If football is guilty of discriminating against older professionals as Rob Green intimated last week then criticism is at least oblivious of age. Loris Karius, Liverpool’s recent goalkeeper of choice, is 23, new to England but still fair game for some surgical analysis.
The past few days have been all about him. His age won’t protect him and neither will Liverpool’s position in the Premier League.
What matters to Karius is Jurgen Klopp and the attitude of the coach who stands behind him. At Leeds United, and for Rob Green, the scenario is no different. Green has a few marks against him – cheap goals, erratic distribution and night like Friday when Brighton peppered the corridor of uncertainty and made his presence shrink – but he is Garry Monk’s man. Football, to use Green’s words, might be wary of a keeper who turns 37 in a month’s time but his head coach is not. Monk deals with flashes of frailty in the way Klopp tried to deal with Karius’ caving-in at Bournemouth a fortnight ago.
“It says nothing about him as a keeper,” Klopp claimed, although yesterday against Middlesbrough Karius was dropped.
So how does Green, in light of questions about him, compare to his peers in the Championship? It is a pertinent query since Leeds to the naked eye of those who follow them have been a different animal defensively this season. They have been a different animal since Monk paired Kyle Bartley with Pontus Jansson and ended the chopping and changing at centre-back. Yet statistically the picture is more blurred, despite the assurance Monk’s players give off.
Leeds have conceded at much the same rate as they did in 2015-16 – 22 goals after 21 games – and are giving away more chances by a very fractional margin. It is something of a misnomer when the club sit nine points better off.
What Leeds have been effective at this season is tipping the balance of tight matches with more potency in attack. Monk’s side have not, conversely, been harder to beat.
Regardless of what the table says, they have lost more of their first 21 matches than they did under Uwe Rosler and Steve Evans. Where Rosler and Evans fell short was in finding ways to eke victories out of even, on the edge-fixtures.
A year ago 21 games had already yielded eight draws. Monk’s squad have drawn twice. So it is that Leeds are nine places higher in the league.
Green by his own admission has been something of an in-and-out player in this while remaining ever present in the Championship. There are games where, as he says himself, “people say you never had anything to do” and relatively few in which Leeds have been under siege. Even at Brighton, where they played for over an hour with 10 men, both goals were penalties and Albion’s shots on target totalled seven. Nottingham Forest in late August were the last side to score more than twice against Monk’s.
Brighton, as their league position suggests, are hugely economical in conceding rarely and scoring as many goals as they need. Their first-choice keeper, Leeds-born David Stockdale, has shipped all of nine and was safe as ever on Friday. Stockdale averages more saves a game than Green and they are on a par when it comes to claiming and punching crosses but where Stockdale stands out is in making almost four saves between every goal he concedes. Derby County’s Scott Carson is the only Championship player who can compete with that. Reading’s Ali Al-Habsi and Newcastle’s Karl Darlow both rank closer to three and Green produces fewer than two. On the basis of that it is safe to say that the Championship has stronger last lines of defence.
But attention on Green’s aerial dominance, the command of the box which keepers are expected to have, overlooks the distinct way in which Leeds defend set-pieces. Bartley spoke about their organisation in September, revealing how Jansson and Chris Wood were told by assistant Pep Clotet to operate as free men with no other thought than to attack the ball when it dropped. Tactically, Leeds don’t look to Green to dominate those situations. Bartley has made as many clearances as all but four players in the Championship. Jansson has chipped in with well over 100.
Only one striker, Reading’s Yann Kermorgant, is contributing a higher tally in that respect than Wood and the policy at Leeds is very much ingrained. The events on Friday leading to Brighton’s first penalty and Kalvin Phillips’ dismissal were an example of organisation gone wrong.
Things do go wrong in the heat of matches and Leeds are not infallible. Monk has never tried to pretend that they are. It was he who reacted to their win over Aston Villa – a rousing result in front of a happy home crowd – by warning that United were not playing well enough to last the pace in the Championship. His message about improvement is consistent and so is his acknowledgement of certain failings. Green touched on that at Brighton, saying: “With the best will in the world, if you play perfect every week you wouldn’t be here. You’d be playing here somewhere else.”
That applies to him as much as anyone and he knew his place when he signed for Leeds, taking a contract far below the value of his previous deal with Queens Park Rangers. This is not the peak of his career or the peak of his ability but the plan at Elland Road is holding together and Leeds hardly look like a broken or incommunicado unit with Green behind the defence. It is perfectly understandable if Monk sees no reason to fix it.