Another world, Darko Milanic called it, and so it is. Not just Leeds United but England and the Championship. “I need time,” he said after his first game as head coach ended in defeat at Brentford. It was less of a plea than a matter of fact.
Time is something he lacked last week – three training sessions and a Friday spent on the road to London – and a visit to Griffin Park reminded Milanic that he has much to get his head around: a new country and a new working environment, on top of a new squad.
One of the first things he will learn about the Football League is the speed at which the season turns over. By this weekend, Milanic will be three competitive games into his new job – half as many as his predecessor, David Hockaday – with a pile of observations to take into the international break. That break is his chance to take the club properly in hand.
Milanic was asked after a 2-0 defeat how much influence he’d been able to exert having taken training for the first time last Tuesday. “After three sessions,” he replied, “what do you think?” His team were comprehensively beaten at Brentford, beaten at their own game, and Milanic was honest enough to say so. “But this is a good experience for me,” he said. “This is not like a normal (training) session. It is something else.”
In terms of the deficiencies at Griffin Park, Milanic had it right: a midfield which played passively and without aggression, and a forward line who didn’t click with each other or the players behind them. Milanic highlighted the faults without abdicating responsibility for them, refusing to say that the team and tactics weren’t really his.
Many hands have shaped United’s season – Hockaday, Massimo Cellino and caretaker Neil Redfearn among others – and since Hockaday’s sacking, the form has been good. Redfearn took three wins and a draw from his four games in temporary charge and left Milanic a group of players who were starting to understand each other after a slow, standing start.
The tactics at Brentford did not deviate drastically but the performance did. Perhaps it was to be expected after a busy, eventful week. Jota, Brentford’s Spanish midfielder, scored at the end of the first half and Alan McCormack did likewise via a deflection towards the end of the second, deservedly settling the game. In between, goalkeeper Marco Silvestri enhanced his reputation as the best of United’s summer signings.
Milanic indicated last week that Redfearn, Leeds’ academy manager, would join him in the dug-out at Griffin Park but his comments appeared to be lost in translation. He and Redfearn spoke throughout the run-up to Saturday’s game but having been overlooked for the head coach’s job, Redfearn was keen to give the Slovenian space; reluctant to be a shadow over his shoulder.
Milanic took his advice but changed Redfearn’s team slightly, using Sam Byram to cover for the suspended Gaetano Berardi and replacing Casper Sloth with Alex Mowatt. Mowatt was arguably the best of a disappointing set of midfielders but that tactical change was one which Leeds regretted in the end.
When Sloth took to the field midway through the second half, some valuable urgency came into their play but risks and gaps came with it and Brentford picked Leeds off on the break. “They were very dangerous on the counter-attack,” Milanic said.
The style of the two teams was comparable and admirable – patient, on the floor, strictly free of the “anti-Christ”, long-ball approach which Cellino hates – but Brentford were better at it. “The first 10 minutes were competitive,” said their manager, Mark Warburton.
“They had a new manager and their owner was in the tunnel before the game so I’m sure they wanted to impress. But in the most respectful way, there was only one team in it.”
Leeds might have a new head coach but they are still the Cellino show. At the start of the match, United’s president took a seat in amongst the rank and file of Brentford’s support but was asked to move after James Tarkowski’s missed penalty in the 29th minute caused ructions in that area of the ground.
He and his sporting director, Nicola Salerno, heeded the instructions and promptly clambered into the away end, leaning on the front barrier for the rest of the first half. They spent the second in the upper tier. The fans around Cellino got the third degree as Brentford prodded and probed at United’s defence.
Tarkowski made a horrible mess of his penalty after Jonathan Douglas, once a wrecking ball in the centre of Leeds midfield, drove over the halfway line and prodded a pass to the feet of Andre Gray. The striker cut across Jason Pearce and tempted United’s captain into tripping him on the penalty spot, a few yards in front of referee Dean Whitestone.
Pearce was booked, Tarkowski took the ball but his finish was dreadful, smashing into the top tier of Griffin Park’s away end. Much higher and the centre-back would have spent half-time fishing the ball out of the Thames.
Leeds owed him a drink for that but were more indebted to Silvestri for another sequence of alert saves.
The Italian saw off a free-kick from Alan Judge and parried Moses Odubajo’s shot on the rebound. He parried Douglas’ header after Alex Pritchard – a youngster from Tottenham Hotspur who fought and won a fascinating running battle with Lewis Cook – picked him out at the far post with a corner.
But Brentford asked a question too many in the second minute of stoppage-time as Judge fed Jota who stepped inside his marker, sized up Silvestri and cracked the ball into the roof of his net. “Brentford were very aggressive,” Milanic said. “We needed a much more offensive mentality.”
The spirited resistance from Silvestri continued in the second half as Odubajo and Marcos Tebar tested his agility, the former with a header which Silvestri clawed wide. Milanic took some encouragement from the fact that his team had started punching back by then. Various shots flew over Brentford’s bar and Pearce was inches away from nodding Mowatt’s free-kick into the net, denied by David Button’s fingertips. “That would have been a good time to get a goal,” Milanic said.
Brentford’s sense of timing was better and McCormack’s goal on 77 minutes sucked all the tension out of Griffin Park. The full-back was allowed to run free after Whitestone accidentally obstructed Stephen Warnock and his low strike flew in with the help of a deflection off Pearce. Even Silvestri could do nothing about it.
Milanic took time to reflect at the end and then told it like it was, both in terms of the game and his own position. “I need time,” he said again and he certainly does. After weeks of change, upheaval and doubt at Elland Road, it will do Leeds good if somebody gets it.
Brentford: Button, McCormack, Tarkowski, Craig, Bidwell, Douglas, Odubajo, Pritchard (Tebar 74), Judge, Jota (Proschwitz 74), Gray (Diagouraga 80) . Subs (not used): Bonham, Toral, Dean, Betinho.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Pearce, Bellusci, Warnock, Austin, Cook (Tonge 80), Bianchi (Murphy 85), Mowatt (Sloth 66), Doukara, Antenucci. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Cooper, Wootton, Morison.