By Mark Rasdall
Like many Leeds United fans I woke up yesterday morning with a fresh spring in my step. We had finally signed two genuine wingers with 'pace to burn' by all accounts and who would give us width and finally decent service to Matt Smith. I hadn't expected both of them to play from the start but did think they'd appear at Sheffield Wednesday at some point.
For fans of LUFC it is never dull and things rarely run according to the best-laid plans or expectations. Stewart and Kebe both started the game - despite some initial and understandable concerns about their fitness levels, familiarity with the team and so on - but Matt Smith was left on the bench. We were sort of playing a back three with Peltier and Pugh pushing on to give us width we should surely now have had in abundance?
I can't dwell on what happened next as the images are too stark and upsetting. Alcohol has helped to dull the pain but still the horror film rolls at the back of my mind...
I trust Brian McDermott implicitly. I like him and like the respect he shows for others but I didn't understand his tactics yesterday. To me it smacked of the terrible run of form we've had recently and him getting carried away with having not one but two wingers that we've all been crying out for since he arrived last season. I think he truly believed we would blow both Sheffield Wednesday away and also those lingering doubts that had formed during December and the early days of 2014.
For me, there are three things that need addressing:
1. We had resorted to playing a long ball game largely for two reasons: firstly, our defence were running scared and just wanted to clear their lines quickly each time and, secondly, we had a giant of a striker up front who surely would get on the end of something and magically make things happen for the team. I'll come back to the defence but just to say yet again that Matt Smith is learning the game and has much still to learn! The expectation and pressure that a long ball game puts on any target man is immense and I think he felt that keenly when he finally came on yesterday. Youthful naivety and aggression in the form of 'rough 'em up a bit Matt and grab us an early goal' proved disastrous and we'll never know whether an assumed 4-4-2 would have worked any better against the Owls or not. Smith won't be back for three games and I'm really hoping we can try a midfield passing approach with width and speed down the wings before he returns and we are tempted to slip back into a 'give it to Matt quickly' approach. Against Leicester and Ipswich, though they are tough games to follow the thrashing, we really have no alternative but to try something different but also less cavalier than yesterday.
2. The defence is clearly shell-shocked, hence the 'get rid quick' approach. For me this began against Nottingham Forest. Halford should never have been allowed to ghost in behind three big centre-halfs and get to the ball, let alone a header on target. I don't think our defence has really recovered from this one aberration. In that game we suffered a bombardement, got back into it and still lost to a wonder strike. Our midfield went missing or failed to hold on to the ball time and time again. If you add all of that up in a defender's mind you get to a point of uncertainty and insecurity - certainly not a safe platform to build on.
3. If the defence is psychologically damaged, the midfield is struggling with existentialism. Austin has really struggled lately. Only he and Brian will know if the captaincy is too much for him. Whether it is or not, his form has been erratic. Mowatt is, like Smith, young and still learning. I really believe he will be a tremendous player but am also concerned that we'll overplay him like Byram last season and/or he will have too much responsibility too young and apparent disappointment apportioned to him will cause him to leave for a club that will truly nurture such a talent as happened with Lennon.
I personally would make Jason Pearce the captain. I think he and Paddy Kenny have been our most consistent performers this season. I also think captaincy from the back is always preferable in terms of reading the game and the players' performances. Pearce is playing with Zaliukas and Lees or Wootton. Zaliukas's confidence has clearly deserted him while Lees and Wootton are excellent prospects but need their confidence restoring.
To aid Pearce in his captaincy and the entire defence in their difficult period I would play a version of the diamond with a traditional back four comprising Byram on the right, Pearce and one from Lees, Wootton or Zaliukas in the centre, and Warnock on the left. We have Peltier and Pugh as alternatives and can be brought in or out according to injuries and/or changes required in the game when we need to push on or hold on.
I'd play two defensive midfielders in front of them from Austin, Tonge and Brown - or younger but experienced players bought to play in that same position. Our defence desperately needed additional protection yesterday and I think this would begin to address their confidence issues. They were just hopelessly exposed, quite apart from not operating as an organized unit. If Austin or Tonge need to support the attack then the defence still has some midfield presence in front of it. If either full back goes forward then one of the defensive midfielders fills the space. Again, it means we aren't left with an exposed back three fearing the worst.
Ahead of them I'd have three with Kebe and Stewart wide when they get fit and one from Murphy or Mowatt in the middle. Mowatt's confidence will improve from knowing their are two behind him and hopefully Murphy's creativity will finally flourish consistently. In the meantime both could play until our new wide men are ready, or can be mixed up during a match if we need injections of speed which Poleon could also supply.
I'd have Ross up front with an option of bringing Matt Smith in during a game and sacrificing a defensive midfielder if the game was running away from us.
There are no doubt lots of reasons why this might not work but I believe it would give the team a better balance and shape and buy time to get over the nightmares. We saw in the first part of the season that we have decent squad, now supplemented by width. I wonder if we don't still need better quality in midfield but also am a believer in developing the players we have - and I'm delighted that McDermott is trying to do this while not overplaying that youthful talent.
It's tough at the moment but we march on. Sacking the manager is absurd. Under Warnock and, in the later days, Grayson, I felt laziness and complacency had set in. I don't think that is the case here but I do think confidence (and I include Brian in this) had already gone before yesterday's mis-match and only patience and long-term planning is going to really make a difference. Yes there will be freak results from time to time but yesterday's is still thankfully consigned to a relatively small sample such as the 5.0 to Barnsley or the 3.7 to Forest or the 7.1 at Stoke...