Why can’t Leeds perform like a hungry side of capable players until we’re either 2 goals down or 2 goals down and coping with a red card? It’s been a frustrating few weeks as we slowly come to the realisation that the dream of the playoffs is slipping away with every poor performance and missed opportunity. If other results go our way we could be within 5 points of 6th place after beating Derby, or we could be 11 points adrift.
Paul Heckingbottom has been keen to assert that these games are not “must win”, though perhaps that says more about his pragmatic approach than anything else. They’re not must-win if we’re just trying to build for next season. They’re must-win to us, the fans, because the playoffs will be out of reach very soon without points being won. And “winning points” is an interesting turn of phrase because Leeds have really looked capable of doing this. The turnaround against Millwall was incredible (though deflated when Millwall managed to equalise) and the resurgence against Bristol was also excellent (if unremarkable).
This Leeds team can outplay others. They can score goals and they can be a danger. But there’s *something* that means this tenacity only appears in disastrous circumstances. Had Leeds played against Bristol for 90 minutes how they played in the final 20, it would have been a very different result. Therein lies one of Paul’s hardest coaching challenges – how do you ensure that a side comes out all guns blazing and the intensity doesn’t drop. It shouldn’t drop if you concede, if shouldn’t drop if you miss-place a pass or the crowd heckle you. The intensity should be ever-present.
For all that is said about Garry Monk’s time at Leeds, he did have a point about a few things. We joked, but he spoke of how he needed Leeds to peak during the season, not at the very start. Starting strong (as Thomas Christiansen did) and fading away rapidly does no good at all; building a rigidity, a robustness and a “way” of playing is important. Leeds haven’t found their identity and we’ll keep searching.
That’s perhaps one of the most pivotal problems with the constant managerial merry-go-round (and regime change) at Leeds. Continuity is hard to find and even harder to harness. They say that football clubs are only successful when the fans, players, coaches and owners are united under the same philosophy, goals and ambitions. You could argue how Heckingbottom now fits what Radrizzani wants from a coach (a propensity for developing the Academy being a key component of this) but we’re still not clear what direction we’re moving in.
The players need to be honest with themselves, too, and Heckingbottom needs to wise up quickly. Eunan O’Kane needs to be removed from the first team – for his own sake. His performances have been uninventive at best and destructive at worst. Alongside Forshaw (who looks composed and confident) he looks frail and poor. Vieira is perhaps the natural companion to Adam’s play, though Ronaldo has been carrying knocks and struggling to meet the high standards his earlier performances imposed on him. Phillips, too, isn’t finding his previous form and it’s a worry.
Tactically, how do you solve a problem like Leeds? With the suspended players coming back into the side, how do you reconcile a formation that needs Pablo Hernandez in it (as our most consistent creative force) but also needs Samu Saiz (as our other creative outlet)? How do you then play Lasogga (our best forward) without a partner (who I think he needs)? Do you play with 3 CB’s? It’s a complicated problem that Paul finds himself rapidly needing to solve, though perhaps this is why he’s keen to assert that our games aren’t crucial to win, because his objectives are to shore things up, keep us competitive and ensure we roll into the 2018/19 campaign with something more than we do now.
So are the playoffs a distant hope now? Can you cram Pablo and Saiz into a viable formation? Can Leeds manage to find the courage and fight that exists only in the worst of situations and apply it to entire games?
I really rather hoped that as February ended we could be talking about what playoff position is best to aim to finish in, whether the automatic places were out of reach and what business we might need to do to improve this squad. Instead we’re debating whether the playoffs need to be written off as a pipe dream. We’re also needing to debate whether it’s even possible to get through the Summer without losing Jansson and Saiz.
Over to you, Leeds, to prove to the fans that this season isn’t dead yet. Though despite it not being a “must win” game, Derby very much feels like a result that could shape whether we can hold onto any hope of better things this season or not.