The Whites play their first match under new head coach Garry Monk in Dublin tonight. He has been busy in the transfer market and on the training field with the new season three weeks away. Phil Hay reports.
Monk knows where he wants the club to go over the course of his reign at Elland Road but pre-season is the “condensed” version of his ideas – as much of a message as he can convey in a short timeframe.
It started for him as first-team boss on June 2 and it starts in earnest at Shelbourne tonight, the first of United’s five summer friendlies. Their schedule of games is less packed than it has been in previous years and Monk will use the match in Dublin primarily as a fitness exercise, but in the mould of a coach who had his players doing ball-work on the first day of pre-season, he will also ask them to start bringing his “identity” to the fore.
At their best, Monk’s teams at Swansea City were teams who liked to play. Leeds are a division further down the pyramid and naturally weaker in resources than Swansea but the 37-year-old’s style is likely to be ingrained. He has Pep Clotet as his assistant and James Beattie as first-team coach, both of whom were on his staff at the Liberty Stadium. A philosophy, or a distinctive approach, is something Monk thinks Leeds have been lacking for some time.
“I’ve got an identity and I talked to the players about that at the start,” he said, talking ahead of this evening’s friendly. “I feel that we’ve not had a culture or an identity at the club for quite a long time. For me it’s important that we build that. It’s how I work. As a manager, some of what you put in place can take a long time to get to perfection or to get to where you’re completely happy. We’re trying to condense that into a six-week period so there’s a lot going on. It’s a longer process to get it perfect but we have to condense it and then build on it as the weeks go by in the season.”
It is often said that head coaches at Leeds are denied the privilege of a honeymoon period, or even a period of grace, but football across England is more and more ruthless and increasingly expectant of managers like Monk. The country’s top four divisions saw 54 managerial changes last season, a figure the League Managers Association called a “disgrace”. Fourteen of those were made by Championship clubs, Leeds included.
In a short time, however, Monk, Massimo Cellino and Leeds’ new chief executive Ben Mansford have started the type of overhaul which was badly needed after last season’s unremarkable finish. Lewis Cook’s sale to Bournemouth in a £10m deal last week was inevitably contentious but United have succeeded in clearing out several fringe members of their squad.
Tommaso Bianchi is joining Ascoli full-time and Giuseppe Bellusci’s departure for Empoli on loan removed a defender who was widely seen as a bad apple and a nuisance. For Casper Sloth, his transfer to Aalborg ended a long-standing routine in which the midfielder seemed to be doing nothing more than checking into Thorp Arch on the right days at the right times.
On the back of the signing of goalkeeper Robert Green. Marco Silvestri – now back in England working with Leeds’ Under-21s – will move on if United can find a buyer.
Green is one of six signings made since Monk’s arrival and at 36, by far the most experienced. All of them are expected to feature at Tolka Park tonight.
United toyed with the possibility of making former Watford centre-back Joel Ekstrand their seventh recruit but long-held concerns about the centre-back’s record of injuries saw the club step away from a deal. Another central defender is still expected to arrive.
“When you’re recruiting, you’re looking for certain characteristics,” Monk said. “The club understood what we needed and we’re working well together. I’m more than confident that that will continue. We want to go into the season with a squad we want, especially strength-wise.
“I don’t want to single out individual players (who have signed). I’m more about the team and the squad and we just need to make the squad that little bit stronger. But the club’s working hard to make sure we do.”
The meeting with Shelbourne ends a week-and-a-half of preparation at Leeds’ training camp near Dublin. Monk took his players to Ireland at an early stage of pre-season, training at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown to isolate them and sharpen their concentration. “There’s no distraction,” Monk said. “They know what they’re here for.
“In terms of how the players are working and adapting, it’s been very pleasing so far. There’s a lot of information for them to take in and a lot of work physically so they’re under a lot of stress but they’re adapting. It takes a lot of organisation but I feel experienced at this now and what I want to do is very clear.
“What you’ve got to understand when you’re a new manager coming to the club, players have been used to working in a certain way for a period before. A new manager comes in with new ideas, a new way of training and a new approach, and it’s a lot of information for you to compute while your body’s under stress physically. It’s a lot to cope with but if you want to play at the highest level and be the best, or compete with the best, this is what you have to deal with.”
Monk said he was equally keen to apply that thinking to United’s support, a following which will be heavily represented in a crowd of around 3,000 tonight.
“It’s important that we use that to galvanise ourselves, not fear anything like that,” Monk said. “Sometimes when you have a big following it can put added pressure on you. Something I’ll be working on this season is to use that to our advantage.”