As a ‘head coach’ Garry Monk has actually ‘managed’ the side incredibly well this season – on a modest budget and with one of the smallest Championship squads he’s likely to come across. Phil Hay reports.
History will record that Garry Monk turned Leeds United around with a budget best described as modest, at least by the standards of the Championship. It will also show that he cracked the top six with as small a squad as he is likely to manage.
Leeds, as Monk regularly tells us, are all about “the group” and a collective attitude but their results in the Championship are not the legacy of a cast of thousands. No head coach in the division has relied on fewer players than Monk this season and a total of 25 used in the club’s league schedule tallies with a definite trend of compact, consistent squads making positive headway.
Leeds have never fielded more than 44 in one season, a dubious record set on the way to relegation from the Championship in 2006-07. An excessive turnover of players, first under Kevin Blackwell and then with John Carver and Dennis Wise in charge, was symptomatic of crippling fragility on the pitch and behind the scenes. Leeds were destitute and essentially insolvent. Without any serious money to play with, Wise threw endless darts hoping one would hit the bullseye. Bit-part contributions from Armando Sa, Robbie Elliott, Ugo Ehiogu, Graham Stack and Jemal Johnson offered no continuity.
The Championship this season tells a similar story. Leeds and Huddersfield Town, fourth and third respectively with eight games to go, have limited themselves to 25 players. None of the top seven have used more than 28.
The creep over 30 comes at the bottom of the table, where desperate results have encouraged desperate measures. Wigan Athletic have gone through 39 during a year spent in the relegation zone. Nottingham Forest are up to 38 and might yet go down.
Monk wanted a slightly deeper pool than he has and a new centre-forward went begging in both transfer windows but it was never his intention to carry a bloated squad. He released Sol Bamba at the end of August because he was worried about the club’s captain hovering around Thorp Arch with no prospect of playing. Luke Murphy and Toumani Diagouraga were sent to train with the Under-23s for the same reason and then released on loan in January. Monk suggested in the early stages of the campaign that a tight squad might potentially be an “advantage” to him. “It’s not good to have players at the training ground who know they won’t be playing,” he said.
The narrow division of responsibility at Leeds is even more striking when fleeting appearances are removed. Diagouraga played once before moving to Ipswich Town, in an opening-day defeat to Queens Park Rangers. Bamba made two league outings and Matt Grimes, Lewie Coyle and Alex Mowatt – sold to Barnsley for £600,000 in January – amassed fewer than 10 starts between them. Monk’s project has been built on a core of around 20 professionals, of which only Rob Green is ever-present in the Championship.
Despite that, there is a sense of freshness in certain areas of his team. Among his outfield players Monk has weighed heavily on Kyle Bartley, Chris Wood and Luke Ayling, starting them in almost every league fixture and omitting them only when circumstances forced him to. Pontus Jansson, however, is still to make his 30th league appearance and Charlie Taylor’s Achilles injury shared the load at left-back between him and Gaetano Berardi.
Injuries have had a similar effect in the centre of midfield, a position where Leeds are prone to inconsistency but where Monk has viable options. Liam Bridcutt missed three months of the season with a broken foot bone and Eunan O’Kane missed two with a groin strain. Neither player has made 20 starts.
Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips are in the same boat: regularly used but not to excess. There has been no reason to stretch either youngster in the way that Leeds thrashed Lewis Cook last season. Cook was United’s youngest outfield player during the 2015-16 term. He was also the only outfield player to start more than 40 matches.
Monk has numerous permutations open to him at Reading next weekend with Phillips available after a two-game ban.
Monk’s commitment to a small group and a group of his choosing was best displayed in December when, in the absence of Bridcutt and O’Kane, a red card shown to Phillips away at Brighton left Leeds several short of midfielders. United’s head coach had the option of asking Diagouraga or Murphy for help but chose to rush Bridcutt back from his foot injury instead, standing by his decision to declare the alternatives surplus to requirements.
Murphy, who has two years remaining on his contract at Elland Road, was subsequently sent on loan to Burton Albion in the January transfer window.
A £1m signing who was never able to make himself stick at Leeds, he has helped to keep Burton above the bottom three and in touch with the field in their first-ever season in the Championship. The 27-year-old told the Burton Mail: “That’s why I came – I wanted to get back playing. I missed the first half of the season but I wanted to come somewhere, enjoy it again and get back to loving football which this club has helped me to do.
“I’ll always be thankful for that and fighting to keep Burton in this division gives me a purpose (for) playing week in, week out. I’d much rather that than just go and play for the sake of playing somewhere.”