It is often said that in-form teams pick themselves. The question for Simon Grayson tomorrow is what to do with the side run ragged by Swansea City. For the first time in many weeks, Leeds United’s manager finds himself pondering the merits of ruthless changes.
Complete overhauls are not generally his style.
Since late October, Grayson’s line-ups have been a picture of stability. Four of the players used at the Liberty Stadium last Saturday started United’s previous 19 games, and four others started more than 10.
Bradley Johnson’s one-match ban ended a sequence of 40 consecutive appearances, this season and last. As Grayson later admitted, the midfielder was missed.
Johnson’s recall against Doncaster Rovers is one of the probabilities in Grayson’s mind but it would take a leap of faith on the 41-year-old’s part to leave his alterations there.
The strength of the reserve team used at Hull City on Wednesday was a suggestion that the wider reaches of United’s squad might come into play at Elland Road tomorrow. Grayson would not be required to justify an exchange of shirts.
His captain, Jonathan Howson, warned this week against an “over-reaction” to Leeds’ 3-0 defeat at Swansea – a loss which placed automatic promotion in a doubtful context and left United to concentrate on protecting the Championship’s last play-off position. But Howson is schooled enough to know that results of that nature rarely pass without consequence. Grayson had nothing good to say about the standard of the performance in Wales.
The defeat heightened the significance of tomorrow’s derby, compounding points lost by Leeds against Norwich City and Barnsley last month. Grayson never speaks of must-win fixtures but nothing else will satisfy him against a Doncaster team ravaged by injuries and limiting their immediate ambition to a safe league position.
United have Leicester City on their tail, two points back and most prominent among the clubs beneath the play-off places.
“The reason you have a squad is so you can change the team when you need to,” Grayson said. “But ultimately you have to look at the bigger picture and say we’ve lost two games in 22 with a similar group of players playing regularly.
“I’m not too sure what the team will be yet but if I need to make changes then I can. A few of the lads who played against Hull did so because they needed some football. Some of them might actually start tomorrow. I’ve got options if I want to use them.
“When you look at the Swansea game, as poor as we were, we still created chances and had a major penalty decision go against us. If that had gone for us then I think we’d have got something from the game. When you lose 3-0 you can over-react and drop six or seven players. That won’t be the case. If I do make changes then it’ll be one or two.
“The bigger picture is what we’ve done over 22 games and you have to be a little bit loyal. But equally, sometimes you have to show loyalty to the players who’ve been out of the team and fighting for a place.”
United’s manager devoted further attention to the emergency loan market this week with a new midfielder proving unexpectedly elusive, but the reserve team fielded against Hull made the point that Grayson is not without existing internal options.
A strikeforce of Billy Paynter and Ross McCormack comprised of two players who, in his words, were among Leeds “biggest signings” last summer, and Sanchez Watt, Ramon Nunez and Adam Clayton fed that partnership from midfield.McCormack and Watt scored in a 3-1 win, the latter demonstrating reliable fitness after several weeks spent recovering from a hamstring strain.
Leeds’ defence included club captain Richard Naylor and left-back Ben Parker, both of whom offer alternatives in a back line picked apart by Swansea, Barnsley and Norwich. Leigh Bromby provides another.
Grayson talked before the trip to Wales of peripheral players “desperate” for a chance to figure in a starting line-up that has invited few alterations in the past four months. A heavy defeat at the Liberty Stadium has given him a possible reason to satisfy them.
“I think that result throws things up in the air for everybody,” said Parker, who played for the final 17 minutes in Swansea and completed the full 90 against Hull. “The performance was well below par as we’re all aware and no-one in that starting XI will be guaranteed a place tomorrow.
“You can see that with the strong team we put out in the reserves and the fact that the first-team staff were there to watch us. All you can do is prepare properly and hope to get a chance. I’m pushing as hard as I can but it’s up to the manager if he picks me.
“I always prepare as if I’m going to play, whether the team have had a bad result or not. An injury can happen on Friday morning or someone can be taken ill on Saturday. You’re always ready to step into their shoes.”
Grayson was asked twice last week whether he had set a target of points or a likely benchmark for entering the play-offs. He replied that he had not and had no intention of doing so. Nevertheless, the traditional total of 70 is likely to be sufficient in a division which stands much as it did 12 months ago.
Leeds have 54 points, two more than the number which kept Cardiff City in sixth place after 34 games last season.
In theory, six victories stand between United and the play-offs. With that precise number of fixtures to come at Elland Road, the significance of United’s form in West Yorkshire will not have passed their manager by. Successive home wins over Southend United, MK Dons and Bristol Rovers were priceless during the closing month of last season.
Doncaster are in a vulnerable state and deprived of several players through injury but their win at Derby County on Tuesday night was a useful reminder that Sean O’Driscoll’s squad were identified as play-off material in August.
“Football’s never so easy,” Grayson said. “I know that Doncaster take a lot of pride in their performances under Sean.
“At one stage they were in the top ten but they’ve had this bad run of injuries and it does take its toll. It happened with us at the start of the season. But they’re a talented team who always play the game the right way.”