Ian Holloway was in good form on Saturday, tickled no doubt by the way Queens Park Rangers played at Elland Road. On his previous visit to Leeds United, his Millwall squad were bombing towards relegation and Holloway ranted about the injustice of bubble trips. He specialises in holding a captive audience.
Feeling bullish, he pointed out that he had backed Leeds for the play-offs before this season started and tipped another historically-powerful club – naming no names, but Aston Villa – to waste away in the bottom half of the Championship. Villa’s owner took exception to that but Holloway had it sussed. Not such a “f***** pundit” after all.
March is a bad time to revisit pre-season expectations. Villa don’t want to be told that they have abjectly vindicated Holloway’s vibes. Rafa Benitez won’t want to hear that the last Newcastle team who graced the Championship rode the backside off it, lost none of their home games and finished with 102 points. Even in Leeds there is less and less inclination to think that this season is a shot in the arm no matter what. The league is too far gone for that.
It is imperative, though, to remember how far above their present weight Leeds are punching and to realise that if Garry Monk’s squad have limitations it is because the club attacked this season with limitations. The gamble of United’s season-ticket refund initiative was laid by their expenditure in the transfer market. Half of Monk’s signings were loanees. A larger percentage were fringe players, free to leave or unattached already. It is convenient now to say that Leeds have schooled the Championship in clever, economical recruitment – the antithesis of concluding that Jordan Rhodes is the answer no matter the question – but it would challenge Monk to do this twice; to contradict the assumption that you are nothing in this division without money.
Constructing a complete team on his budget is wholly improbable and it is always worth remembering that Bournemouth won the Championship title by exceeding their size, their reputation but not the wealth of their owner. There are imperfections in Monk’s team which have existed all season and were evident long before Saturday’s game against QPR passed without a shot on target. There are strengths which show up week after week, too. Anxiety about which will outweigh the other is natural when the stakes are so high.
This, with nine games to go, is Leeds as Monk has built them: not at their peak but unbeaten in six matches and fourth in the table. Bullying Derby County in January was a rod for their own back, a night on which intensity gave way to a level of accomplishment that has not been seen before or since. On an evening like that you forget how many times Monk needed half-time to have his say and dig his players in the ribs. The grinding wins against Burton Albion at home and Brentford at home – the staple diet of this season – felt like off-days when Steve McClaren looked like he’d watched his house burn down. Monk’s resources in the summer inspired some exceptional pragmatism. There was no point in him being idealistic.
His pragmatism is the soul of his team and Leeds will not change tack now.
Championship managers, or the better ones, don’t tend to go off piste around Easter. There is no sign of it happening now.
Reading retained 63 per cent of possession against Preston on Saturday and lost 3-0. They have been ridiculed for that glaring imbalance before but are stuck in their ways and fifth in the league. Brighton under Chris Hughton are 4-4-2, or 4-4-2 for all but the odd game, even amid the occasional wobble.
Fulham have been Fulham from the opening weekend and Huddersfield likewise.
Have Leeds been found out? By March there is not a team in the Championship who haven’t. From here the results will rest on small gaps in class and bloody-minded endurance.
Monk has the assurance of a back five which picks itself when everyone is available and doesn’t need to panic about the loss of a player like Luke Ayling to suspension. He can play Chris Wood up front, safe in the knowledge that Wood’s finishing has never dipped this season and that on a day like Saturday, no-one else would have been any more likely to pick QPR off.
The issues for him, such as they are, lie in between and have done for months.
Much of what is going on in Monk’s midfield is a matter of circumstance. He might wish that he had got a grip of his central pairing sooner but Liam Bridcutt missed three months of the season, Eunan O’Kane two and the pair have played together all of five times. Pablo Hernandez wasn’t built for 46 games in the Championship and has never played more than 30 league games in a season.
Wingers are notoriously hit-and-miss and most of Monk’s options there are in this division for the first time. The reason he was annoyed about the club’s dealings in January was not because of the amount of money spent but because of the delay in signing Alfonso Pedraza and Mo Barrow. Deals reached at the start of January would have given him an extra month to bed them in. Barrow has not started once.
There are days when the collective invention of Monk’s various options lights a fuse but days when their unpredictability allows Alex Smithies to sneak out of Elland Road without a word said against him.
It was always going to be that way and it does not call for an over-arching change of tack in the fixtures that are left.
Managers across the division are digging in, prepared to think that if it works, it works.
“The players know what they’re doing under Garry,” Holloway said. “He gives them a pattern to play to. They might need a second pattern if they can’t get through – but he hasn’t had long enough to work on that.”
It was the final thought which resonated most.