Research has shown that the fabled bounce from appointing a new manager is often exactly that: in all but a small number of cases, no more than a short spike in form which soon regresses to its former level.
If Leeds United thought Paul Heckingbottom would turn their season into gold, they were blind to the fact that the average squad is only as good as its results. A month with Heckingbottom as head coach has shown that analysis of a head coach’s short-term impact to be largely accurate. There has, in terms of Leeds’ results alone, been no discernible bounce since Thomas Christiansen’s sacking last month and there is nowhere left for the club to point the finger, other than at the squad itself and the process which brought it together.
Christiansen’s flaws not withstanding, Leeds have morphed into a mid-table team since last season and it might be that Andrea Radrizzani realised as much when he paid Barnsley £500,000 for Heckingbottom in February.
“If we perform like the last month there is no chance,” he said on the morning after his appointment.
Seven games later there is no chance of the play-offs, not even to the most optimistic mind, and it is intriguing to wonder how comfortably this short period sits with Heckingbottom.
One win and six points epitomises his view that Leeds need more than a new voice or a change of managerial tack to mix with the Championship’s better teams, and he joined a club which is already yearning for the headspace that will come at the end of the season.
“It’s enjoyable because it’s what I wanted to do,” he said of his job last week. “But after speaking to Leeds I felt there was a lot needed doing, which was an appeal and not scary.”
The biggest shift under Heckingbottom has come in his selection of players and the transparent questioning of almost every position. He has dropped his first-choice goalkeeper and replaced him with a 21-year-old, without promising that his 21-year-old will be left to see out the season. He has used almost every first-team squad member, with the exception of Pawel Cibicki and two injured players in Tyler Roberts and Andy Lonergan, and shown an intolerance of certain dubious performances. Felix Wiedwald lasted five games in goal and was replaced after his composure deserted him at Middlesbrough.
Laurens De Bock is new to England but did not survive a muddled night at Derby County.
Heckingbottom’s examination of his squad has led to some peculiar swings in fortune – Eunan O’Kane named as captain against Sheffield United and then failing to make the squad two games later; Hadi Sacko starting for the first time in 10 months against Wolves but reduced to running laps of the pitch before Leeds’ next fixture at Reading – and six changes at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday were symptomatic of the fact that Heckingbottom would only have been maintaining continuity for continuity’s sake.
Leeds, with nine games to go, need the summer to arrive. Heckingbottom does too.Phil Hay
Leeds are not playing well enough to be a settled side. Their strongest line-up is as up for debate as it was under Christiansen, though no permutation of 11 looks right.
What Heckingbottom was able to draw a line under was the loss of discipline which, in Christiansen’s opinion, cost the Dane his job last month.
Leeds are averaging fewer than two bookings a game under Heckingbottom and have not incurred a red card. Pontus Jansson – on nine cautions since Christiansen’s penultimate match – is free from the threat of a two-game ban for 10 yellow cards after the Football Association’s cut-off point passed over the weekend.
Nailing the club’s suspensions was a very obvious port of call for Heckingbottom, something Leeds and Radrizzani wanted him to address quickly. He asked to see the club’s disciplinary proceedings on the day he arrived.
The difficulty for United’s head coach has been in changing significantly the defensive structure at Leeds or the style of his team he was given.
He has remarked more than once that formations, to him, are only relevant “off the ball” and it is true that Leeds have had a loose attacking shape all season, but dabbles with 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-2 led Heckingbottom back to 4-2-3-1, Christiansen’s only tactic.
The high press is being applied, but to inconsistent effect, his midfield pair, the crux of consistent teams in the Championship, won’t pick themselves and his defence is conceding at a rate of two goals a game.
At Reading, United’s backline swung from struggling with set-pieces in a prior defeat to Wolves, dealing easily with 13 corners at the Madejski, to looking flaky in open play.
At the other end of the pitch, though, 19 shots on goal was a considerably higher total than the season’s average of 12.
Heckingbottom has, so far, resisted the urge to move Leeds from a zonal marking system to a man-for-man set-up, despite admitting that man-marking is his preferred way of confronting set-pieces.
Defending dead-ball situations was a particular strength of United’s last season, owing to tactics where Pontus Jansson and Chris Wood were left as free men and simply told to attack the ball.
Gianni Vio, Leeds’ set-piece coach, has maintained a zonal approach this term but Leeds’ concessions in the Championship went past 50 last week.
“It’s my call,” Heckingbottom said on Thursday. “It could change tomorrow and I could say ‘now it’s man marking’ but then you’ve got to pick players who can man-mark.
“We have to look and say ‘are they capable of doing that?’”
It seems evident that Heckingbottom is yet to be convinced of that or by much of what he has seen. The side left behind by Christiansen is still there in body and spirit, unaltered to any drastic degree, and a month in the job should tell Heckingbottom that the reasons for the club’s Championship position are more nuanced than the impact of his predecessor.
The team selections, the tactical tweaks and the flatline in results implies that the importance of fundamental change is as apparent to him as anyone.
Leeds, with nine games to go, need the summer to arrive. Heckingbottom does too.