This has been a tough season for Leeds United so far. Tough but not disastrous by any stretch.
Today’s game against Wigan marks the halfway stage and I’d imagine that the mood inside the dressing room will be one of determination.
There’ll be a bit of frustration too, of course. The players haven’t exactly lit up the Championship or blown us away with their performances but they’ve got plenty to fight for. Their league status is entirely in their hands, especially if they win this afternoon.
That’s one of the biggest positives for me; that in a season when the club have had three head coaches and lost 10 of their 22 matches, they haven’t been sucked into the bottom three. I’ve seen a few hard campaigns in my time and the bottom line is that you never want to be making up ground. That’s when the pressure’s really on.
I’ll stick my neck out now and say that this squad won’t go down. I just don’t see it. They probably won’t be miles clear of the relegation places either but I’m expecting at least four or fives teams to be worse off than Leeds.
But as I said in my last column, we’ll get more of the same in the second half of the season unless the club manage to bring a few experienced, reliable players in. That’s the only thing that can turn this side from a good-team-on-their-day to a good-team-every-weekend. Look back over the 22 games so far and count the number that stand out as quality, free-flowing matches. There won’t be too many. The Championship is hard as hell and seriously dogged, particularly at this time of year. That doesn’t mean raw talent can’t thrive in the league but it only thrives in the right environment and with the right assistance around it.
There are already some positives in the squad. Mirco Antenucci is definitely one of them. I got on at him a bit when I was co-commentating earlier in the season, complaining about his hold-up play, but he’s well adjusted to this league now and I expect his goals to go well over double figures.
Souleymane Doukara has that same potential too but he needs to make the adjustment like Antenucci has. Doukara’s got pace, strength and he knows how to finish. Unfortunately, at the moment he’s a one-in-four-player – a striker who turns it on every now and again. He really can make a bigger impact.
The young academy lads have been terrific. We’ve all been massively impressed with Lewis Cook and my only suspicion is that from time to time his body will need a bit of a break. Mowatt to me has gone through that physical barrier now. He might only be 19 but he looks like he’s got 46 appearances in him a season. He’s come of age and he’s one of several players that Leeds need to keep.
As for the negatives, I’m looking mainly at the defence. The record on paper isn’t great but when you break it down, it’s the goals themselves that make you worry. How many have been gifted to the opposition this season? How many have the opposition actually had to work for? Slips and errors in tight games are costing Leeds heavily and that’s something which has to change. It’s all in a player’s mentality – concentration, focus and common sense. At Barnsley I had an issue for a while with Antony Kay, someone I really rated. He saw himself as a ball-playing centre-back and I genuinely applauded him for that. But as manager I didn’t want him taking the ball down outside his own box and trying to spread it around.
If you’ve got all the time in the world then fine. But as a habit? It’s massively risky in the Championship. Defenders need to know when to play and when to stick their boot through the ball. As Paul Hart (my predecessor at Barnsley) used to repeat to his defenders: “Head it or f****** kick it!”
Antony’s problem was that he didn’t want punters to look at him and think of him as a big lump with no ability. But actually, over time, doing the basics made him into a better player and a better defender. The reality is that a silky centre-back is of no value at all if cheap goals keeping slipping in. Consistency. That’s the word. And it doesn’t just apply to the team. My wish for the new year at Leeds is consistency to all men – a manager (or a head coach) who’s there for the long-term, some certainty about what’s happening with Massimo Cellino, a more predictable level of performance and a break from these runs where the odd win is followed by draws and defeats.
It feels like a lot to ask but it’s the only way Leeds will move forward from here. This has been one crazy year for the club and at times if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. But they certainly don’t need another one like it.