“If the manager plays the best players in their best positions, he is then in the happy position of only needing to employ the oldest and most successful of all tactics since the game was invented: when his team has the ball, every player is obliged to use it as constructively as possible, and when his team doesn’t have the ball, every player makes an honest effort to get it back.”
Johnny Giles. Making football sound as simple as he made it look. It helps if the players in question are as elite and precocious as the players he grew up with at Leeds United but football is only ever as complex as a manager chooses to make it. There are, inevitably, some on the circuit who over-think, over-coach and over-complicate their jobs.
Uwe Rosler’s predicament is not one of over-complication. He’s a thinker and perfectionist who wants everything to be just-so but 4-3-3 is more than a contrived way of displaying his nous. He trusts the formation and it has worked for him before. With the right players and the right amount of coaching – and therein lies the rub after four short months as head coach – it should work for him at Leeds.
The halfway house for him at present would be to find a home for Mirco Antenucci within that system. Rosler was justified in complaining after Saturday’s draw with Brentford that his tactics were being picked apart before they’d had time to bed in but Antenucci’s role is a valid topic of debate. His finishing has been sharp, his attitude is good and he has rid himself of the shoot-on-sight policy which served nobody particularly well last season. He and Chris Wood have dovetailed nicely. It takes a high level of performance to keep a striker like that on the bench and his recall against Ipswich on Tuesday was unavoidable.
What Antenucci lacks is versatility. He doesn’t want to play as a wide forward and he has never looked especially suited to that position. He looks no happier as a lone striker either. That is no slight on his ability or his professionalism. Ross McCormack was no good at that job either. But if Rosler is playing Antenucci, he is playing two up front. Which breaks apart his 4-3-3.
The attraction of Rosler’s favoured formation is easy to understand. Modern football focuses more and more on a strong, dominant midfield and the monopoly of possession in the centre of the pitch. Leeds gave Derby the runaround last month and Derby reacted the following week by paying £10m for two midfielders, Jacob Butterfield and Bradley Johnson. It was no coincidence and no half-measure. On the contrary, Johnson’s move broke their transfer record.
In form, Tom Adeyemi is a 6’1” obstacle. In form, Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook can carry the ball directly and at pace. Rosler’s wingers feel more attached and Chris Wood looks less isolated. Rosler has far too many midfielders to accommodate and keep happy in a 4-4-2 line-up. That is no excuse for disregarding the formation but it does underline the thinking behind his summer recruitment and the extent to which Rosler would be changing tack. His signings were made for a reason. His squad is raw for a reason.
United’s midfield clicked at Derby and the result there was well earned. That same midfield toiled against Brentford and Brentford were able to walk the ball out under a fraction of the pressure that Derby came under. Leeds found themselves looking to the bench for a goal. In comparison, Ipswich on Tuesday was an unmitigated failure and one which might shift Rosler back to his original way of thinking at MK Dons this weekend. Good days, not-so-good days and bad nights. It tends to be how management goes. Rosler was prepared for his share of all three.
He should expect to face inquisitions after individual performances which fall short. That’s the nature of football and supporters who pay to take a view go home talking about what they’ve seen. What they’ve seen either impressed or it didn’t. But that is very different to burdening Rosler with attempts to draw long-term conclusions about his players, his tactics or his formation after each and every weekend.
He will do better at Elland Road without the pressure of impulsive judgement. The club have been trying to shake that habit for several years.
Over time results will answer the bigger questions. They always do. But Leeds promised that this season was about measured progress, rather than a year hell-bent on promotion, and that promise in principle should give Rosler two things: actual targets to meet – a top-10 finish is what he talks about – alongside the freedom to do his thing, stick to his script and ride out mistakes when they occur. Which is to say that 4-4-2 should be his option as and when it feels right to him.
Not because any of us are calling for it.