A blank canvas is how Garry Monk described Leeds United and the club’s pre-season was exactly that. In the summer of 2015, when Leeds parachuted Uwe Rosler into Elland Road, he had the advantage of landing on several pre-arranged friendlies. Monk was given the more difficult job of filling an empty diary.
It was, in his view, no great handicap but if Monk is in situ in 12 months’ time, his plan for next summer will surely look different.
He might head to the continent instead of touring Dublin and seek Bundesliga opponents over League of Ireland reserves. He might want a more difficult fixture than Guiseley away for United’s third games and avoid back-to-back matches in the space of 24 hours. This year Monk made the best of a very quick turnaround.
So if Leeds were anxious at QPR on Sunday or caught cold in the sun, perhaps it was destined to be that way. Neil Redfearn left Rosler several friendlies to work with, so much so that Rosler was able to ditch a trip to Ireland and visit Austria and Norway instead, but Monk worked against the clock for the past two months. His introduction brings to mind the cliche of a coach who needs time and a fair crack of the whip. It applies to Monk as readily as any of his predecessors.
Apprehension or nervousness was apparent at Loftus Road but there were other factors in a 3-0 defeat too. For all that Leeds were uncreative and loose beyond the halfway line, the game was lost at the back, in the area of the team where United are still most exposed. The club took a risk by going to London with two fit centre-backs and a right-back who last played in April. Sebastian Polter weighed into Monk’s defence in the manner of someone who had been told to probe for some fragility. His effective aggression was transparently intentional.
Leeds have been looking for another centre-back since the start of the transfer window and have picked over several right-backs since the middle of pre-season. Liam Bridcutt’s mooted arrival – another defensive addition in its own way – is stuck at the final hurdle of who will shoulder the cost of the difference between his Premier League salary at Sunderland and a Championship wage at Elland Road. If a bad opening day serves a purpose it might be in heightening the urgency of talks at Leeds. The club have not pulled up the drawbridge after seven signings and Monk anticipates another two or three additions, potentially in the next 48 hours. Like David Hockaday’s squad two years ago, the first day of the season told a few stories.
Monk’s teams have the capacity to play better and some of their football in pre-season set a much higher benchmark.
But the mood at Leeds is exceptionally delicate and the loss of patience among the away crowd at Loftus Road, the militant reaction at the end of one game, reiterated what Monk said last month about honeymoon periods. For a head coach in England they barely exist and managing Leeds does not simply involve the present day it involves wrestling with history too.
As was true of Southampton away under Simon Grayson in 2011, it was not the loss to QPR itself which provoked so much anger as the horrible fear that this season might be like so many others before it. And yet it goes down as a single league game – a microcosm for drawing telling conclusions.
This season more than any other is one where the fairest gauge of United’s squad will be at the end of the transfer window. The emergency loan market no longer exists and clubs are compelled to hold their peace at the end of August; no promises of further signings and no credibility in claiming that their business isn’t finished. Monk will get more players, that goes without saying, and the direction of this season is dependent on them.
His first game as United’s head coach won’t sit comfortably with him or provide any cuttings for the family scrapbook but there were reasons for it and reasons that Leeds and Monk can address. It is fair for him to ask that people take a view on him over 46 games. And reasonable to expect that United will do the same.