GARRY Monk arrived as head coach of Leeds United with a reputation for overseeing fast, free-flowing football.
The 37-year-old was honest enough to admit there was a lack of it in Saturday’s final pre-season friendly against Atalanta – but insists “really crisp football” will be forthcoming.
It is Monk’s job to ensure United still produce results even when not producing their A-game.
As far as Saturday goes then it was job done, with a steely and determined Whites able to put away the 13th best side in Italy.
United’s final pre-season friendly kicked off under an air of mystery following revelations on Friday that a Chinese consortium are considering a bid to buy the club.
But Leeds have been here before – with Red Bull, Steve Parkin and even Russell Crowe – and the script as far as Saturday was concerned was business as usual.
Whites chairman Massimo Cellino took his seat to witness the club sign off ready for the season, with the Italian a year older than upon his last visit to Elland Road after celebrating his 60th birthday on Thursday.
There are suggestions that Cellino is not willing to sell the club any more, whether there is genuine interest from China or otherwise.
And Saturday again illustrated the undoubted potential of a club who now have a new-look side under Monk and a new rising star in 18-year-old midfielder Ronaldo Vieira, who, on this evidence, can be every bit as good as Lewis Cook, if not better.
Cook – sold to Bournemouth this summer – scored his first goal for the Cherries in pre-season on Friday but his departure has left a space to fill in United’s midfield and Vieira looks like taking it.
The Guinea-Bissau teenager was a constant thorn in Atalanta’s side, breaking up numerous attacks with energetic runs and important tackles.
At the other end, the 18-year-old produced several classy passes and even a few Maradona turns during one attack in the second half.
But it was another United newbie that was ultimately responsible for sinking Atalanta with Kemar Roofe flicking home a 68th-minute winner after Chris Wood’s first-half penalty had been cancelled out by Marco D’Alessandro.
Few knew what to expect from Atalanta but Italian journalist Simone Pesce put that right with his presence at Elland Road, revealing that AC Milan, Roma and Fiorentina are all chasing the club’s star striker Alejandro Gómez. It was easy to see why and a few will no doubt be interested in D’Alessandro too.
United’s back five, of Rob Green, Kyle Bartley, Sol Bamba, Charlie Taylor and trialist Gabi Perico were kept on their toes throughout.
Perico was subbed for Lewie Coyle at half-time but Monk seemed pleased with the Italian’s display.
The head coach opted for a 4-3-3 or moreover 4-5-1 formation with a returning Stuart Dallas and Roofe either side of Wood up front, with Alex Mowatt sat in front of Vieira and Toumani Diagouraga in midfield.
And despite Atalanta’s early pressure it was United who drew first blood with a 25th-minute penalty awarded in bizarre circumstances for handball.
A Stuart Dallas free-kick from the centre circle was floated into the area and Wood thumped home the loose ball past Davide Bassi in goal.
However, Ossett referee Robert Madley blew his whistle for what appeared to be an Atalanta free-kick, only to then point to the penalty spot for handball.
Wood stepped up to take the spot kick and thumped the ball past Bassi into the bottom right corner.
United’s lead lasted only six minutes as the Italian side hit back through a clinical counter attack finished by the excellent D’Allesandro.
Vieira, who had a fine first half otherwise, was dispossessed in midfield, allowing Franck Kessie to gallop at United’s back four.
Kessie then played in D’Allesandro down the right hand side and the Atalanta forward rifled a powerful drive past Green into the bottom left corner.
The Italian side began to dominate and Gomez was only denied six minutes later by a brilliant goalline clearance from Bamba.
Then, on the stroke of half-time, Gomez curled a gem of an effort just wide of Green’s left hand post.
More pressure followed after the interval but, to Monk’s delight, Leeds stood firm and on 68 minutes the Whites bagged the eventual winner.
Substitute Hadi Sacko’s fine right flank delivery was headed behind for a Whites corner which was swung in low by another Whites sub in Kalvin Phillips.
There appeared little danger but Roofe was on hand to nip in before ’keeper Bassi and flick the ball home infront of a delighted Kop.
Less impressed were the hardy 140 Atalanta Ultras that had made their way over from Bergamo but they were a credit throughout, happily chanting along in their own little corner and swinging flags and scarves.
On three occasions they went close to celebrating a late equaliser, with Green tipping a Jasmin Kurtic effort around the post and then brilliantly denying Guido Marilungo in injury time, just after a D’Alessandro effort was chalked off for offside. United sub Marcus Antonnson also saw a late effort greeted by an offside flag.
Amidst the thrills and spills of an entertaining afternoon and friendly, Atalanta boss Gian Piero Gasperini made a septuple substitution – seven at once – but ultimately to no avail.
The Italians were made to fly back home in defeat but on this evidence ‘La Dea’ as they are nicknamed – or ‘The Goddess’ – will finish in the top half of Italy’s top division next term.
Sunday, August 21 marks the first day of their new campaign when Atalanta will face Lazio – ironically the last Italian side United had faced before Saturday’s friendly. Lee Bowyer, Jason Wilcox and Mark Viduka were all on target in March 2001 when the Whites drew 3-3 with the Italian giants in the Champions League.
It is of those days that United’s fans dream of returning – but Monk is a man who will take one step at a time.
Still, Saturday, to a degree and for one afternoon at least, had United back amongst the big boys, and beating them.
For now, victory at QPR on Sunday will do for starters – and Saturday’s steely display will stand a new-look United in excellent stead.
Leeds United: Green, Perico (Coyle 45), Bartley, Bamba, Taylor, Diagouraga (Grimes 62), Vieira (Botaka 80), Mowatt (Phillips 62), Dallas (Sacko 45), Roofe (Murphy 80), Wood (Antonsson 71). Subs: Silvestri, Turnbull, Berardi, P McKay, Denton, Doukara.
Atalanta: Bassi; Masiello, Toloi, Raimondi; Conti, Kessie, Kurtic, Spinazzola; D’alessandro, Paloschi, Gomez. Subs: Stendardo, Gagliardini, Migliaccio, Freuler, Caldara, Petagna, Mazzini, Djimsiti, Marilungo, Drame’, Carmona, Drame’.
Referee: Robert Madley.
Attendance: 11,832 (140 Atalanta).