After the performance of centre-backs Giuseppe Bellusci and Sol Bamba at Middlesbrough on Sunday, United head coach Uwe Rosler now has some important decisions to make about his defence. Phil Hay reports.
There were periods of the summer transfer window where Uwe Rosler thought about bringing another centre-back to Leeds United. In the week before the deadline he went to Bury to watch Liam Moore turn out for Leicester City in a League Cup tie at Gigg Lane.
Leeds held off from signing Moore and he went on loan to Bristol City, a move which has not worked out as the 22-year-old thought it might. But Rosler’s interest in Moore, a defender who sought far more than a seat on the bench, revealed an element of doubt in his mind about United’s strength and depth at the back.
Rosler’s centre-backs failed him at Middlesbrough on Sunday, conspiring to deliver the unusual statistic of three goals conceded to a team who produced only two shots on target. The performances of Giuseppe Bellusci and Sol Bamba invited harsh scrutiny afterwards but so too Rosler’s decision to pair those players in the middle of his defence.
United’s head coach was asked to explain the thinking behind Bellusci’s recall and the demotion of Liam Cooper to the bench. Cooper had started the five previous league games and, alongside Bamba, withstood extreme pressure in a 2-1 win at MK Dons eight days earlier.
Rosler kept his reasons to himself, saying that he was “unable to tell you everything” but admitting that some of his five changes at The Riverside were not tactical. Bellusci’s inclusion in particular came at a high cost.
Bamba and Cooper has been Rosler’s partnership of choice since the middle of last month. Statistically, it has also been his most consistent in terms of the concession of goals and the general form of those two players.
Cooper is left-footed and the most natural choice as Rosler’s left-sided centre-back.
With Bamba in that role on Sunday, a cheap concession to David Nugent after two minutes was followed by Bellusci’s own goal before half-time. Defeat was almost inevitable from there.
Bamba was himself guilty of a critical error, slipping and leaving Diego Fabbrini to round off a 3-0 defeat in the 81st minute, but United’s captain is the one fixture in his position. The 30-year-old has started and finished all of the club’s Championship fixtures and analysis of his displays bears out Rosler’s faith in him: the highest pass completion rate of all three centre-backs and by some distance the most dominant in the air with 71 per cent of headers won. His clearances and his interceptions number twice as many as Cooper and Bellusci combined.
The comparison between Cooper and Bellusci is more borderline while supporting the theory that Bamba and Cooper is the most reliable pairing available to Rosler. Goals conceded tell a story alone: six in three games when Bellusci has started and five in six with Cooper in the team. Aerially, Cooper outperforms Bellusci with 62 per cent of headers won to the Italian’s 50 per cent. He was also on the pitch on the afternoon of Leeds’ only clean sheet, away at Reading on August 16.
Rosler resisted any temptation to level criticism at specific players after Sunday’s defeat to Boro, saying he and his coaching staff would analyse replays of the game this morning before “giving feedback”.
“It would be unfair after losing 3-0 to go into details about individual players,” Rosler said. “I saw the game, you saw the game and that is where we should leave it.
“We weren’t on it in the decisive moments and that’s a learning curve but I got answers and we move on. Many things we did were right.”
Rosler and Boro’s manager, Aitor Karanka, agreed that the final score at The Riverside did not reflect a game in which all three of the goals were gifted. Rosler conceded that Boro’s “ruthless” finishing was one explanation for their position near the very top of the Championship, a point behind leaders Brighton.
“In the first half we were right in the game,” Rosler said. “The first time the ball came into our box, we didn’t clear it and they punished us.
“The second goal we scored. There was nothing between the teams.
“They punished us and we learn the lesson. They were very effective and that’s what you get when you have their sort of quality.
“They don’t create tonnes of chances but they are deadly.”
Rosler was hampered beforehand by the loss of Chris Wood to an injury which the German opted not to explain.
The striker is a doubt for this weekend’s game against Birmingham City with Rosler saying he was unable to specify a timescale for Wood’s comeback but predicting that Wood would not be “out for long”.
Despite the result and the defensive errors, Rosler insisted he had come away from Middlesbrough with confidence that his plan and his players were still “progressing”.
Rosler said: “In every game there have been periods that I was happy with.
“Obviously I’m not happy with this result and we live in a results-orientated business but there was a lot of good stuff and we’re progressing. I see progression against a top team.
“My colleague (Karanka) with Steve Gibson have done a great job. They’ve formed a team with great balance and they are driving through to promotion. But we did many things right.”