It’s common knowledge that Neil Warnock favours a certain type of football.
Some would call it direct or long-ball. To judge by his track record, I’d call it effective. Whatever anyone says about style or tactics, they never do more for a club than results.
I wasn’t at Portsmouth last weekend so I can’t give my own view on Leeds United’s performance but the game as a whole didn’t sound pretty. But Leeds came away with a clean sheet – a very rare clean sheet – and if Neil’s plan is to go back to basics then I’m 100 per cent behind that.
We’d all love to see a free-flowing, attractive strategy but the results this season prove that the squad at Leeds aren’t good enough to pull that off. They haven’t been able to find the right balance between scoring goals and preventing them.
You hear people talk about earning the right to play and Leeds are a good example of what they mean. Until you can do the basics – and by that I mean keep clean sheets, defend properly and keep a solid, organised shape – then total football is a dream.
Attractive or not, I’ve never seen a team of Neil’s who didn’t know what they were doing.
In the short term it’s fair to say that his way of thinking might not create the greatest of spectacles. The fans might have to suffer a few frustrating games. But here’s the thing – the Queens Park Rangers side who won the Championship title under him last season were a pleasure to watch. More often than not, I liked what I saw.
The reason? Because Neil had the squad he wanted. He had players he rated and players he could trust to carry out his plans.
The blueprint at QPR was an ultra-solid base with flair in front of it – Taarabt, Faurlin, Routledge etc – and the results were incredible. Going back to Neil’s time at Sheffield United, you had lads like Michael Tonge and Michael Brown. Lads who could play. That, I’m sure, is what he’s planning to do at Elland Road, in time and with the right resources. It’s why I’ve already got one eye on next season.
I don’t want to be unnecessarily defeatist but I don’t think Leeds have any real chance of qualifying for the play-offs this time around. Realistically it’s not going to happen. It’s still mathematically possible but I’ve played in the Championship and they’ve got two big problems – their league position and the difficulty of their run-in.
You won’t see Neil throw in the towel early, but I’d expect him to use these next two months to decide who is coming with him when the season ends.
Personally, I think quite a large section of the dressing room are under threat. If they don’t come up to scratch in the time that’s left, Neil will be ruthless. He’s driven and ambitious, and he won’t have any qualms about pulling people aside and saying ‘you’re not what we need for this club to go forward.’
As a player, your initial reaction to a situation like this is to feel worried or uncertain, but if I was in the dressing room at Leeds, I’d be quietly excited and desperate to make sure I was on board beyond the summer. If history repeats itself and Neil does what he’s done at QPR and Sheffield United, they could be part of a promotion-winning squad next season. What more could they ask for?
Neil will probably find, as Simon Grayson did, that moving certain fringe players on is a challenge. Some of them must be earning better wages than they could ever hope to earn elsewhere. But it seemed to me that Simon struggled to make it clear to lads he no longer wanted that their time at Elland Road was up. The difference with Neil is that he’ll leave them in no doubt. If you want to hang around at Thorp Arch then that’s up to you. But the club and the squad are moving on.
As things stand, I’d assume that wholesale changes are likely in the summer. It’s obvious from reading Neil’s comments that he wants a better squad. But there is time left this season for the current group of players to prove themselves to him.
Put it this way, if Leeds were to go close to the play-offs or, through some unbelievable run of form, qualify for them, wouldn’t Warnock be tempted to stand by those responsible? You reap what you sow in this sport and the lads who earn his favour will be the lads who deserve it.