In front of him, Garry Monk sees a squad who are already “ahead of schedule” but Leeds United’s head coach is not in the mood to start handing out gold stars.
The club’s football has taken them so far, to fourth in the Championship table. Monk’s honest opinion is that their current standard will not take them far enough.
It sounds counter-intuitive from someone whose players are one victory at Brighton away from a mention in the list of clubs with a chance of automatic promotion but Monk has seen promotion before in his career and experience tells him that the strain increases on the other side of Christmas.
United’s boss was quietly delighted with Saturday’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa but less than effusive about Leeds’ performance in a tight and surprisingly dour game. Monk said he was anxious not to “take anything away” from the progress made by the brittle group he inherited six months ago but he is wary of the idea that Leeds are on a steady course to the play-offs or better. That feeling will grow if his team scalp second-placed Brighton at The Amex tonight.
“We’ve done exceptionally well and I’m not taking anything away from the group but I know what it is to be successful and to have a team who can reach a higher standard,” Monk said. “We need to be better.
“In this period, from Christmas and into the new year, every game becomes harder. People start to focus a bit more on where they are (in the league). When you’re winning games and doing well you’re looked at differently. You’re maybe given a bit more respect so teams work harder against you to try and stop you. We have to be ready for that.
“If we don’t make improvements we’ll end up standing still. For me it’s not about where we are in the league or promotion. Everyone else can worry about that. There are certain aspects of our game which aren’t at the level we need. When you come into the period where games become more important and things become a bit clearer in terms of where and what you’re fighting for, the games intensify and the focus intensifies.”
Monk has the advantage of setting high standards from a promising position in the league. Previous managers and head coaches at Leeds saw the need for improvement from halfway down the Championship. “You have to be honest,” Monk said. “Massive credit to the players for how far they’ve come in a short space of time but they know as well as I do that the message of improvement is most important. It’s not for the sake of saying it. It’s what’s going to be needed.
“But I guess we’ve accelerated our progress very quickly. When you look at how squads are built or at other teams who’ve been successful, they’ve had longer periods than we’ve had to establish themselves so in terms of where the group is, I’m happy with that. Maybe we are ahead of schedule considering the time-frame but there’s a lot of work to do.”
Discussions about potential signings in the transfer window are ongoing “behind the scenes”. The 37-year-old said United owner Massimo Cellino – now facing an 18-month ban from the game over his role in the sanction of an illegal payment during Ross McCormack’s transfer to Fulham in 2014 – was aware of the need for additions next month.
Cellino remains in talks with Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani with a view to selling 50 per cent of his stake in Leeds. Monk insisted last week that he was unaware of that process but said he was in constant contact with Cellino.
“I speak to him regularly and not always about football,” Monk said. “He can see the job we’re doing and he’s very happy with the way we work. He understands that we need a lot of improvement if we want to sustain what we’re doing. That process isn’t an overnight thing. It takes time to get to the level where you can compete for things like promotion.
“Its obvious that we haven’t got the biggest squad. I’m very happy with the squad I have but if we can do anything to help the group (in January) then we will. You have early discussions coming up to this period and then as you get closer to January, you see exactly what you need and the discussions become a bit more frequent.”
Monk’s recruitment in the summer has, with hindsight, paid off impressively. Leeds have been largely free of problems in their dressing room and United’s head coach said any signings next month would be made with care to avoid upsetting the balance. His decision to err on the side of youthful players, or to avoid an excess of seasoned professionals, has not compromised the club so far.
“Part of my plan is to have a young, hungry group sprinkled with a little bit of experience – but experience that’s still hungry to do well,” Monk said. “That balance is something I identified and felt was lacking here. I felt it was important to address and the club understood that perfectly.
“The transition of a squad is done over not just one window and I keep referring back to the most successful teams, the teams doing well. They’ve had longevity and a transition of quite a few windows. It worked well for us in the summer and we have to stick to that.
“I’m very conscious of how well the group are working together and the spirit they have. The biggest element is that you don’t do anything to deter that.”