe, Dallas and Sacko.
Is it unrealistic to play a 4-3-2-1 formation? It’s more narrow, but more compact too. If we rely on wing-backs to overlap and put crosses into the box, then it shouldn’t restrict us much. The concern is if we don’t condense the middle of the pitch then sides like Cardiff will still manage to overload us and we’ll continue to be too lightweight and poor sides will dominate us.
Wolves have looked excellent with a 3-4-3 formation, while the footballing world has continued its love affair with the 3-5-2 system. The sentiment remains the same – lots of players in the middle. While you could argue that Leeds’ propensity for playing 4-2-3-1 technically means we have 5 bodies in midfield, the reality is that the team selection favours more lightweight attacking bodies higher up the pitch and it’s hard to overcome physical sides with flair ones.
Perhaps it’s like playing your little sister at Tekken when you were a child; you may know all of the skill moves, sequences and combos, fluid transitions that look amazing. But she beats you by just button-mashing the high-kick. There comes a point where no matter “properly” you play, there’s a way to undo it. Leeds need to find the antidote to this and like Metallica wrote in 1984, you Fight Fire with Fire.
But it’s not for me to decide; my footballing experience is limited to being a rubbish right-footed left-back, and 24 years of playing management sims (Premier Manager 2 in 1993 being my first). I didn’t get hired at Leeds due to the strength of my presentation on how I’d manage Leeds, how I’d turn around key games or what positions need strengthening. Thomas Christiansen did, and it’s to him we all must look to find an answer to these very obvious questions.
I think we were all rather hoping that we’d get beyond Christmas before we’re found out, alas, it has happened much sooner and TC needs to flip to whichever slide he presented when it came to “plan B”. Monk was widely criticised (and still is at Boro) for his unwillingness to change system and it’s only fair that TC is subject to the same critique. Leeds have lost 4 of their last 5 games and could be as low as 10th if results don’t go their way next match-day, so it’s time we see what leaps from TC’s CV and onto the pitch. Me? I’d change the system.
But then Football Manager 2018 comes out in a few weeks so I’ll change it myself and let you know how it goes.