Reports from Swindon on Tuesday night credited Leeds United with a much better performance than either of those at Chesterfield or Mansfield Town.
Teams under new management get better with time and it won’t be a coincidence that as the fitness of the players starts to rise towards its peak, the pre-season displays are improving too.
It remains to be seen whether his philosophy works as well as he wants it to but it’s perfectly obvious what David Hockaday is trying to do with the squad. He wants them to pass, pass, pass and swerve away from long-ball football. All of us are in favour of that.
The bottom line, however, is that passing teams can only stick to that strategy if they’re good enough and consistent enough to put points on the board. I don’t doubt that every manager wants his side to have an attractive style but the reason so many coaches end up going down the direct route is because eventually results override everything else. If you’re in a bad position at Christmas, style isn’t really a priority.
So in short, the success of Hockaday’s tactics will come down to how well his squad can implement them. He basically needs the right players in the right positions and strength in depth all over the team. I didn’t go to Swindon and I was pleased to hear that the lads performed well but what I saw of them at Chesterfield raised a few concerns.
The main worry I have is in the centre of defence. We’ve seen a bit of a trend in that area this summer which, if I’m being honest, has been a trend at Leeds for four or five years now. At the moment, we aren’t forcing the opposition to score good goals. We’re giving goals away on a plate, often under high balls and to unmarked players.
You can work on positioning and confidence but I’m not convinced that the partnership we have at the moment – Jason Pearce and Scott Wootton – is truly strong enough, and it doesn’t surprise me that the club are talking about bringing in a new centre-back.
What you need in the heart of the defence is at least one guy who runs the whole show; someone who commands the defence from left to right. I didn’t see much of that at Chesterfield and there were quite a few mistakes.
The best centre-backs are the ones who can keep their own game up to a high standard while monitoring the performances of everyone else around them. And beyond that, they always have pace. Our defence isn’t quick and it’s fair to say that when you play a passing game with players high up the pitch, it’s vital to have defenders with the speed and awareness to cover in behind. A lack of pace was one of the reasons why we conceded so many goals in that season under Simon Grayson when we scored for fun in the Championship.
Tom Lees, of course, is another option but if the reports are correct, it looks like he could be on his way from Elland Road. That saddens me because he’s come through the academy, he’s done well for himself and I genuinely expected very big things of him 18 months ago. He was an England Under-21 international and a kid who kept improving season after season.
To be fair, last season and parts of the season before were not good for him. The club was in a bit of a mess, the squad didn’t seem too tight and I don’t think the environment was healthy. When you’re on the outside like we are, you’re never totally sure of what’s happening behind closed doors but I’m sure that at certain stages it won’t have been a happy camp. In my opinion, Tom’s been going backwards.
He’s at a stage now where he needs to decided where his career is going. He needs to get mentally stronger and back to a frame of mind where he’s happy and confident in himself. Judging by his body language, I’d say his confidence is flagging. As much as he’ll be loathe to leave this club, sometimes a clean break is the best thing for you. That’s his call and his decision, and whatever happens I hope it works out for him. He’s a good, honest lad.
Further up the field, I still have doubts about how many chances we’re going to create and how many goals we’re going to score. Yes, we need another striker and that goes without saying, but it was blindingly obvious at Chesterfield that the service to the players who might get us goals wasn’t good enough.
Matt Smith had very little to feed on and Steve Morison was the same, Evidently Swindon was better and the chances flowed more easily but we’re about to come up against far more dangerous opposition. I’d favour the addition of a proper wideman, just to take advantage of the height and power we’ve got up front. Someone like Matt Smith will feed on crosses all day.
Essentially, this is very much a work in progress and I think it could be a few weeks into the season before we’re firing on all cylinders. But it’s encouraging to hear of improvement and especially good to know that some of the new signings are starting to click. In a weeks’ time, they’ll find out what English football is really like.