This run of red cards at Leeds United confuses me. There’s a temptation to jump on the bandwagon and slate the players’ discipline but Leeds as a club don’t have a discipline problem, or not in the way that I would define it.
I’ve seen clubs with poor discipline before and to my mind it boils down to a dressing room where players aren’t pulling a leg in training, lads are on the lash when they should be tucked up at home and people are disrespecting the manager or trying their best to undermine him. I’ve seen plenty of that in the past and trust me, it quickly drags a club down.
This squad at Leeds, from the outside anyway, look like a fairly diligent bunch. They’re not old-school, hatchet-job types or anything close. It’s quite a young group and it isn’t full of what you’d call difficult-to-manage characters. They’re clearly playing for Thomas Christiansen and the effort is there, suggesting to me that there’s no great issue with attitude. Players are doing stupid things at strange times and that’s quite difficult to address. Fair enough, Gaetano Berardi might be prone to a headbutt but who saw one coming from Eunan O’Kane?
Four suspensions for one game is a ludicrous number, though, and it’s hard to get away from the feeling that Leeds are starting to do themselves in. They had it coming with the new badge they released on Wednesday and the sooner that’s shelved the better for everyone but it won’t take long before attention turns back to football and the club are in a massively questionable position in the Championship.
Tenth place and three points off the play-offs is not the end of the world and Leeds are more than close enough to the business end to strike but this is the stage of the season where clubs either come good or fall away and I’m starting to wonder if Christiansen’s squad have the legs for a top-six finish.
At its best, their form has been excellent but everything this season is coming in bursts. It’s almost like Leeds can get it together for six or seven matches but then the players go over the peak, they can’t sustain the same energy or focus and bad results hit them in a flurry. At stages they’ve looked like a top-six team with a very solid defence and an effective front four but the recent run of one point from four league games simply isn’t promotion form. I don’t think they can say that 10th place reflects unfairly on them.
Maybe this is the way it’s going to for the rest of the season – big ups, big downs and a league position which doesn’t quite cut it in the end. By no means have Leeds slipped out of contention and they’ve still got a massive opportunity in front of them but when mistakes and stupid red cards creep in, the things that throw away points cheaply, you do start to wonder how much the players really believe. I can say from experience, because I was no different, that errors of judgement become worse when your confidence is down.
At this stage it’s important to think about what the aim was this season. Leeds, or their owner, wanted a top-six place but I don’t think anyone ever laid out promotion as an essential target. You can feel the Andrea Radrizzani regime taking their time with everything and I can’t be critical of that but perception is vital. It’s one thing to fall short of the play-offs, because in a competitive league you can’t all be winners. But it’s another to be seen to be allowing yourselves to fall short. If I learned one thing at Leeds its that you can’t afford to tail off tamely. Everyone is expected to fight and everyone is expected to play their part.
That doesn’t just apply to the players on the pitch either. The squad needs a striker and if Leeds can find a way to get Christiansen a good option, they should do what’s required to get one. I don’t mean go mad and spend the family inheritance but push the boat out a little bit and create the best possible chance within the sort of financial framework you’re trying to stick to. Little gambles can pay off big time.
Whenever the word ‘project’ is used – and let’s be clear, football clubs do need vision beyond the next game or the next signing – I always come back to the issue of what is going on around Leeds. When a big-hitting side like Newcastle win the title, as they did last season, you put that down as the natural flow of things but the list of other clubs who’ve made it to the Premier League constantly beg the question of why Leeds are still in the Championship eight years after we got ourselves out of the hell that was League One.
Huddersfield are in the Premier League, and Brighton and Swansea. I remember playing all three clubs in League One for goodness sake! Burnley managed it and so did Bournemouth. There’s a fair point to be made about the money some of those clubs had to play with but the fact remains that they found a way to progress season on season.
Even now, if you look at the Championship, Bristol City and Cardiff are both up there. Derby are finding a way to handle the heavy pressure that’s always on them. Brentford are ahead of Leeds and Preston are just behind. In no way should any of these clubs be to good or big for Leeds to keep pace with and seriously challenge. A top-six finish was the aim when the season began and for me, that’s still the basis on which the season will be classed as a success. Anything less is normal service resumed and normal service in the Championship is not enough. At some point Leeds have to take the next step forward.