Leeds United’s collapse in Domzale nine days ago was excused by Brian McDermott on the grounds that a lesson learned so early in pre-season need not be a bad thing.
Domzale, he claimed, was a “good reminder” delivered at the right time. By contrast, United’s lamentable defeat to Walsall on Saturday left their manager stewing. “We weren’t at our best, far from it,” he said. “I don’t want performances like that and I didn’t see that one coming. It concerns me, of course it does.”
Full-time at Walsall arrived to the sound of booing from sections of the away crowd and perplexed looks all round the press box. It took a few words from McDermott to confirm that Leeds’ performance was as bad as it looked and a few more to highlight his main gripes: no wingers, no money and no certainty about what the next fortnight will bring.
United start the new Championship season in less than two weeks’ time and it was plain on Saturday that their squad is not ready. Fit and healthy, perhaps, but not a fluent, settled machine and not far enough removed from the side that diced with relegation in April. McDermott named a team which passed as his strongest but he has no alternative but to experiment against Stevenage tomorrow, the penultimate friendly of the summer.
“We’ve got a chance to get straight back into it,” McDermott said. “I’ve got 20-odd players here and I’d suggest that there are places up for grabs on the first day of the season.
“That performance wasn’t anywhere near what we’re looking for. It’s the worst day I’ve had as manager here. We weren’t good enough and we weren’t bright enough. There wasn’t enough energy. I’m glad we’ve still got two weeks to go before the season starts.”
Leeds were beaten by a solitary goal from Craig Westcarr, scored on the volley in the 12th minute after Adam Chambers and former United trainee James Baxendale cut through McDermott’s defence with a couple of searching passes.
Walsall offered up openings too – Tom Lees had an early header tipped onto the crossbar and Matt Smith’s first-half shot was cleared off the line by Chambers’ twin brother James – and the introduction of Dominic Poleon as a second-half substitute gave Leeds a shake.
Poleon, Noel Hunt and Michael Tonge might all have equalised – Tonge was denied by a sharp save from Richard O’Donnell soon after half-time –but McDermott spent much time scratching his head as Walsall played freely and found gaps in front of Paddy Kenny. Walsall’s victory was in spite of 11 substitutions in the second half, among them a 16-year-old schoolboy called Rico Henry. Ashley Hemmings and Ben Purkiss should both have scored further goals.
Leeds were unimaginative, disjointed and above all narrow. McDermott’s commitment to a midfield diamond – featuring Paul Green, Luke Murphy, Michael Tonge and Ross McCormack on Saturday – has been predominantly a means of compensating for an acute shortage of wingers, a position where he was blessed with numbers at Reading. Without much natural width, McDermott saw the diamond as the best way of playing to the strengths of his squad. The loss to Walsall and the patches of the game in which his midfield were outrun made him think twice.
“We’ve got a squad with no wingers, bar Aidy White,” he said, omitting to mention Ryan Hall. “I’ve never had that situation before. When I was at Reading we had five.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to do what you’re trying to do because you’ve only got the personnel who are here. It’s something we need to look at but it’s not easy to make changes.
“Wingers by definition don’t come cheap and there’s no point in buying a winger for the sake of it, someone who can go in one direction but not the other. You need a winger who can be offensive and defensive. I’ve had that in the past and they made the difference.
“But I have to find a way within the squad to make it work, either with this system or another one. What you can’t afford to do is get carried away with a performance like this, just as I wouldn’t if we’d had a really good performance. It’s a bad day but we take it on the chin because we have bad days together like we have good days together.”
Walsall: O’Donnell (Roberts 80), J Chambers (Purkiss 65), Benning (Griffiths 80), Holden (Butler 65), Downing (Hewitt 65), Featherstone (Sawyers 65), Baxendale (Henry 80), A Chambers (McQuilken 46), Lalkovic (Mantom 65), Westcarr (George 65), Hemmings (Morris 65). Subs (not used): Flanagan, Heath.
Leeds United: Kenny, Peltier, Lees, Pearce (Pugh 80), Warnock, Green, Tonge (White 60), Murphy, McCormack, Hunt (Varney 72), Smith (Poleon 46). Subs (not used): Cairns, Brown, Norris, Thompson, Drury.
Referee: Oliver Langford (West Midlands).
Attendance: 3,900 (1,707 Leeds).