Head coach Garry Monk barely has a player out of form, and that includes Chris Wood, so his search for a striker falls into the ‘support’ category rather than ‘replacement’ role. Phil Hay reports.
Leeds United’s search for a striker in January was never about challenging Chris Wood’s position. Garry Monk wants cover for him rather than a replacement and the club’s targets were identified with that fact in mind.
Wood’s finishing has been so reliable this season that Monk is wary of signing anyone who would come to Elland Road expecting to play in front of him regularly. In a fixed formation which relies on one centre forward, Wood’s inclusion is nailed down and his winning goal against Derby County on Friday merely consolidated the pecking order.
His header in first-half injury-time, the moment which broke the dam after 45 minutes of desperate resistance from Derby, summed up the purple patch the New Zealand international is in. Previous chances had fallen almost exclusively to Kyle Bartley without producing a goal, the best bundled wide off Bartley’s knee from no more than two yards out. At the next corner – one of 10 earned by Leeds before half-time – he and Wood swapped positions in Derby’s box and Wood scored with his first effort of the night, smashing in a delivery from Pablo Hernandez.
Leeds needed that goal, much as it appeared to have been coming from the kick-off. Derby were battered relentlessly and it would have pleased Steve McClaren to reach the interval with the game goalless but a dejected McClaren held his hands up afterwards, conceding that County had been played off the pitch. For Wood, it was another performance which defined Leeds as one of the most capable teams in the Championship.
His own knack of producing goals when Leeds need him to is one of the reasons why the club are lodged in the play-offs and not yet out of contention for automatic promotion. Friday’s effort was his 17th of the season.
“I wish I knew the secret, then I’d be able to sell it,” Wood joked. “It’s just one of those things – you’ve got to keep going and going and you don’t get disappointed or downhearted. You know it’s going to come. Barts had three or four opportunities and it was just bouncing off his knee, things like that. He told me ‘you go front post this time, I’ll go back post.’ Then it was – bang, goal. He was a bit upset!
“We’d had a number of chances, a number of half-chances, and on another day they’d have gone in. We’d have been three up. But we did well to go in 1-0 up and we took a lot of confidence from that.”
Friday was an evening when Monk genuinely struggled to single out individuals from a consummate performance. A weakened defence kept a clean sheet without great trouble and Pablo Hernandez, Leeds’ Spanish playmaker, was unplayable in the first half and a positive example in the second.
McClaren was so moved by Ronaldo Vieira’s influence in the centre of midfield that he applauded the 18-year-old for “running the show”. Monk barely has a player out of form.
This time last year, Wood was struggling with hamstring problems and United’s rather hopeful chase of the play-offs was dying a death.
Leeds, with a new co-owner in Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani, feel evermore like a different club.
“We had great quality last year but I think we’ve added to it superbly this year,” Wood said. “The boys who’ve come in have taken the squad to another level and we’re finally looking like we’re one of the best sides in the league. We can take on anybody. We know that and we’re confident in that sense.
“The gaffer’s done a fantastic job and he’s got us where we are. We’re playing well at the moment, we’re ticking along nicely and the team know what we’re about. We know our jobs and our responsibilities and we do it all to a ‘t’. It works for us.
“We always have a game plan. We’re always trying to work them (the opposition) into a trap and we stick to the game plan no matter what. That’s what’s got us success so far.”
Wood is one of relatively few players at Elland Road who have experienced a promotion season in the Championship before.
The forward played 26 times and scored four league goals as Leicester City won the title in 2014 and finished with 102 points.
Their place in the Premier League seemed guaranteed by the midway stage of that term and there is a sense now that Leeds, with an eight-point lead over seventh place, are a long way down the road to the play-offs.
Monk refuses to be complacent about that, and Wood said it was “easier” to maintain a good league position by ignoring the bigger picture.
“I’ve done that for the whole of my career,” he said. “I find it’s the best way to deal with things.
“There’s no point getting ahead of yourself or getting giddy saying, ‘oh look at (the table)’. Anybody can beat anybody. Rotherham can beat anybody on any given day. This league’s renowned for that and we’ve got a long way to go. Twenty games to go. It’s a long season and we’ll just keep working the way we have been.
“I’ve been in promotion teams before. You don’t really think about it.
“You just keep playing and enjoying playing games, winning games, scoring goals, keeping clean sheets. That’s what the boys do here.
“They come into training happy, enjoy playing, and, if you enjoy playing, then you see the rewards on the pitch.
“That’s where we’re at.”