If the first month of the season was solely about results the Championship would not have made it through August without a single managerial kill. Perception counts for something at this stage, much as the culling will begin before long.
Statistically Uwe Rosler has coaxed Leeds United onto familiar ground. The club hold one point more than they did after their rash alliance with David Hockaday last season. They have one point fewer that Brian McDermott gained from their first five league games in 2013.
Seven from five is somewhere close to United’s average mark.
In context, Hockaday’s tenure inspired no confidence and the final fixture last August was left to Neil Redfearn after Leeds sacked Hockaday before the end of the month. McDermott had United under more control but problems with his team were apparent: creative shortcomings and a lack of wingers which led him down the path of the diamond midfield.
“Did we take the game to QPR enough?” McDermott asked after a 1-0 defeat at Elland Road. “The answer is probably ‘no’.”
Rosler reached the international break on Saturday with more credit in the bank; unbeaten and –helped by a logical, methodical transfer window – in possession of a squad which is adapting to him rather than the other way round.
Here’s what we’ve learned from United’s start:
1) Tactically, Rosler needs horses for courses
By paying money for Stuart Dallas and Jordan Botaka, Leeds have given their head coach scope to employ his preferred formation without worrying that the set-up is half-baked or contrived. Rosler could not have relied on 4-3-3 without out-and-out wingers and Sam Byram’s questionable form explains again why specialists in that position are worth the investment. It is also true that in most other systems Rosler would struggle to keep a large group of central midfielders happy. Picking between Tom Adeyemi, Lewis Cook, Luke Murphy, Alex Mowatt, Kalvin Phillips and Tommaso Bianchi for two midfield positions would lose him sleep and demand constant explanation. But the German has spoken of the need for flexibility in his tactics and Mirco Antenucci and Chris Wood hit it off nicely last month. On occasions where Leeds are under pressure to force the pace and carry more threat, Wood in isolation up front might not do the trick. As he did at Bristol City and again at Derby County, Rosler has to show the conviction to pick his moments and play the opposition. His squad is not at all one-dimensional.
2) Wood has 20 goals in him
Without his 20-yard bullet at Pride Park, the talk after Saturday’s game would have focused on the header Wood missed from almost beneath Derby’s crossbar. He is not necessarily a one-chance-one-goal striker but look at his finishes so far and you’ll see a natural finisher – a deft strike on the counter-attack at Bristol City, a poacher’s tap-in against Sheffield Wednesday and a beautiful strike from nothing right at the end of Leeds’ win over Derby. The Championship is a closed shop for teams who can’t score and that trend was clearer last season than ever before. Bournemouth had Callum Wilson, Watford had Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo, Norwich had Cameron Jerome and Middlesbrough had Patrick Bamford. It was no coincidence that Deeney, Bamford and Ipswich’s Daryl Murphy comprised the shortlist for Championship player-of-the-year. Wood has never had a 20-goal season but he’s got the game to reach for that mark.
3) Antenucci would be worth another year
The irony of this after the lengths Leeds went to in stopping Antenucci from earning an extension to his contract last season. In fairness to the club, it was their methods rather than their rationale which caused so much upset. The striker blew hot and cold in his first year, despite finishing as United’s top scorer, and at the age of 30 he was not a player who Leeds wanted to commit to paying until 2017. But on the evidence of his form in the past four weeks they may see some value in keeping him beyond the end of a deal which expires next summer. He has goals in him, which is no great surprise, but his performance have been more creative and more selfless, if truth be told. Who laid on Wood’s finish at Bristol City? And Cook’s goal at Doncaster? And whose cross presented Wood with a sitter of a header late on at Pride Park? Antenucci has a certain shelf-life but in this mood and in a raw squad, United should not rush to clear him out.
4) Byram’s situation is not helping him
Byram’s season so far – impressive against Burnley on the opening weekend but ineffective and a bit detached ever since. This could be a meaningless drop in performance and it is always easy to tally poor patches with mental distractions when a player is unclear about his future. But you wonder nonetheless.
Leeds have spoken to Byram’s agent repeatedly about his contract, and again in the past month, but they are resigned to assuming that his deal will expire next summer without him agreeing to an extension. Had a serious offer come in before Tuesday’s transfer deadline, you suspect that Massimo Cellino would have been sorely tempted to take the money – even though Leeds will be due compensation if the 21-year-old leaves at the end of this season. Byram is in a squad where the majority of players know where they stand. He’s part of the small percentage who can’t be sure if they’re part of the furniture.
If that is not affecting him then it can’t be helping either and Byram – a livewire in pre-season – is a much better footballer than he made himself look in August. Perhaps the closure of the transfer window will give him some peace of mind.
5) This season will come down to stamina, rather than talent
A display like United’s at Pride Park doesn’t materialise by chance. Watch the highlights: for all but 25 wild minutes at the start of the second half, their win came down to disciplined shape, effective pressing around the halfway line and a willingness to attack whenever space opened up in front of them. Leeds are good enough and fit enough to play that way and Derby was a very positive indictment of Rosler’s coaching. Far from playing this job by ear, he took it in May knowing exactly how he wanted United to play and how he wanted his squad to prepare. Cellino was given a laptop presentation by a coach who is totally immersed in the world of stats and analysis. Playing like they did at Pride Park, Leeds are going to ruffle feathers this season but making the play-offs usually takes 20 wins or more. It’s one of several reasons why Rosler has been such a stickler for conditioning – talent is sometimes less important than the ability to survive and hang in.