The form of Mirco Antenucci is presenting Uwe Rosler with a dilemma: his preferred formation or his most prolific player out on the pitch. As Leeds United’s head coach conceded himself, he does not appear to have the luxury of both.
Antenucci’s third goal of the season staved off United’s first defeat on Saturday and the more he pulls rabbits from his hat, the more tempted Rosler must be to start the Italian again. Four times a substitute so far, Antenucci awaits elevation from the bench against Ipswich Town tomorrow.
Rosler knew that matter would be raised with him after a 1-1 draw with Brentford but he was not in the mood to debate his tactics or his system. Nor was he keen to get into a routine where every failure to win a match prompted a dissection of 4-3-3 and Antenucci’s role. “We’re not having this discussion every week,” Rosler said.
That discussion was prompted by two things: Antenucci’s performance as a substitute, culminating in another lovely finish, and Leeds’ battle to hold a Brentford team who are nothing like a busted flush. Trailing to a first-half strike from Marco Djuricin, Antenucci extended Leeds’ run to six league games unbeaten with a sweet shot 14 minutes from time. The forward milked the moment in front of the Kop, removing his shirt and receiving the customary yellow card. The irony of Rosler’s defence of himself was that Leeds remain in a group of four Championship clubs who have avoided a defeat for the past five weeks. He looked genuinely perplexed by the reaction. The only disappointment for him was that in spite of his squad’s record and in spite of their results, their assurance left them for a while after Djuricin’s finish.
“We started well but they scored and we lost our confidence,” Rosler said. “The main thing to learn is that we should not lose confidence so quick - especially when we’re having a decent start to the season.
“That’s the only minus point I have. That can’t happen. We should believe in what we’re doing. But how we came back was impressive.”
Rosler stood by his established strategy and he addressed the question of Antenucci directly. The forward fits nicely into a two-man attack but among other things in his first year at Elland Road, he demonstrated that he is no lone striker and no alternative to Chris Wood. Rosler admitted that Antenucci had effectively ruled himself out of playing in a 4-3-3 formation.
“Mirco he told me from day one ‘gaffer don’t try me out on the wing’,” Rosler said. “Those were his words.
“He’s an absolutely top player for us. But is he starting games or is he coming from the bench? I’m not going into that because for the first 15 minutes we were very good against a good Brentford team. Then the confidence dropped. It was nothing to do with the system. We just had a spell where we weren’t very good.
“People gave us massive praise two weeks ago against Derby. Now everything should be changed or be different? We have a philosophy, a way of playing and you want to have continuity. We’re recruiting players for a certain style of football.
“Obviously we have a Plan B for certain games and situations like this. But we’re not having a discussion every week about if we play with one central striker or two central strikers.”
Leeds’ win at Derby was a positive indictment of Rosler’s shift towards 4-3-3, though one which might be used to suggest that the tactics suit his players better away from home. United’s results are anaemic at Elland Road and Ipswich were the last club to visit the ground and lose, far back in March and long before Rosler was given the reins. An alternative view is that his midfield were simply more dominant at Pride Park. Brentford did not suffer the same force of bite.
Leeds went at Brentford in the early parts of Saturday’s game - albeit after a goalline clearance from Gaetano Berardi in the first minute - but errors crept in. Sol Bamba sold Marco Silvestri short with a slack backpass in the 20th minute and a covering tackle from Liam Cooper was needed to deal with Djuricin. No-one was able to stop the Austrian nine minutes later when Alan Judge gathered a clearance from Jake Bidwell, left Bamba for dead 40 yards out and directed the ball into the box.
“In the last 25 minutes in the first half they were the better team,” Rosler said, in praise of last season’s play-off semi-finalists and the first club he managed in England. “They deserved to go in at half-time with the lead.
“They’re a very good side who know what they’re doing. They’ll be round about where they were last season, no question about it. But in the second half we put Mirco on then Luke (Murphy) and that changed the game in our favour. In the last 25 minutes we finished very strongly. We got the equaliser, completely deserved, and we went for the kill, we went for the win. A draw was a fair result.”
Antenucci was sent on at the very start of the second half, replacing a midfielder in Alex Mowatt who was carrying a slight injury ahead of kick-off but is still grasping for his best form. Murphy appeared on 57 minutes, offering a steadier hand in the centre of the pitch.
There were points in the second half when the game abandoned organised football in favour of a race for the winning line. Djuricin struck a post with a gift of chance after Silvestri weighted an awful pass beyond the reach of Cooper - a pivotal moment in the match - but Wood did likewise at the other end when his low shot deflected off Harlee Dean’s leg and beat David Button.
Brentford’s passing was slick and more incisive but with 76 minutes gone it tied them in knots. Without the necessary space to play, goalkeeper Button knocked the ball out to Ryan Woods who lost possession midway inside his own half. Wood pounced on it and picked out Antenucci whose finish across Button was precise and unerring.
The Italian might have won the game in injury-time when Button’s mishit clearance cause panic amongst an unexpectedly strong Brentford defence but the keeper redeemed himself by plucking Antenucci’s shot from the air. “I’m disappointed that in that period we didn’t win the game,” Rosler said, “but it’s more than fair to say it was a draw between two teams who wanted to win.”
It annoyed him that a sixth game unbeaten served only to place him under scrutiny. “We have two strikers who’ve scored three goals in six games and there will be games when we play 4-4-2,” he said. “Like we did against Bristol (City) and Sheffield Wednesday. Like we did in the second half.
“There are times you’re not at your top level but how did the team react? It was important that we kept the momentum going. It’s hard to get momentum and I tell the players that we can’t be careless about giving it away.”