Well, so far anyway! So what’s changed this season?
After the worst start to a season in 40 years that saw Leeds take only 4 points from the first six league games we now sit 5th in the table, 6 points ahead of the team in 7th. We have 14 cup finals left to ensure we at least get a shot at promotion via the play-offs. How the hell did we do that?
For me two things happened.
Firstly, for five of those six league games we had either Sol Bamba or Liam Cooper at centre back with Kyle Bartley and it meant we were just as prone to errors in defence as we had been for years. In the sixth game we unveiled Pontus Jansson and although we lost to Huddersfield that day in mid-September, it was the start of a centre back partnership that finally looked fit for purpose. Kyle Bartley is a Rolls Royce of a player, all calmness and thought while Pontus is mighty in the air and all heart. They are both giants and each compliments the other. Neither is Rio Ferdinand, but both can play a bit and Pontus showed against Bristol that he’s got great feet for such a big fella.
With the experience and calmness of Rob Green having replaced the insecurity and lack of presence of Silvestri and the arrival of Luke Ayling the whole defence looks as good as anything in the Championship and indeed at the time of writing ahead of the Ipswich game only 4 teams have conceded less.
Secondly, Chris Wood has found his feet. For those first six games Wood missed more chances than a blind Monopoly player. He’d scored 2 league goals and that penalty at Fleetwood but should have bagged half a dozen more. Had he done so our start might have been so very different. But from that point onwards or maybe it was from the ear-cupping moment when he got us that last minute equaliser against Fulham, he’s been way more clinical. In the run of four wins that followed the Huddersfield game, Woody got four in four and secured 8 of those 12 points though his goals alone. Since then he’s scored regularly and currently has 22 in all including 19 Championship goals.
When we get a penalty these days, no one runs to hide behind the sofa or phones NASA to get our ball back. As with Bartley and Jansson, Wood is not the best player of his type in the World but he’s proved that at Championship level, given the service, he can stick the ball in the net.
If I was pressed for a third reason I’d have to say that Garry Monk and his coaching team have managed to weld together a team with a unity of purpose and togetherness that we have also not seen at Elland Road in years and on our day we can beat anyone. We are still a young side and therefore we’re not as consistently brilliant as we’d like and, Preston aside we can’t really say that we’ve battered anyone so far this season but I have the feeling we are not far off the day when we will.
So the question that everyone is asking is, “Will Leeds make the Play-Offs?” We’ve had a little wobble recently, losing 4 of 6 including that 3rd XI debacle at Gander Green Lane in the Cup, but three of those defeats were suffered without Pontus and I’m putting it down to that and maybe the inevitable learning curve when new players arrive – Pedraza came on in the Huddersfield defeat and played in the Cardiff one before Garry Monk went back to his tried and trusted players for Bristol.
We haven’t seen enough of either Mo Barrow or Alfonso Pedraza yet to form an opinion but they will take time to settle as the whole side did at the start of the season. So let’s hope the wobble is over and those wheels are now screwed on firmly as we head down the final long straight.
The greatest threat to achieving one of those top six places is injuries or suspensions. We now have both Luke Ayling and Kyle Bartley one yellow card away from a suspension and while the loss of Ayling should now be coverable with the return to fitness of Charlie Taylor allowing Berardi to resume in his more natural right back role, Kyle is a different matter. Pontus collects yellows like a Dyson collects dust too.
Luke Ayling himself can cover at CB and he looked OK doing it against Derby but we spent so much of that game attacking that it was probably not a fair assessment. When he played alongside Bartley at Barnsley the pair looked altogether less solid. The alternative is Liam Cooper and, as nice a bloke as Coops seems to be, he’s either not good enough or his confidence is shot. Our failure to pick up a serviceable replacement CB in the transfer window my well still come back to bite us where it hurts most.
We are also vulnerable to injuries of course and not only to Barts and the magic hat man but also to Pablo Hernandez and Chris Wood. Pablo makes us tick and, as already noted, Wood’s on fire. Either would be a huge loss. Rob Green would also be a big loss at this nervy time of the season.
So, play-offs or not?
It’s a yes from me. All we can assume (and we know it makes an ASS out of U and ME) is that, on average we’ll continue to accrue points at the same rate as we’ve done since Pontus arrived and that injuries and referees will be kind to us. If so, we ought to average 2 points a game which would get us to 85; that would be more than enough and leaves some wiggle room. What I do know is that, having got ourselves into such a great position with 14 games to go, it would take us all summer to get over the disappointment if we mess up. Promotion is another question altogether mind, the play-offs are a lottery.
By David Watkins