The new United head coach finds a Whites team and squad in much better nick than they were a month ago. Phil Hay reports.
He landed at Manchester airport at 8pm on Monday and was on site at Thorp Arch for the start of training yesterday morning. Darko Milanic began work before his contract with Leeds United was signed, anxious to get in and get on.
If he anticipated an overflowing in-tray in his office then he must have been pleasantly surprised. Milanic has the job of all new managers or head coaches – to impose himself and his ideas on Leeds – but this is no hospital pass and certainly no crisis. The Slovenian will be planting seeds in fertile ground.
The interim period between David Hockaday’s sacking and Milanic’s appointment gave Leeds a shake and yielded 10 points – points which United should be grateful for whichever way the club’s season goes – but as important from the perspective of their new head coach was the trend of players playing their way into form.
This time last month the squad at Leeds looked as new and unfamiliar as a squad with 15 new signings would but it is safe to assume that Milanic was struck by an air of confidence and integration at Thorp Arch yesterday. A number of the club’s foreign recruits have settled in and found their niche, and the understanding between players who were here last season and others who weren’t was unmistakable in Saturday’s rout of Huddersfield. Unusually there is no argument with the line-up as it stands.
For Milanic, that is a crucial advantage. It is his prerogative to redraw the team and to rely on players who best suit his methods but he is under no immediate pressure to rip it up. Tommaso Bianchi had his best game at the weekend – fitter and more imposing in the centre of midfield than he had been previously – and Mirco Antenucci thrived like a striker with years of schooling in English football. Souleymane Doukara dealt with mixed form and an ankle injury in the opening month of the season but he is showing the traits of an able Championship forward: quick and powerful with a deadly finish and the energy to carry him through 90 minutes of hard running.
Milanic will see that some of last season’s maligned squad are fitting in comfortably too. One of Hockaday’s few tangible achievements was in discovering the better side of Stephen Warnock, one full-back helping another. Jason Peace is in the team on merit and the same will be said of Rudy Austin for as long as he does what he did to Huddersfield. And behind it all Milanic has an excellent goalkeeper; a keeper who can go through a wet and quiet afternoon like Saturday without the hint of a lapse in concentration. Huddersfield caught Leeds on a very good day.
Where Milanic can make an immediate impact is with the signings who are yet to scratch the surface at Elland Road. Adryan was primed for his debut on Saturday but lost his chance when Gaetano Berardi lost his discipline and incurred a red card late in the second half. As a result of suspensions served by Berardi and Sam Byram, right-back is the one position which Milanic finds up in the air. Adryan would like an opportunity to open up for him behind United’s forward line but Neil Redfearn, United’s caretaker for the past four games, was wary of exposing him too quickly or too rashly without giving the Brazilian sufficient time to train, learn and fit in.
Massimo Cellino, United’s owner, expects Milanic to bring Adryan on. Milanic would doubtless like to do the same with Zan Benedicic, a compatriot of his who has been largely anonymous since joining on loan from AC Milan. Like Adryan, there is a feeling that Benedicic is behind the curve and a little off the pace but he played in Monday’s development-squad game against Millwall and offers talent in reserve. Brian Montenegro and Dario Del Fabro were also involved in that match, part of an untapped group who Milanic has inherited. Skilful management of them could provide Leeds with telling strength in depth.
As with all new coaches, the immediate changes made by Milanic will be shifts in tactics and philosophy. They might be subtle or minor but changes will come. The 46-year-old was a disciple of 4-4-2 at Maribor, a system which is increasingly outdated but nonetheless proved highly effective in Slovenia’s PrvaLiga. He wanted to break from that system at Sturm Graz and was in the process of doing so when Leeds came calling. “When I arrived at Graz I had an idea,” Milanic told the Austrian media. “But because of the pressure I went for results not beautiful football.” He said he favoured “much risk, hard-pressing, fully offensive attacking football.”
His one-time reliance on 4-4-2 is unlikely to dictate his approach at Elland Road. In Leeds he will discover that he lacks the players for that formation. United have forwards who can drift out wide and Casper Sloth who floats with intent but no out-and-out wingers. Moreover, the numbers and control offered by a three-man midfield of Bianchi, Austin and Lewis Cook patently worked to the strengths of other players against Huddersfield. Milanic will like what he sees when he watches the derby back.
He might also appreciate Redfearn’s work and in the first weeks of his reign, Milanic and Cellino have a shared responsibility to find a role which satisfies and makes the most of United’s academy manager. Milanic brought a new assistant with him to England, Novica Nikcevic, but he can lean on Redfearn as he settles into his job. There is presently no-one at Thorp Arch or Elland Road who understands the squad better.
Milanic is described as an intelligent, level-headed man and a coach steeped in football. He retired as a player through injury at the relatively young age of 31 and began coaching immediately, earning his UEFA Pro Licence last year.
Low on arrogance and willing to learn, his temperament should help him in a new country and a new division - a division he will be introduced to away at Brentford on Saturday. Felix Magath never figured out the Premier League or the Championship and has gone from Fulham already. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer went from Cardiff City just as quickly. The difference with Milanic is that his job at Leeds is not beginning with a bout of firefighting. The team is shaping up, the form is there. And so for Milanic is a genuine chance.