Pre-season never changes. It doesn’t matter until it does and it matters until it doesn’t, an unpredictable outlook which is subject to results.
The annual routine is only broken by the start of the season and the knowledge that an opinionated grey area has gone.
Leeds United were beaten at London Road on Saturday, beaten from a position of strength, and that fact irked Garry Monk, even though in his words the result was not all-consuming. It was his second game-of-two-halves in as many days, following on from Guiseley on Friday when a different Leeds side, a weaker Leeds side, trailed 3-0 before winning 4-3.
Significant or not, Peterborough United’s victory was something of a diversion. There were two other things for Monk to ponder on the road home: a terrific, relentless first half during which his style shone through in players who clearly get it, and a second half where Leeds suffered in oppressive heat and lost to a fitter Peterborough side.
“That’s one of the hottest game I’ve ever played in,” said midfielder Matt Grimes and Monk sympathised. From the first whistle to the last, United’s head coach could have done with a showering from the sprinklers which randomly attacked him as he tried to conduct his post-match interviews by the tunnel.
“I was sweating and I was sat on the bench,” Monk said, “but that’s one of the reasons why I’m happy. The second half was purely physical reasons. It wasn’t tactical or technical.”
A first pre-season loss registered with him all the same. “You never want to lose,” he said. “The winning feeling we’ve had in the last few games, you want to keep it going.”
The first half at London Road was a huge consolation for him. Leeds were aggressive, incisive and compact to the point where Peterborough struggled to compete. Monk, a coach who said last week that 800 passes in return for no goals was not his idea of passing football, saw discipline and organisation, and the positive impact of certain decisions.
Quick movement of possession had Peterborough’s defence in trouble and allowed Kemar Roofe to give right-back Michael Smith the runaround until the break. Roofe’s trickery and cross saw Alex Mowatt bury a volley with 16 minutes played and Leeds had enough chances to sink Peterborough before the conditions kicked in.
“You saw in the first 45 that when we’re fit, when we’ve got a lot of energy levels, that’s exactly the football we can play,” Monk said. “We totally dominated them. We should have scored a few more goals.”
Grimes, who worked with Monk at Swansea City, felt much the same. “We were disappointed with result but there were a lot of positives,” the on-loan midfielder said. “We’ve got a philosophy and there’s a positive attitude.
“We’re looking forward first and not looking to be safe with the ball. Sometimes you need to do that or keep possession to kill the game but we want to get forward and create chances. That’s hopefully what we showed in the first half. Keeping that going for 90 minutes is where we need to get to now.”
That sort of football is easy to admire, as many did while Monk was managing Swansea, but it did not take long in the second half for Leeds to tire, falter and succumb to two spectacular goals from Shaquile Coulthirst. As the heat took Monk’s players, their discipline left them and their energy dissipated. As Monk said afterwards, it was obvious which side had gathered more minutes in pre-season so far.
Leeds have had four friendlies to date – individual players have featured in no more than three – and Atalanta at Elland Road this Saturday ends pre-season with a fifth friendly. In the past, United have been known to contest seven or eight. So the obvious question for Monk, two weeks out from the start of the season and with his squad playing 90 minutes for the first time, was whether the fitness of his players was truly where it needed to be.
“From my experience, managing and playing, I know how to peak a team best,” he said. “You can do it in two ways. You can load pre-season up with games and have a fantastic start but then you crash and burn around Christmas. Or you can try and taper it.
“I’ve seen many managers do it differently. I’ve seen it where they top-load pre-season with games and you’re flying at the start, you’re at your peak, but because you’ve had so many games so early you start suffering around Christmas and in the second half of the season.
“I’ve seen that done and it’s fine but I try and do it in a different way. This is my way.
“At the start of the season we’ll be at a level where we can compete properly. But three or four games in, when we’re at our peak, you’ll see what you saw in the first 45 minutes for the full 90 minutes – and for the whole season. That’s the plan.”
The test of that will come soon enough but it is hard not to be impressed with Monk’s ideas. Roofe, who left the pitch in the second half with stomach cramps, looks evermore the signing of the summer and an advert for sizeable but well-considered investment. He laid on Mowatt’s goal and was unlucky not to score himself. Marcus Antonsson and Hadi Sacko also went close before half-time while Sacko was denied by a good, low save from Ben Alnwick.
In a central position, tucked in behind a front three, Mowatt saw more chances than he did in five times as many games last season, when form eluded him and a role on the left wing swallowed him. A 20-yard shot before the interval was inches from sneaking inside a post. Neil Redfearn, who coached Mowatt in the 21-year-old’s player-of-the-year season, attended London Road as a radio pundit on Saturday. “You’ve got to play him in the middle,” Redfearn said. “Anywhere else is a waste of his ability and his goals.”
Mowatt’s most recent campaign, by his own admission, barely earned him pass-marks but he has a spring in his step again. “He’s been great and he’s been very hard-working,” Monk said. “I don’t think he needs an arm round him. I just think the players are being pushed and the demands here are high.”
At half-time Monk had little more to ask of his players but Peterborough drew breath and rapidly overcame their inability to make Leeds sweat.
Monk’s side had survived two defensive mix-ups in the first half, one leading to a goalline clearance from right-back Alex Purver, when a weak clearing header from Kyle Bartley on 50 minutes was brilliantly dispatched by Coulthirst on the volley from 25 yards.
Fifteen minutes later, Coulthirst repeated the trick from the same distance, driving the ball into Rob Green’s bottom corner as Monk’s defence stood off him. In that area of the pitch, the ills of last season are not yet cured.
There were late chances of an equaliser but Sacko, whose excellent workrate was tempered by his end product, found Alnwick equal to him twice. “Those attacking movements are a massive part of what we deliver as a coaching staff,” Monk said.
“Some teams just attack in a certain way and that’s it but you saw we could attack wide, attack centrally and build the play up well. We need to do better, I understand that, but we’re getting there.
“That first 45 minutes is a clear indication of how we’re going to play when we’re fully fit.
“We’re building it up and in the next two weeks you’ll see the difference for sure. We’re peaking for the first day of the season, not for pre-season.”
Peterborough United: Alnwick, Smith, Hughes, Tafazolli, Baldwin, Forrester, J Anderson (Edwards 63), Da Silva Lopes (Chettle 77), Maddison, P Taylor, Coulthirst. Subs (not used): Tyler, Bostwick, Nichols, Nabi, Chettle, Stevens, Freestone, White.
Leeds United: Green, Purver, Bartley, Bamba, Taylor, Murphy, Grimes; Sacko, Mowatt, Roofe (J McKay 63), Antonsson. Subs (not used): Huffer, M Taylor, Shackleton.