Phil Hay: Leeds United must hold nerve both on and off-field

Garry Monk.
Garry Monk.
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Steve Evans was talking about Garry Monk last weekend, warning of “huge consequences” if Saturday’s derby against Huddersfield goes awry.

The ‘managers’ union’ should be tighter than that but Evans speaks from experience. His goose was cooked after Huddersfield ran riot at Elland Road last season. Predictions of his exit from Leeds United began surfacing a few days later.

Should Saturday’s game end with “consequences” for Monk – the sack, if we’re talking in plain English – then someone is struggling to understand the lesson given by the Championship table. Huddersfield lead the division as its only unbeaten side, ahead of another club in Fulham who, despite in-fighting about their approach to transfers, have knuckled down. An unexpected top two? Not entirely.

Slavisa Jokanovic, Fulham’s Serbian coach, took on that job in December and it was evident during last month’s 1-1 draw at Elland Road how much better Fulham are for nine months of consistent coaching. They were dismal last season, beaten 19 times in the league with one of the worst defences going, but the summer just gone was given to Jokanovic regardless. He was confident enough about it to set the play-offs as Fulham’s benchmark this year.

Then there is David Wagner. Last November Wagner sat in front of the press box at the John Smith’s Stadium, watching in nervous silence as Evans’ Leeds picked Huddersfield off with two goals in first-half injury-time and a blinding finish from Alex Mowatt. Newly appointed and still to take charge, Wagner left his seat long before full-time and Huddersfield bobbed and weaved for the rest of the season before finishing 19th. But he was always staying on. There were no second thoughts about retaining him. On the contrary, Huddersfield worked quickly in the transfer market and allowed his signings to run into double figures.

Monk’s position at Leeds is slightly different insofar as he arrived clean and fresh with a full season to shoot at but without the weight of investment needed to make an immediate dent in the Championship, the slow burn created by Jokanovic and Wagner is what he and the club should be trying to mirror. Eunan O’Kane was signing number 11 last week, the last deal of a window in which Leeds recruited the best part of an entirely new starting line-up, but they are carrying a relatively small group of outfield players through to the start of January.

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Monk has more midfielders than he needs, a glut caused by the failure to move on Luke Murphy or Toumani Diagouraga, but O’Kane was like Liam Bridcutt last season: an alternative in an area where, in the mind of United’s boss, quantity outweighed quality and much of that quality belonged to highly inexperienced youngsters.

There is chatter still about the recruitment of free agents, about players who Leeds can sign outside FIFA’s window, but the average free agent is unattached for a reason.

Sol Bamba, United’s captain until his release last week, is unattached for a reason.

Something to do with being fourth choice.

Those avenues are an alternative to the emergency loan market, a way of circumventing FIFA’s rules, but the most successful clubs in the Championship this season will not dabble to any great degree with footballers who are kicking their heels and looking for work. Monk’s current squad is what he has and solutions for United’s results and mistakes must come from within it.

At the same time, those around him should be honest about the squad’s limitations.

He needs a win on Saturday, for the confidence of his players as much as anything.

This is as important a derby as Leeds and Huddersfield have contested for a while and United would feel better for putting Huddersfield back in their box. But more than anything, and with the benefit of two weeks of training behind them, they need to look like an evolving team. Improvement is the crucial word for Monk.

Against Huddersfield, his players must be better than they were against Nottingham Forest and better than they were at home to Huddersfield last season. The management of corners, a chronic weakness in August, should show signs of work and Monk should be starting to settle on a preferred line-up and a preferred formation, having deviated quickly from the 4-2-3-1 system which was in his mind at the end of pre-season. He should be clear about his best pairing of centre-backs and clearer on the position which will make Pablo Hernandez most effective.

In short, Leeds should start to look like his team rather than a side inherited from someone else.

Jokanovic has reached that point over time and so, it seems, has Wagner. Both would surely say that seven games into their current jobs, the league table as it is today was difficult to visualise.

This is a big month for Monk and for Leeds in general, in terms of properly setting the tone for the season ahead. But it is not merely on the pitch where nerves need to be held.

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