Phil Hay: Six reasons behind Leeds United’s malaise

Brian McDermott ponders defeat at Hillsborough.

Brian McDermott ponders defeat at Hillsborough.

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Chief football writer Phil Hay identifies six key areas where things have gone wrong for Brian Mcdermott’s Leeds United.

1: CENTRAL MIDFIELD

Before last Thursday, wingers were in short supply at Elland Road. And goals posed a problem until Ross McCormack’s instinct kicked in properly at the start of October. But Saturday’s defeat at Hillsborough showed that width and strikers are redundant without a dominant midfield to cut them loose.

Leeds United’s fatigue is as much a product of their struggle to control games as it is the number of appearances asked of individual players. Statistically, the club were heavily outpassed by both Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday. They have also been overrun in key battles – Alex Mowatt bettered by the near flawless Kieran Lee last weekend, Tom Cairney superior to Luke Murphy during United’s loss against Blackburn Rovers and Forest’s Andy Reid on a different level of performance to Rudolph Austin. The numbers prove it.

Lee’s 98 per cent pass completion rate at Hillsborough was suffocating, albeit against a team reduced to 10 men in the second half, and he gave Wednesday their rhythm As one former Leeds player put it, if you can’t keep the ball then you’re going to tire. And you’re going to lose games.

2: FORMATIONS

Globally, 4-4-2 or minor variations are considered to be outdated and a diamond midfield did not give Brian McDermott the cut-and-thrust he needed, despite United’s steady start to the season. They were organised but lacking the freedom and variety which came with the introductin of 3-5-2 three months ago.

That system worked for a time and worked well. It was the most suitable set-up for a squad whose only means of effective width was the employment of wing-backs. But there were signs around Christmas of opposition managers working United’s tactics out.

Forest created huge gaps between McCormack and Matt Smith up front and Blackburn skilfully picked Leeds off on the flanks. A change was arguably in order before the FA Cup tie at Rochdale but McDermott’s experiment with 3-4-3 has been a disaster and that plan will almost certainly be tucked away after two horrendous games, never to return.

The reason 4-4-2 was redundant earlier in the season was because McDermott had no wingers, or none that he trusted. Cameron Stewart and Jimmy Kebe give him two good reasons to turn to it now.

3: CREATIVITY

Leeds have produced fewer shots on target in their past three league games – six in total – than they did in one rousing win over Birmingham City on October 20. Goals are drying up but only because United’s chances have too.

Players like Kebe and Stewart exist to solve that sort of problem but they will do nothing in the isolation they experienced at Hillsborough. Stewart touched the ball a total of 17 times and produced one cross. Kebe conjured two before his substitution on 66 minutes.

A striker as imposing as Smith will attack inviting balls all day but searching deliveries into the box also create opportunities for the poacher in McCormack too. In their better periods since August, Leeds have been adept at building pressure and sustaining it. To their immense satisfaction, Wednesday were given a free ride – which is criminal considering the wobbly presence of Miguel Llera in the centre of their defence. He was ready to explode, if only someone could have lit the fuse.

4: McCORMACK’s GOALS

Statistics can prove just about anything. Depending on your point of view, McCormack has one goal in six games or 12 in 13.

He is still the Championship’s top scorer, with Jordan Rhodes and Danny Ings breathing down his neck, but Leeds are no longer playing to his strengths in the way that they were in better times – sending him into space, feeding him through the middle, giving him room to shoot.

The recent formations haven’t helped and McCormack’s floating display at Hillsborough brought to mind United’s horrible loss at Southampton on the first day of the 2011-12 season. It was clear on that dismal evening that playing McCormack along up front is a gift to the defence confronting him and a waste of his talent.

Luciano Becchio was tailor-made for that role but McCormack needs possession to work with and players close-by to link with and bounce off. McDermott must be keenly aware of the need to involve him more heavily again.

5: LEADERSHIP

Lack of leadership is a footballing cliche but Peter Lorimer’s YEP column today raises that concern.

In Lorimer’s view, Leeds were visibly rudderless as the goals flew in at Hillsborough – no shouting, no arguing, no cajoling, no defiance.

McDermott voiced a similar opinion after the FA Cup loss at Rochdale, saying: “We need leaders on the pitch – many leaders, not just the captain.”

Back in the summer he made a persistent effort to sign Gordon Greer from Brighton – the infamous “fourth signing” that never quite materialised – and gave very clear hints that the player in question would be given the armband this season, but when Greer signed a new contract at Brighton, Rudy Austin took the captaincy instead.

Austin was, to many, as obvious a candidate as anyone else in McDermott’s squad and to lay the blame squarely on him for the past three weeks would ignore many other issues. Still, he has struggled desperately. Only United’s manager can judge the implications of a mid-season change in that department but nerve and guidance needs to come from somewhere.

6: BRITTLE CONFIDENCE

Marius Zaliukas’ insane back-heel at the end of the debacle at Wednesday was not the act of a cocky player. It was the act of a defender whose head and judgement had deserted him. These have been brutal days and McDermott’s “back to basics” attitude is indicative of a team who need reminding of what it was that brought seven wins from nine games prior to Christmas.

Jordan Rhodes and Sheffield Wednesday are the visitors to Elland Road on Saturday.

Leeds United fans on Twitter: Clean sheets, Fulham away and the big Yorkshire derby