Phil Hay: Opponents in quandary over Leeds United’s new identity

Garry Monk.
Garry Monk.
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Identity was the buzzword Huddersfield Town swayed towards when they recruited David Wagner as head coach – “David’s football philosophy is directly in line with ours,” they said – and it is funny to think that when Wagner’s players swept in and out of Elland Road in September, the criticism of Leeds United was that they had none.

Garry Monk, as any scrutinised manager would, batted the subject of identity aside but mention of it touched a nerve. Back then it was not quite clear what Leeds were supposed to be or how Monk wanted them to function. Monk privately blamed himself for the lack of clarity. From there, and in quick time, he drove the ambiguity away. Formation, players, tactics, mindset; you know now what his team are and how they intend to play.

Steve McClaren

Steve McClaren

Given that, it is fascinating to see so many clubs in the Championship struggling to work Leeds out. Steve McClaren has a natural appetite for performance analysis, a coach who was using Prozone’s numbers statistics long before Prozone saturated the market, but last month Derby County were either oblivious to Monk’s thinking or powerless to stop it playing them off the pitch.

“Midfield was a huge battle and I’m afraid Leeds dominated,” McClaren said, implying that his preparation had at least pointed that out.

Nottingham Forest are in disarray but any amount of homework a fortnight ago would have highlighted the fatal flaw of allowing Leeds, at home, territory and possession in the 30 minutes after half-time.

Twenty-five of United’s goals have come inside that window, a logical trend for a team who like to methodically turn the screw. Twenty-five goals in the last 15 minutes is a more exceptional statistic again, but perhaps more indicative of the fitness of Monk’s squad and their ability to hold their nerve.

David Wagner.

David Wagner.

Through the best part of 30 games, United’s tactics have been positively predictable and suitably fresh. Transitional football, the high-pressing concept which Huddersfield thrive on in their own way, made Uwe Rosler look like a one-trick pony for the short time he held the reins at Elland Road but knowing Monk’s mind offers no tangible advantage when his players peak. It has become apparent too that a large chunk of the Championship lack the wit or talent to punish Leeds when their guard is down.

Huddersfield and Barnsley are markedly different; dangerous, industrious sides who in the past few weeks have stretched Leeds in the one area Monk’s players need to dominate. The midfield, as McClaren highlighted, is where Championship fixtures pivot. Ronaldo Vieira destroyed his last month, playing out of his skin against Derby, but Barnsley returned the favour eight days later at Oakwell and the intensity of Huddersfield’s football was what tipped the balance towards Michael Hefele’s winning goal on Sunday.

It dragged Pablo Hernandez down to a pass completion rate of 60 per cent and sent the result the way it deserved to go. Wagner would have saved some trouble by dwelling professionally on that.

For Leeds there have been signs of a slight lull since their roasting of Derby but the losses to Barnsley and Huddersfield are valuable examples for Monk of how a midfield with stamina can unseat his own and how stress in that zone exposes Hernandez, leaving Chris Wood out on a limb.

There was scope to counter Huddersfield repeatedly in the second half on Sunday but no Kemar Roofe to freshen the attack, and Rob Green’s goal remained most at risk.

In the end it was as Kyle Bartley said. The better side won.

Saturday brings Leeds back to Elland Road, where the better side invariably wins too. Monk asked for perspective after Sunday’s defeat and the club’s record at home offers plenty of it: six wins on the bounce and a streak of clean sheets which is close to threatening a pre-war record. Cardiff and Tuesday’s opponents, Bristol City, have five away wins between them and these games fall into a certain category: not easy, not routine but essential to win. When Leeds lost to Huddersfield in September, the manner of their defeat was more troubling than the defeat itself. On Sunday, as one strict identity met another and Wanger and Monk went eye-to-eye on the touchline, it occurred that we have reached the point where satisfaction boils down to the result.

The run-in starts here.

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