17 games into the season and we Leeds fans really have no idea whether we’ll be in the mix for a challenge come next May or not!
On a good day we are very confident we will be but on a bad day it looks to be a fair old challenge to keep our current squad, largely the squad we saw fail last season of course, in amongst those top six places. Saturday at the Hawthorns for example was a bad day, a very bad day.
It is a tad perplexing though as to why. In the early weeks of the season pretty much the same group of players destroyed teams like Stoke, Derby and Norwich and yet we really did come unstuck against West Brom, and a West Brom that had seemingly gone off the boil too after a run of four poor results including a 1 – 4 home trampling by Derby, pretty much the same Derby that we in turn beat 1 – 4 at their own place!
Such is the Championship of course! But the conversations in the gents at the Hawthorns after the game suggested that many Leeds fans have been expecting a big defeat, “It’s been coming ain’t it?” a bloke stood next to me muttered, “we’ve not been at it for weeks”. By “not at it” I suppose he meant we hadn’t really thrashed anyone since that day at Carrow Road when we put Norwich City to the sword – the same Norwich City that now sits proudly on top of the Championship by the way, having lost only one game since we beat them and that has just won five on the spin! We have beaten teams of course – we’ve won four of our 12 games since Norwich – but we’ve not really hammered anyone in that early season manner.
There was a spell when we all thought it was down to Pablo Hernandez being injured, that accounted for seven of those 12 games and we won just two of those, against a poor Preston and a very poor Hull City… just.
The first game he started after his injury, we won, against Ipswich and we followed that with a creditable draw v a damn good Forest side and a comfortable win at Wigan; everything looked really good again! But Pablo started at West Brom too and yet that didn’t work so well! There was someone else though who did miss the Albion game; Samu Saiz.
Marcelo Bielsa has stuck rigidly with a core group of players for his starting XI in every league game, only changing his personnel when forced to do so through injury. Hence, Jansson had to wait for an injury to Berardi to get his place back, Harrison only got to start when Pablo was out and we only got to see Tyler Roberts when Kemar Roofe was crocked. Now we are relying on Stuart Dallas to fill in for the absence of Luke Ayling.
In fact only 15 different players have really been started plus one game for Jamie Shackleton and then, for the last three games the one exception to the Bielsa rule; Adam Forshaw has replaced an uninjured Samu Saiz (or rather Forshaw has adopted the Klich position and Klich has tried to play in the Saiz role).
The Bielsa MO means that on occasion we have seen a player play out of position – Dallas notably at right and left back and Roofe out wide on the one occasion he shared the starting XI with Tyler Roberts.
So, only once has a player actually been dropped from Bilesa’s preferred XI and that was when Saiz was left out of the team for the Forest game. Bielsa has made no secret of the fact he prefers a tight knit small group of players and that is proven by those league appearance stats and thus far, with Leeds 3rd in the table and with just three league defeats, who can argue with his policy? Most Leeds fans are reluctant to even discuss the great man’s team selections for fear of being seen to be critical of his choices, so revered is he already in LS11 and that has been evident in the limited criticism of the team following the West Brom defeat; for the time being it’s consigned as a one off, a bad day at the office.
I will pose a few questions though and first and foremost is the question as to whether the absence of Samu Saiz from that starting XI at the Hawthorns was a mistake. I think it was. The thing is we all know why Samu was dropped; he, like Pablo Hernandez, plays on the edge of the possible!
Often what Samu is trying to do doesn’t come off and that tends to result in Leeds losing the ball and that, is the one thing Bielsa doesn’t want us to do. To be honest, there were lots of Leeds fans also getting fed up of Samu’s apparent carelessness as it was too often seen as “he has no final ball”, “he runs into trouble”, “he can’t shoot”, – all things that have been evident all too often throughout this season. So it was no surprise that Bielsa chose, for the first time this season, to drop one of his regular starters.
With Forshaw in the side against Forest, Wigan and West Brom, Leeds have recorded some of their highest possession stats of the season, even higher than in those early season games when we hammered sides and that’s patently due to Forshaw being far more “careful” with the football than the man he replaced, Samu Saiz.
But that has come at a cost; losing creativity. The players Leeds have that base their game on finding that killer ball with a risky pass are Saiz and Hernandez and to a lesser extent, Mateusz Klich; take any one of them out and Leeds struggle to create good chances, as we saw in the way our results just tailed off a bit when Pablo was injured.
We coped without Samu against Forest and Wigan but West Brom, a side that thrives on the counter attack, made us pay and the question is, would the presence of Samu have made them less bullish and more conservative in the way they threw players forward on those counter attacks and, would Samu have found enough killer balls to win us the game. He was only on the pitch for 15 minutes and he found one that Pablo headed in. For me, we have to get Samu back in and it will be fascinating to see if he starts in the Bristol game after the break.
The second issue that Leeds fans are currently divided on is the form and ability of Bailey Peacock-Farrell. He has hardly made a mistake all season – in terms of an out and out cock-up, but several goals we have conceded have looked “soft” from a goalkeeping point of view. The second against West Brom was one such.
Matt Phillips’ shot appeared to be pretty tame and Bailey appeared to get down pretty slowly ‘a la a falling oak’ but was it a shot other keepers would have stopped? The jury is out, but I do wonder if Bielsa will look at Bailey in the same way he looked at Samu; “Maybe it’s not working as well as it could so should I change it and see how Jamal Blackman performs?” There is a risk of course; in just the same way that the dropping of Saiz may have back-fired so also it could with a new keeper. Again, it is fascinating to see who is between the sticks against Bristol.
The third question is whether we are right to be sticking with Stuart Dallas as the fill in full back.
Yes, Dallas is clearly an integral part of the 15 man core squad but he is not a full back and defensively, in the same way that sometimes Bailey “looks” to be not quite as good as we’d want, so too Dallas has question marks against his abilities in his current role. There are a few full backs injured at the moment – Berardi is out for two months and Pearce was missing from the squad at the Albion – but Jamie Shackleton has looked to be in favour with Bielsa and maybe this is another big call Marcelo has to make for Bristol.
There have been many fans calling for Alioski to play at the back too. The biggest question of all though is whether the West Brom defeat was just a bad day at the office or whether it is a sign that either the gloss is coming off the Bielsa machine or whether the selection choices of leaving out Samu, persisting with Dallas at full back or bailey not being good enough in goal is holding us back. I don’t have the answers to those questions of course and we’ll probably have to wait to see how we get on and who plays against Bristol and Reading in a couple of weeks’ time.
I do tend to feel though that if Leeds are to maintain a promotion challenge these areas will all need the attention of Marcelo Bielsa in the coming weeks and that sticking rigidly with the same players will probably not prove good enough for promotion.
By Dave Watkins