Back to England, back to the harsh realities of domestic football. Gone was the inspiring, mountainous backdrop of Domzale, in its place the two tiered majesty of the Tile Choice Stand and the pollution spewing M6; gone was the happy, drunken haze that did much to mask the ordinariness that typified performances in Slovenia, instead a barely adequate, 3 pint reality cushion was all we had to hide behind.
Brian McDermott described the day succinctly by branding it his worst as manager of Leeds United – it was hard to argue. While his arrival in April brought a renewed sense of hope, a sudden renaissance in passing football and the opportunity for a long suffering fan base to finally able to emerge into the sunshine and out of the shadows of the Warnocksaurus, it was always going to take more in the longer term.
At the start of the summer it was plain that Leeds needed a new centre back, a creative midfielder, two wingers and (once Morison had departed) a proven striker. With a fortnight remaining ahead of the season’s opener against Brighton, in Luke Murphy, we’ve filled only one void. That’s not to criticise the purchases of Matt Smith and Noel Hunt, the former, although very suspect with the ball at feet in front of goal, is undeniably a threat in the air and a useful option in the short term off the bench (assuming we can provide service from wide positions), while Hunt has struck up an immediate rapport with supporters and the experience and goals he’ll provide amongst a predominantly young pool of forwards could prove invaluable.
But the gaps remain; the same players who failed last season again are showing little to suggest this season will be any different. At the back, Pearce continues to function as if his brain is one from the Neolithic era and his feet something more akin to the Jurassic period: the way in which his movements appear to be so deliberate and thought out when doing something as elementary as playing a short pass simply doesn’t scream ‘footballer’ at you. Beside him, Lees still looks uncertain, particularly with the ball at his feet, while Warnock, although less of a concern has yet to hit his stride either. At right back, it’s possible to feel a little more sympathy for Peltier, having been lumbered with a role on the left for much of last season to accommodate the emergence of Sam Byram, it’s Byram’s absence now that’s served to ensure he’s being denied a chance to establish himself in the middle where he’s looked most comfortable…certainly more so than Pearce or Pugh.
In criticising the defence it would be remiss not to acknowledge the role that those in front play in exacerbating their difficulties; the midfield remains the most urgent area for attention. Brown, Green, White, Norris – four nondescript passengers, just as they were under Warnock. Tonge, while a useful squad player doesn’t appear cut out for playing on the right side of a diamond; he can’t cover the ground, while Murphy looks peripheral and wasted on the left.
In the attacking third at least there is hope; especially in Poleon who arguably stood out above all overs in Slovenia and who alongside his partners, McCormack and Hunt has already built the kind of rapport with Leeds fans that too few other players have done in recent years.
So what of the game? It was every bit as bad as the manager would have you believe and the frustrations in the dug out are clearly as palpable as they are in the stands at this point. McDermott, to this point at least, has pursued a diamond formation; an acknowledgement of the lack of pace of width in the team. Watching the team again yesterday though, it’s hard not to suspect that while McDermott’s intentions to employ the formation were to accommodate those shortcomings, maybe he’s also underestimated the lack of intelligence and ability in some individuals to adapt to a more fluid and flexible approach to playing the game.
It certainly appears so if Walsall is to provide a benchmark; but for a couple of short spells either side of half-time, Leeds were comprehensively outplayed, even looking second best against the host’s second XI. Although the winning goal arrived on 11 minutes, it already seemed overdue at that point, while in contrast it took Leeds over half an hour to create anything of note. When it came, it was courtesy of a deep cross from Peltier – sadly a fairly isolated incidence and until Byram is fit, wingers are signed, or Poleon is given an opportunity on the right, there appears little hope of providing any sort of consistent service from wide areas. As an increasingly resigned away following watched the game play out and passes misplaced, a half-hearted chant of “We’re not going up!” came and went in a whimper, much like Leeds had.
Doubtless there’ll be the typical dismissive remarks about overreactions and friendlies counting for little, while a markedly improved display at Stevenage may also calm nerves a little. However, there’s no disguising the fact that the problems that blighted the side last campaign are not going away and McDermott knows that as much as anyone; there’s only so much coaching, formations and tactics can compensate for a lack of ability, intelligence and simple desire in some of those players currently on the wage bill.
When Paddy Kenny is the outstanding Leeds player in a clash with Walsall, there’s evidently a lot of problems still to address before the big kick-off.
Four more players…
Follow F&L on twitter.