Midway through Leeds United’s pre-season tour of Ireland, the club’s players put their feet up and watched the final of Euro 2016. Nearby, United’s coaching staff sat and analysed the game, taking notes and making tactical observations.
It was that attention to detail that took Garry Monk to various clubs and various sports during his time between jobs. Modern-day coaching needs a broad outlook and a passion for innovation. To quote Monk: “How else do you learn?”
Uwe Rosler was like that: meticulous, diligent and never far away from a video analysis session. But in the short time he was given at Elland Road, Rosler’s heavy-metal football was blunt and on the leash. It was, for him, as harsh lesson: that stringent preparation might produce results but it is no substitute for them. When Monk said last month that there was “no such thing as a honeymoon period for managers anymore”, it told you that he was not counting on forgiveness.
This season, United’s season, hinges on Monk. The early impression of him is of a driven and imaginative coach, sufficiently qualified to be managing a monster of a club and free from the divided opinion which followed Steve Evans into Leeds. The best of his football in pre-season was properly structured and positively aggressive in a way that Rosler’s teams never quite achieved. It was not that Rosler’s players had any problem with him. His intended tactics simply failed to click quickly enough to save his neck.
Coaching and tactical nous will be crucial with the existing squad at Elland Road. There are certain groups of players who would win the Championship or compete for promotion under almost any boss. Chris Hughton’s Newcastle United were that machine and Rafael Benitez’s might be again but Leeds, as it stands, are different – a mixture of talent, inexperience, unpredictability and potential. They will not simply fly of their own accord but with Monk they have a chance. Massimo Cellino’s investment in the 37-year-old was his best decision in a long time. It has not been difficult for the club’s support to invest in Monk either.
With a coach so young, this should be a long game; a longer game than Cellino has played with any previous incumbent. United’s season-ticket offer, which encouraged increased sales in excess of 14,000, pinned a seven-figure liability to the nine months ahead, guaranteeing partial refunds if the club don’t make the play-offs, but that was not Monk’s initiative and it should not be his responsibility. It should certainly be irrelevant when it comes to judging his performance. He is as new to Elland Road as Rosler was and his resources do not make the play-offs a doddle. Leeds must set out with two initial aims this season: to at least be in the running when the clocks go forward and for Monk to make it into a second year in charge. Anything less will be a repeat of a very tired sequence.
There is promise in his squad and arguably more than Leeds have had at this time of year for a while. In future years the club will look at Lewis Cook and chide themselves for letting another exceptional footballer get away but it is debatable as to whether they will miss him greatly in the isolated period of these nine months ahead.
If that sounds like short-term thinking then it is, and so is much of the approach to this season. Kemar Roofe, the pick of the signings, is tied down for four years and Marcus Antonsson is here for three. But four of United’s other recruits are loanees and Rob Green has a 12-month deal. So too does Monk. It is patently obvious that Leeds are working here and now, with a view to this season rather than beyond.
Over the duration of several campaigns, Liam Bridcutt will not compensate for the loss of the ability Cook has. But Leeds can easily shore up their midfield by signing Bridcutt now.
In front of Bridcutt’s patch, Monk would back this squad to score more goals than United amassed last season. Wood will make double figures, Roofe will chip in with finishes and assists and he and Stuart Dallas threaten to give United’s attacking line proper balance out wide for the first time since Snodgrass and Gradel. In any sort of shape and form, Pablo Hernandez can find a niche as Monk’s number 10.
Monk might see more risk in players like Hadi Sacko, Marcus Antonsson, Jordan Botaka and Souleymane Doukara, or even Alex Mowatt, but he has the benefit of variety and of players who can turn a game.
Rosler went to Reading on the second weekend of last season with a bench of Doukara, Ross Turnbull, Scott Wootton, Giuseppe Bellusci, Luke Murphy, Micro Antenucci and Lee Erwin. A head coach in the Championship would hardly covet that choice. There are weaknesses in this group too, as anyone can see.
Monk is going into bat at Queens Park Rangers on Sunday with two fully-fit centre-backs, a first-choice right-back who missed all of United’s pre-season friendlies and a first-choice left-back who began this week by submitting a transfer request. In terms of Leeds’ nett investment, there are clubs in the Championship who have spent considerably more.
But equally, there are swathes of the division who are yet to get their act together or raise their business to an impressive level. Five or six clubs have more clout than the rest. Below them is a huge open field which Leeds can expect to compete in.
And, of course, there is Cellino, the lord of the manor. The summer is usually the best of times for him – the stage before results come into play and his emotions start to run riot. But if Monk is the lynchpin then Cellino’s duty is to keep him oiled and let him work in a fair environment with fair targets and reasonable restraint.
Leeds are onto a good thing with Monk. He’s a coach with a brain and a coach with a plan. Some patient commitment to that plan would be nice.
Phil Hay’s 2016/17 season predictions
Champions: Newcastle United
Automatic promotion: Brighton and Hove Albion
Play-offs: Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, Norwich City, Cardiff City
Relegation: Burton Albion, Rotherham United, Bristol City
Leeds United’s finishing position: 8th
Leeds United’s top goalscorer: Chris Wood
Leeds United’s player of the year: Kemar Roofe
Leeds United’s young player of the year: Ronaldo Vieira.