Ex-Leeds United man on how Whites can deal with form struggle and release pressure after Southampton horror show

Former Leeds United and England defender Tony Dorigo writes an exclusive column every week for the Yorkshire Evening Post

Wednesday, 20th October 2021, 4:45 am
FORM STRUGGLE - Leeds United followed up their win over Watford with a dismal display at Southampton that did not reflect the side ex defender Tony Dorigo has come to know. Pic: Getty

Unfortunately there’s no magic pill you can take to suddenly play extremely well, when you’re struggling for form.

What I always used to do when things would go wrong was analyse what went wrong and understand that the basic skills and abilities that got you there haven’t disappeared overnight. You go back to them, you hone them, you make them better and stronger and come out swinging in the next one.

From Leeds’ point of view, Saturday at Southampton was proof that we can’t be the same side missing five or six first-team regulars, it’s as simple as that. Two or three of those are our best two or three. If you look at the first XI they put out there, it wasn’t a bad side at all, up against a Southampton side obviously struggling and not scoring goals, especially at home - they’re one of those teams in and around us come the end of the season, who we’ve normally beaten. Last season we’d go to the likes of Burnley, Newcastle and Southampton and win, this season we’ve drawn two and lost one. So that’s disappointing.

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On paper, after Watford, you’re thinking this is the time to get some points on the board and we didn’t. We didn’t deserve to win.

That game against Southampton was played with an XI in blue shirts that I didn’t quite recognise. The pattern of play was nothing like what we’re used to. A good commentator friend of mine was there to see Leeds for the first time live in the flesh and he couldn’t believe what he saw. They don’t normally play like that. It was very hard to tell exactly what they were trying to do. All afternoon long we could not get our game going. The high press, the suffocation from the Southampton players, yes, they worked very hard but we’re normally good enough to play our way out. The back three looked up with the ball and there was precious little on. From there it gradually got worse. It was disappointing.

The problem we faced was highlighted by the teamsheets that arrived an hour before the game. I looked at the Saints bench and I looked at ours. It was a hell of an ask for the young lads. The senior lads understand, no doubt they’re looking out for the young lads and keeping them calm and confident, but they also know they have to do the business on the pitch. Even if we’d had a full complement of players on the pitch and on the bench, that first 45 minutes was a performance where you would normally think there would be a double change at half-time and maybe one on 60 minutes. But it didn’t happen. Even Adam Forshaw, that kind of player our game was screaming out for, had to wait to come on. For the senior players it was a little bit of added pressure.

I was quite good at switching off away from the game and that really helped with the time you were in the game and the pressure. It was really important to keep a contrast and a balance.

But, if the boys go out and bump into other people, it’s always the top topic of conversation. It isn’t easy, hence why family and friends and downtime are so important for you to regroup mentally more than anything else. Then you can come back with a fresh focus ready to go again.

Lots of managers try very different things to help. In years gone by, a day out was the easiest one to release some sort of pressure, but you always had to pay for that day out; you’d have to train twice the day before. As the years went by in my career, with a lot of players coming in from abroad, you suddenly had a very different spectrum of people to cater for.

I remember at Derby County, Jim Smith one day said we’re having a bit of a tough time, we’ve got a lot of games coming up so, for a bit of a release, go and see if the boys want to have a day off on Thursday and the club will put on a coach to go to Cheltenham. We weren’t playing until the Monday. It was champagne breakfast, do whatever you want, just take the boys and have a nice day out and come back raring to go on Friday. I go in to ask all the lads, tell them what’s on offer and ask who wants to go but, out of 20 players, only four put their hands up. I couldn’t believe it. We had Italians, Norwegians, Greek, Croatian, you name it, we had all these nationalities and they said they didn’t like horseracing. I said the point was getting together to release some pressure and found something they all wanted to do, so we ended up going go-kart racing. It’s something different. I look at Marcelo Bielsa and that’s probably not going to happen; it’ll be back on the training ground doing what you were doing before but better, with more intensity. Sometimes that isn’t easy for players.

This week, I think there will have been a period of reflection, studying what went wrong. Once you’ve got that out of the way, it’s a case of improving in training and pushing forward. Even one or two players coming back in, given there are important players missing, will be huge.

I don’t care who the team is, any in the bottom half of the league would be hugely impacted by the loss of even just three or four important players. We feel it even more because of the size of the squad we’ve got. Add that to a game where you feel you should be winning and it all becomes very disappointing.

But that’s not a reflection of a Leeds United side I’ve seen before. We will be very different to that, against Wolves, there’s no doubt about that.