Where does Paul Heckingbottom go from here after a tough start to his tenure as Leeds United head coach? Phil Hay delivers his assessment of a poor Championship campaign at Elland Road.
Paul Heckingbottom will remember this season as the most barren of campaigns. Between Barnsley and Leeds United, the clubs managed by him since August, he has known only relegation form and a win ratio of 20 per cent. Fatigue is telling at every level at Elland Road but few there are more in need of the summer.
Vague targets were given to Heckingbottom when Leeds brought him in from Oakwell – to keep the play-offs in view for as long as possible and to begin separating the wheat from the chaff – but there was an expectation in United’s boardroom that the run-in would be less of a car crash. While the penny is dropping about the misjudgements made in last summer’s transfer window, Andrea Radrizzani’s has not changed his view that the squad should be much closer to the Championship’s play-off positions.
He and Heckingbottom spoke before Leeds’ derby against Barnsley on April 21, one of just three games the club have won under their incumbent head coach. Those talks – coming on the back of speculation about Heckingbottom’s future – appeared to shore up Heckingbottom’s position ahead of the summer. The 40-year-old expects to be here for the summer transfer window and will take a first-team squad of sorts on Leeds’ controversial tour of Myanmar.
The travelling party is due to be finalised before Sunday’s final league fixture against QPR.
Radrizzani, though, has said nothing publicly about his head coach’s performance and a 15-game introduction to the job has thrown Heckingbottom into the thick of a battle for hearts and minds. For the first time at Norwich City on Saturday there were audible criticism of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ when Jay-Roy Grot, United’s maligned Dutch youngster, replaced Gjanni Alioski for the final 20 minutes of a 2-1 defeat. It was a long-odds roll of the dice towards the end of a match in which United’s motivation was questionable. Heckingbottom took issue with the display. “There are too many loose balls, 50-50s, not won,” he said. “I know when we look at the physical stats the boys will have run. But when we look at the challenges and duels, we won’t be coming out on top. That’s a mentality thing. That’s what we have to change.”
The damage to Heckingbottom’s standing, in the eyes of those who are watching his team, concerns the lack of change. Leeds sacked Thomas Christiansen – win ratio 40 per cent – because results were turning for the worse, discipline had gone and Radrizzani no longer had confidence in his ability to pull the dressing room together. Heckingbottom inherited a catalogue of problems – absent players, a run of fixtures against the form teams and a squad who seemed to sense that their season was over – but his players have not emerged from the worst of this season and, with one game to play, a distinct pattern of play continues to elude him.
Saturday’s defeat was the eighth under Heckingbottom and, no less significantly, Leeds’ 20th of the league season. On just two occasions since their relegation from the Premiership in 2004 have the club suffered more in single campaigns and one of those was the season in which Dennis Wise took United into League One. Wise’s squad aside, only one set of players have amassed fewer points than the current tally of 57 and Leeds will finish this season with a negative goal difference.
If, on a very basic level, the club anticipated Christiansen’s replacement tightening up their team, the opposite has been true. Under Heckingbottom, Leeds have recorded one clean sheet. Inevitably, a finish in the bottom half looms.
There is, still, a feeling at Elland Road that Heckingbottom has been let down by some in his dressing room. The nature of Leeds’ half-hearted football contradicts much of what is said about him: that he knows how to man-manage, that the senior players in United’s squad have come to respect him and that he is happy to speak frankly to Radrizzani and the board about shortcomings. Radrizzani’s view is that United had sufficient resources to compete for the play-offs but Heckingbottom quickly drew the conclusion that the club possess a mid-table squad. They look more like a mid-table squad now than they did when he took over.
For several weeks, Heckingbottom has pushed the line that players were fighting to keep themselves in the building next season. Saturday’s performance showed little in the way of urgency. United’s squad has more security than many before them and after Pablo Hernandez’s decision to sign a new two-year deal last week, every senior player on a permanent contract is tied down to 2019 or beyond. Amongst the 18-man group used at Carrow Road, only young left-back Tom Pearce is out of contract and Leeds intend to hand him improved terms. Of the club’s loanees, Pierre-Michel Lasogga will return to Hamburg and Leeds’ interest in signing Matthew Pennington has been complicated by the offer of a new deal at Everton.
Heckingbottom’s contract runs to the end of next season and United shelled £500,000 to release him from Barnsley in February.
That the partnership has failed to produce green shoots leaves Leeds and Radrizzani with the dilemma of whether to stick to the guns they fired when Heckingbottom’s appointment was hurried through within 48 hours of Christiansen’s dismissal.
In all, it amounts to a single question for Radrizzani: where does the blame lie?