Phil Hay - Inside Elland Road: Don’t assume this Leeds United squad will bridge gulf ahead

Burnley's Charlie Taylor. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Burnley's Charlie Taylor. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
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APPRECIATION of Leeds United’s endeavour and their success in making the Championship notice them last season was watered down by the perceived affront of Garry Monk’s resignation.

But football being football, the comparably limp state that the club’s squad find themselves in now serves to romanticise his year as head coach. Perspective, as someone once said, always depends on where you are standing.

Nothing is more indicative of the dry years at Elland Road than the credit given to Monk for not quite making the play-offs but it would be wrong to deny that he left behind the nuts and bolts of a team. That team were victims of an unusually high mark for sixth place and victims too of their own loss of nerve but their total of 75 points resonates on the basis of how far Leeds are from getting there again.

Fourteen home wins, the fourth best defensive record in the division and two players in the Championship’s team of the year; not enough under Monk but a credible and engaging season regardless. And if nothing else, a healthy beginning.

It matters not since the deed was done when Monk walked out and Andrea Radrizzani let him go but last season is Radrizzani’s only point of reference when it comes to analysing his first 12 months as sole owner. It is the comparison by which Radrizzani’s insistence that Leeds have “a more competitive team now” - a comment made to this newspaper last month - stands up or falls down and by which the club can draw pertinent conclusions.

Leeds were always going to change under Radrizzani, with or without Monk. The structural shift towards a director of football, and specifically the appointment of Victor Orta, was already in motion before Monk resigned and you can only surmise how he and Orta would have dovetailed in the transfer market.

Garry Monk

Garry Monk

Recruitment did not go well for Monk at Middlesbrough - more than £15m-worth of players signed by him left The Riverside again in January - but the relevance of that is purely partisan. Leeds moved on from Monk and moved on quickly. What is necessary now is some honest analysis of where that diversion has taken them.

The striking aspect of the team Leeds have become is the scarce number of upgrades in it. Felix Wiedwald has been no improvement on Rob Green and the German’s brittle state, in the loneliest and most exposed position on the pitch, is posing the question of how Leeds can possibly invest more faith in him.

The defence are missing Kyle Bartley, albeit a loanee who Swansea City weren’t keen to sell last summer, and they would, despite the bitter of crossing of swords at the end, take Charlie Taylor back in a flash.

Neither Pontus Jansson nor Luke Ayling have played as they did in their first year at Elland Road and the impression that continuity and inherent trust is missing across the back five is there in the tally of goals against: as of Friday night at Middlesbrough, one short of last season’s figure with 11 games to play.

Leeds moved on from Monk and moved on quickly. What is necessary now is some honest analysis of where that diversion has taken them.

Phil Hay

The midfield is the midfield; an area Monk never quite got a grip of and one part of Leeds’ line-up which will not pick itself. There is scope for Adam Forshaw to be a fixture there and the signing of him was the type of logical transfer the club should roll with more often but there is still a lack of variety and a lack of bite. Ronaldo Vieira, troubled by tendonitis, has not trained on.

The partnership of Kalvin Phillips and Eunan O’Kane was eaten alive by Middlesbrough. It was, as Paul Heckingbottom said afterwards, bewildering that not one player thought to clip Adama Traore’s heels as he waltzed over the halfway line before Patrick Bamford’s second goal.

Traore is the proverbial wildcard: as predictable as dropping a garden hose but quick, dynamic and a nightmare on his day. Pace has been a prerequisite of a good Championship team for some time and Leeds are blessed with it to any great extent only in Hadi Sacko, a winger whose erratic style has failed to earn him a league start for 10 months.

The same shortcoming last season was counteracted by Chris Wood’s knack of right-place-right-time but Wood is long gone and the quality of Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s finishing does not make him Wood’s peer as a lone, all-round centre-forward. Lasogga reached 10 goals a fortnight ago. By this stage last year Wood had 24.

Swansea City's Kyle Bartley. PIC: Tim Goode/PA Wire

Swansea City's Kyle Bartley. PIC: Tim Goode/PA Wire

On the wider fringes there are issues too. Mateusz Klich is packed off elsewhere and Jay-Roy Grot, in his best interests, was dropped into the Under-23s after Christmas.

Pawel Cibicki came and went from the first-team picture and the Championship has not gone easy on Laurens De Bock. The Championship is well renowned for oppressing the uninitiated.

It leads to the conclusion that United have numbers but only the numbers, despite what was spent last summer and in January. The wage bill is up by more than £7m, hiking the turnover-to-wage ratio significantly, but the limits of Leeds’ highest salary and the transfer fees they are willing to pay arguably restrict their clout; like shooting fish in a barrel. Perhaps Orta does have a genuinely poor aim. Or perhaps there is not enough to aim at.

Either way, this season in footballing terms is going down as a backwards step and some honest acceptance of that would do Leeds no harm.

There is nothing to be gained from people in the building telling each other what they want to hear. And it should not be assumed that the squad in its current guise can cover the ground in front of them.