A fortnight ago Garry Monk talked of Leeds United peaking at their own pace and in their own time but he will not want his squad to stay at this level for long.
His formal bow as the club’s head coach, his introduction to Championship management, posed far more questions than it answered. A punch-drunk away end demanded answers at full-time.
There was nothing between Leeds and Queens Park Rangers last season, one point in the final table, but the gap in verve and sharpness was more pronounced yesterday as life under Monk began with a 3-0 defeat at Loftus Road. Leeds were left behind from the kick-off and behind after four minutes as QPR bullied Monk’s players out of the first half and parts of the second. Better days will follow for Monk but this was one to bury quietly.
QPR nicked the softest of goals from their earliest attack, helped by a mistake from their old goalkeeper Rob Green, and the only thing between United and inevitable defeat at half-time was the woodwork. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s team struck it twice as Rangers controlled the middle of the pitch and kept Monk’s defenders travelling backwards. Monk’s idea of fast, aggressive football was lost to one-way traffic.
To his credit, he got hold of his players at the interval and brought a shift of momentum which temporarily nailed QPR’s confidence. The balance of play at the start of the second half was more like the style which Monk aspires to but an equaliser never looked like coming and Tjaronn Chery put the result beyond reach when he scored a 73rd-minute penalty.
Green, who seconds earlier had denied Abdenasser El Khayati brilliantly, could not keep the spot kick out of his bottom corner and Marcus Antonsson’s painful failure to convert a glorious chance soon after rounded off a harsh away fixture. With seconds to go, Sebastian Polter rattled home a third goal for good measure. The result stands as a benchmark for Leeds to climb from quickly, starting at Fleetwood Town on Wednesday night. It also highlighted obvious areas where United badly need reinforcement.
It was not as if Monk’s chosen line-up asked for trouble, although Matt Grimes’ appearance at number 10 was unexpected and sadly uninspired. One of the alternative options for that role, Pablo Hernandez, watched from the directors’ box amid a delay in securing international clearance for him and Alex Mowatt sat on the bench throughout, no longer in the box seat.
If Mowatt wasn’t right for Monk at Loftus Road, 18-year-old Ronaldo Vieira made the starting side and received the vote of confidence which many expected him to get. Vieira was a scholar as recently as May but Monk has fast-tracked him this summer after picking up on the midfielder’s potential in the early days of pre-season. As the sun scorched the pitch, QPR scorched Leeds and Vieira’s full debut was a harsh lesson in the deep end, peaking with the concession of the penalty.
Neither he nor any of Monk’s other players had taken a meaningful touch of the ball when QPR scored from their first corner. Chery won the set-piece by sprinting into the box and forcing Kyle Bartley to turn the ball behind and the Dutchman’s delivery of the corner caused greater chaos.
Leeds failed to track the flight of it and were left to battle with a bouncing ball on their goalline. A deflection sent it high into the air and Rob Green flapped at it under his crossbar, allowing Nedum Onuoha to knock the ball over the line with some help from Sol Bamba.
From United’s point of view, it was a concession like so many others from so many other seasons; dripping with the defensive weakness the club have found so hard to cure. Green, who left QPR in May at the end of his contract, spoke on Thursday about the possibility of receiving 90 minutes of booing on his return to Loftus Road but the crowd chose instead to tease him as the ball nestled in his net.
The concern for Monk in those early minutes was his team’s struggle to lay their foot on the ball, reminiscent of a hard afternoon at QPR last year. Kemar Roofe headed a half-chance wide when Gaetano Berardi’s cross reached him at the back post but QPR dictated the pace for a long time after the opening goal. For Rangers, Onuoha almost became the source of a second. His volley on 20 minutes after Green punched down a hanging cross flew a couple of yards over the bar.
By that stage Monk might have been tempted to change tact but injury soon bounced him into replacing Berardi. The defender had failed to appear in any of Leeds’ pre-season fixtures and his lack of fitness soon caught up with him. Lewie Coyle slotted in at right-back as United tried to turn the tide of a sluggish start.
Opportunities that came their way went begging too easily. Stuart Dallas overcooked a useful free-kick from the left wing and Taylor made nothing of two good chances to deliver from the same flank but QPR pressed constantly. When a throw-in caught out Sol Bamba on the half-hour, Leeds were lucky to see Chery’s low shot rebound against him and then smash off the outside of Green’s left-hand post before running to safety.
With Monk’s midfield overrun and his defence treading choppy water, half-time was badly needed even before Polter ended a counter-attack on 38 minutes by cutting inside Bamba and shaking the same post in the 38th minute. But for the kindness of the woodwork, it would have been over bar the home crowd’s shouting at the interval.
Dallas might have snatched an equaliser with a volley in the last minute of the half, presented to him by Jake Bidwell’s error, but a reply in that moment would have disguised a display so far off the pace. Monk disappeared to the tunnel and imparted some words of wisdom.
With his thoughts to chew on, the tempo of United’s performance improved immeasurably and QPR were found more often in their own half after the break, defending in front of a full away end. A dipping free-kick from Grimes beat both keeper Alex Smithies and the bar and a deflected shot from Coyle flew wide before the hour. Rangers’ threat dropped noticeably but Green was called upon to pull off an excellent low parry from substitute El Khayati with 20 minutes left.
By then, a second goal would have killed the contest and it came regardless. In the 73rd minute, the unfortunate Vieira attempted to compensate for a lack of cover as QPR attacked down the right but succeeded only in bundling into the back of Jordan Cousins.
Chery took the penalty and tucked it away confidently, in keeping with so much of Rangers’ display. Antonsson’s dragged shot wide with only Smithies to beat late on was a fitting seal on United’s. By the final seconds of injury-time, when Polter cut into the box and smashed a neat finish across Green and into the roof of the net, thoughts of a reprieve were long gone. Monk’s players swallowed hard and approached the away end. The response was not printable.