Leeds United boss Garry Monk out-thought Reading opposite number Jaap Stam when the two sides met in December. Phil Hay is expecting another battle of footballing brains when the sides meet tomorrow.
It might not have occurred to Garry Monk that one astute and necessary change of tack would be provoking debate three months later. December’s win against Jaap Stam’s Reading was Leeds United in functional mode but few occasions have show Monk’s wit in a better light.
There was method in his decision to employ a deep five-man midfield and a streak of realism too.
Reading made no secret of their adherence to heavy ball retention and United wanted Stam’s players to see most of their possession in benign areas of the pitch but Monk’s team was dictated by an imbalance in his squad, and a midfield containing four wingers or forwards told its own story.
Monk had lost Kalvin Phillips to suspension at Brighton the previous Friday and a head count at Thorp Arch singled out Ronaldo Vieira as the only fully fit and available midfielder. Liam Bridcutt was barely recovered from a fractured foot but took a seat on the bench against Reading and took the field with 33 minutes played after Chris Wood pulled a hamstring.
Wood’s injury aside, the game played out as Monk intended, with Reading monopolising the ball throughout but succumbing to an early mistake which Wood punished and an injury-time penalty which Souleymane Doukara dispatched.
Matt Grimes appeared as a late substitute and academy striker Mallik Wilks was named among the reserves after Marcus Antonsson complained of back spasms in training. Leeds were living on bare bones, despite their 2-0 win.
Jaap Stam’s criticism afterwards – provoked more, perhaps, by the crowd jeering his players than United surviving on 23 per cent of possession –felt ungracious in the circumstances. December 13 sticks out now as one of the few occasions when Monk has actively encouraged his side to be as withdrawn as possible, to impressive effect. It remains to be seen how Leeds’ head coach tackles the clubs’ reunion at the Madejski Stadium tomorrow.
“It was an excellent performance,” Monk said yesterday. “We set out to do exactly what we did and we were able to do it quite convincingly. At that stage it was another important three points, a clean sheet and two goals.
“What we’ve tried to do here is make ourselves adaptable. As a player you should have that skillset, whether it’s for a full game, half a game or a small period of a game. We’ve won on the front foot and dominated teams, we’ve won by countering-attacking and we’ve won with a mixture of both. For me that’s a good skill to have as a team: the knowledge that you can adapt. It’s what footballers should be able to do.
“The higher you go up (the leagues), and I know this from experience, you need it even more. You have to have the knowledge to deliver in different ways and you’ve seen the way the players here have been able to execute game plans at a high level. But we do have core values and principles, whichever game plan we use.”
The ridicule that Stam’s players received after an abject, lateral night at Elland Road – an evening epitomised by his centre-backs, Paul McShane and Liam Moore, completing more than 120 passes each, most of them between each other –does not disguise the fact that Reading have mirrored Leeds’ progress this season.
Stam, like Monk, was new to the job last summer, taking on a manager’s position for the first time since his retirement. He came in as a replacement for Brian McDermott, the former Leeds’ boss whose return to Reading was ended abruptly and without ceremony three weeks after the end of the season.
The differences in the coaching styles of Monk and Stam barely show in the Championship table. Leeds are fourth with 69 points and Reading are fifth with 67. With eight games to go, tomorrow’s game at the Madejski could conceivably be a warm-up for another meeting in the play-offs.
“There’s a lot of work to be done before we can think about those things,” Monk insisted. “Both teams are in a good position but we have to be focused and our attitude will be exactly that, 100 per cent.
“The last 10 games of any season are the most important in the sense that all teams are figuring out what they’re fighting for, even teams who are assessing for next season. They become that little bit more focused and difficult to play against. We’re thinking about these three points but we have another team against us who are thinking just as hard about them.”
Reading’s record at home is as good as most, with only two defeats on it. Aston Villa won there in October and Queens Park Rangers did likewise in January. No team in the top 10 has beaten Stam’s side on their own pitch. Monk refused to say whether he expected Reading to dominate possession again tomorrow or whether Leeds would allow them to. Stam’s side saw 77 per cent of it at Elland Road. “We’ve been working on things this week,” Monk said. “We’ll have our game plan.
“Reading are a good team and they’ll pose a big threat to us at their place but if we follow our game plan then we know we’re always competitive.
“They’ll have their way to stop us. We’ll have our way to stop them and to play our game. Different styles give you different problems but we prepare the players to nullify their strengths and exploit their weaknesses. They’re having a very good season so credit to them.
“Throughout the season, our consistency has been at a high level. We’ve never dipped too far and we’ve never gone too far above it either. Obviously we try to push and raise the bar all the time but I think it’s been raised extremely high for a group who’ve been together for a short period.”