Confidence or the loss of it is not a scourge of the squad at Leeds United, according to Brian McDermott. He should know.
These players are in his back pocket for most of the working week, close enough for him to smell anxiety and self-doubt.
So intact confidence brings us round to application as the root cause of Leeds’ squalid form. That and the players United wish they had, but don’t. Transfers figure heavily in the debate concerning the state of play at Elland Road but they are not the reason why McDermott’s defence went clowns-to-the-left-of-me at Pride Park last Saturday. Watch Derby County’s first goal again and ask yourself what Luciano Becchio would do about that.
In fits of pique he’d score twice in reply which is why United asked about his availability last month and continue to look for strikers like him. But there are two issues at play here – a goalscoring record which plainly directs McDermott towards the loan market and a team who are slipping into a trend of sub-standard performances. It is naive to think that fixing one fault is a means of resolving the other. United’s squad could be better but the squad as it is could be playing better too.
This international break is, unusually, a convenient interlude; not only a chance to rest and breathe but an opportunity to think uninterrupted about the lessons of the past month. Rather than ride them as clubs do when games fall every three days, Leeds have time to work on them. McDermott will feel the urge to come out fighting when Birmingham descend next Sunday. The alarm should sound if his players don’t.
McDermott has been into that uncertain corner which other managers at Elland Road have found themselves in; changing line-ups, switching formations, tweaking tactics and trying his luck.
There is only so much continuity you can strive for when five away fixtures fall in the space of three weeks but McDermott possesses more conviction than his management showed. A 4-2-3-1 system at Millwall followed by 4-1-3-2 at home to Bournemouth four days later; Rodolph Austin shipped onto the right wing in experimental fashion. Ross McCormack tried to remodel himself as the tip of a midfield diamond but is back up front after a quarter of the season. And so the outcome – an unsettled side suffering from unsettled results.
Anyone surprised by that has either misjudged McDermott’s resources or missed the warnings of other difficult years at Leeds. In the circumstances, tinkering was inevitable. Had United’s board known their history they’d have understood that reticence in the summer transfer market leads to awkward noises further down the line.
It was fine to ask McDermott to come to Yorkshire in April and beat off relegation with someone else’s floundering squad. It is a bigger demand to ask him to take someone else’s floundering squad and weave it into a silk purse. McDermott will answer for his own recruits and to date the majority of those have underwhelmed. But in six months to the day, he has signed four players.
Those signings have barely altered the balance of the squad or revitalised the areas where Leeds were weak. By all means fall back on the loan market now but United have a bad habit of using the loan market to compensate for close-season dereliction. And in the meantime McDermott digs around in search of a Plan B and, more recently, a Plan A. It all feels uncomfortably hopeful.
The sooner Leeds and McDermott bring fresh blood to Elland Road the better, in part to counter the suspicion that the club are sitting on their hands. It is asking a lot of the public to swallow the idea that no-one of discernible talent or use is available to sign. They might cost too much but that’s another argument entirely – one which GFH Capital would struggle to control.
United’s owner will be well aware of grumbling on the streets and acutely aware of the need to keep a lid on it. Astute transfers would do that but only so long as the existing squad find a way of addressing their own malaise.
You do not cure the folly of three defenders springing like magnets towards Jamie Ward by courting a striker. Nor can you use the performances in late September and early October to disregard the stable football produced by Leeds in August. They’ve been better than this and should be again, and if the angry reaction to Derby felt excessive or disproportionate, it is only because the squad are guilty of doing themselves down.