At no stage of this season have I been happy or comfortable with Leeds United’s defence.
People talk about defending from the front, and the better teams do, but I always feel that the long and short of a solid record is the quality of the lads at the back.
Take our Champions League team as an example. We always performed as a collective group but there’s no doubt at all that our success and our results came down in part to having Lucas Radebe, Rio Ferdinand, Gary Kelly and Ian Harte. These were guys who could go for weeks and months without putting a foot wrong. No matter what went on in front of them, they kept their side of the bargain and defended as David O’Leary expected them to.
I accept that I’m talking about top-class professionals who played out their careers way above Championship level but the point I’m making is that a strong defensive record is built on a strong defence. The current Leeds squad have many strengths and qualities but, to be brutally honest, preventing goals is not one of them. I’m starting to wonder how heavily the cost of that is going to be.
You can’t avoid a sense of anxiety when you see a game like last weekend’s defeat at Swansea City. Let’s not beat around the bush – Leeds were dismal. The players looked flat going forward (unusually for them) and weak whenever Swansea had a go. In short, that is absolutely typical of the season as a whole.
The major worry for me recently has been the sight of the same players making the same sort of mistakes over and over again. I’m not going to name names but they know who they are. We all commit errors and we all have moments of madness, but when I was a young footballer, the need to learn from mistakes was made abundantly clear. It was almost a case of three strikes and you’re out – one blunder is forgivable and two we can live with. But any more than that? Not a chance.
As harsh as it sounds, a defender who can’t see out nine or 10 matches without handicapping his side is a liability. You might get away with that in League One, but not at a higher level. My coaches at Liverpool used to warn me that I’d pay for inconsistency with a long spell out of the team. That’s the reality of life at the top level. A club with ambition cannot afford passengers.
I wouldn’t say Leeds are carrying too many of those at present but a symptom of this side is their inability to address and eradicate errors. Too many of the goals they’re conceding are described in the press as soft, cheap or charitable. That must offer encouragement to other clubs.
This weekend, my first thought is that Leeds against Doncaster Rovers will be a straightforward home win. But if I was a Doncaster player, I’d be telling myself that we could easily get a couple of goals at Elland Road.
Leeds are better than most when it comes to attacking football but if the club want this season to be more than a satisfactory term, they can’t continue in this vein. Relying on strikers to score three or fours times catches up with you eventually.
As Leeds found out at Swansea, they’re in big trouble when that area of their team doesn’t click.
In the past fortnight, the club have conceded two goals to Norwich City, three to Barnsley and three to Swansea. Someone must answer for that. I don’t think it’s acceptable for the same team and the same players to be sent out week after week when their performances are clearly failing in one department. It’s Simon Grayson’s responsibility as manager to read the riot act. Certain individuals are letting him down and they can’t accuse him of being impatient.
That said, I look through the squad at Leeds and I wonder if Simon has the players he needs to make the right changes. There’s a big range of options when it comes to scoring goals but I actually think that the defence as it stands is the strongest unit available to him on paper (with the possible exception of Paul Connolly). From within, there is no glaring answer to the fact that Leeds have leaked 55 goals in 34 league matches.
Should the club have done more in the transfer window and bettered themselves when they had the chance? My gut feeling is yes. Perhaps Simon was reluctant to upset a squad who’d done well up until then but being ruthless is a manager’s prerogative. The club had a great chance – and it’s still there to be taken – but I fear with hindsight that they missed an opportunity to really turn the screw.
I’m with anyone who believes that this season has now come down to the play-offs. As the table stands, I don’t expect Leeds to claim second place. If you look back through any number of Championship years, you’ll find very few clubs who won automatic promotion while conceding almost two goals a game. It doesn’t happen. Some say that defending starts at the front. I’d argue as strongly that success begins at the back.
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