There are clearly problems at Leeds United – the Championship table tells you that – but nothing has been more problematic than the club’s inconsistency.
Leeds have had their moments this season. They’ve had days where the football has clicked, where the players have come good and beaten decent teams. Derby at home and Bournemouth away are the prime examples. You won’t get many better sides in the Championship than those.
The reality is that the squad haven’t been able to sustain their performance.
Individual players, with odd exceptions, haven’t been able to sustain their performances.
And when it all boils down, you find yourself halfway through the season and in the middle of a big relegation battle.
Rodolph Austin kind of proves my point. I’m not singling him out for any other reason than the fact that most of us expected him to move on from Leeds this month. The rumour mill suggested that the club would listen to offers for him, but I’m not sure, in their position, I’d be happy to lose him. And I certainly wouldn’t be sending him to another Championship club at risk of relegation.
Austin was fairly immense at Sunderland last weekend and he has that sort of display in his locker.
When he’s in the mood or when a particular game lets him play as he likes, he’s almost unstoppable.
The difficulty for him – and I’m sure this frustrates him as much as anybody – is that those performances don’t come often enough. There are times when he’s ineffective. But in truth, plenty of Leeds’ players have been ineffectual in patches of the season. The results aren’t down to one area or one specific thing.
What might help Austin and others besides him is the change of formation we’re seeing. The diamond midfield hasn’t really done the job for Leeds, which isn’t to say it’s a bad way to play. It can work and it can work well but it relies on big games from players in certain positions and it gives you very little margin for error.
Your key men are you’re full-backs. The only way you get width in a diamond is by using full-backs as wing-backs. They need to be fitter than anyone and they need to be able to get up and down the field from the first minute to the 90th. It’s a huge ask and not every defender has that amount or running in them.
In front of the back four, your defensive midfielder is also vital, not just in terms of protecting the centre-backs but also in terms of organising the team.
He’s got to see the gaps when the full-backs go forward and he’s got to direct people to cover. Any breakdown in communication and you’ll find that the team gets dragged out of position or caught short at the back. As I said, you need everything to be spot on.
With the 4-2-3-1 system, the full-backs can concentrate on defending first and foremost. It’s useful if they can provide support going forward but the onus isn’t on them to attack. With more players in defence, the midfielders are a bit freer to look up the pitch rather than over their shoulders. It’s the sort of strategy that should bring the best out of someone like Austin. He’s a big, physical midfielder but it’s perfectly obvious that he isn’t defensively-minded. He’s at his best when he’s bombing over 40 yards, running the opposition into the ground. In a midfield two, like he was at Sunderland, there’s far less risk involved with him playing his natural game.
On the flip side, there’s an onus on Austin to turn in his A-game more often than he has. He doesn’t look like the dynamo he was a couple of years ago. But would I let him join Brighton or Millwall in the January window? Would I heck. They’re in direct competition with Leeds near the bottom of the Championship and I could see him doing a job for either of them. It’s far too big a risk.
Football is notorious for players coming back to bite their old clubs on the backside. The last thing you want is a player biting you on the backside by sending you down. Austin’s had a tough season as a lot of the players have but when I look at the squad he’s the type who I could see making a crucial difference between now and the end of the season. Personally, I’d keep him.