The last time I wrote an article about Leeds United was after Neil Redfearn’s last game in charge as caretaker manager (see https://twilightdawning.com/2014/09/25/ch-ch-changes-2) before Darko Milanic took over the reins for a brief period in charge – which matched the length of appointment at Elland Road previously only associated with the dark days of David Hockaday, Brian Clough and Jock Stein.
Now Redfearn is back in permanent charge (whatever that means under Massimo Cellino – oh, sorry we’re meant to believe that he has no current involvement in the club’s decision-making process as he is an unfit person), I decided it was time to give another survey of how the team has changed and so I will do so concentrating my energies on the two recent home games against Watford (3-2 loss) and Ipswich (2-1 win). Let’s see what we can learn…
In the last game of Redfearn’s caretaker spell, Leeds beat Huddersfield 3-0. The team on that day was as follows:
Marco Silvestri (GK)
Gaetano Berardi (RB)
Stephen Warnock (LB) (now Derby County)
Giuseppe Bellusci (CD)
Jason Pearce (CD) (now Wigan Athletic)
Tommaso Bianchi (LM)
Casper Sloth (RM)
Rodolph Austin (CM)
Lewis Cook (CM)
Souleymane Doukara (St)
Mirco Antenucci (St)
Sam Byram (Sub)
Steve Morison (Sub)
Michael Tonge (now on loan to Milwall)
Unused substitutes that day were Billy Sharp, Adryan, Stuart Taylor, and Liam Cooper.
By the time of the Watford game several changes had come about, some as you can see because of outward transfers and some because Redfearn believes that several of the young players he managed at youth level are now ready to be introduced on the big league stage.
Gaetano Berardi was now an unused substitute and his role has gone to Scott Wootton (23 years of age).
Charlie Taylor (21 years of age) had taken over at left back.
Bellusci was unavailable and so Liam Cooper had been promoted from the subs bench and is now club captain.
Sol Bamba (born Cote D’ivoire) had been signed and taken up a role in central defence.
The leftside of midfield role has gone to Alex Mowatt (aged 20).
Sloth has fallen out of favour and Sam Byram has taken over in right midfield.
Redfearn has added an extra central midfielder with Luke Murphy who had previously been a forgotten man at Elland Road now becoming a mainstay of the team. This gives the team five players across the midfield.
This leaves room for just one striker and recently this had been Steve Morison but by the time of the Watford game, injury to Morison meant that Billy Sharp had stepped to see if he could capture his opportunity. Both Doukara and Antenucci have had to settled for reduced roles in recent weeks.
Antenucci along with Adryan and new guy, Edgar Cani were introduced in the second half but only Antenucci had any real impact. Cani is Albanian and has yet to make a start in the Leeds side.
The game against Watford was an unusual one in that Leeds managed to take a 2-0 lead within 20 minutes but to my eyes never looked at any point within the 90+ minutes like they would win.
Silvestri continues to be a solid and athletic presence in goal but on this occasion the central defence in front of him seemed to have gone to sleep. Liam Cooper was AWOL for most of the game and just made no impact on the game, either as an individual presence or in his captain’s role as an organising voice, marshalling his young troops. For my money, he was the worst player on the field on this occasion.
Others settled their wrath on Sol Bamba, who I thought was better, but perhaps because he had done so well since his arrival, he was ripped apart by the fans in their online post-game, social media criticism.
The right side partnership of Wootton and Byram was effective, particularly in the first half – although perhaps a little quiet after that. Both Austin and Murphy provided surging runs which brought offensive opportunities. They also provided some cover for their errant brothers at the back.
Upfront, Sharp latches onto the ball in electric fashion when it is played to his feet. Leeds United have a strong tradition of “goal-rakers” and he is in that mould but he has no energy or momentum to chase the ball when more is required of him and this proved his undoing too often. Partnering him with Antenucci who will run and run and is fast, improved matters. The introduction of a third striker came way too late as Redfearn seemed to visibly hesitate over his tactics.
The unused substitutes were Taylor, Berardi, Lewis Walters (19 years of age) and Sloth. There was no room for Doukara who was just the kind of player that Leeds needed to hold up the ball and feed either Sharp or Antenucci. His strong physicality was sorely missed.
The second goal from Austin was a fine individual piece of skill and Sharp’s opener was Sharp doing what Sharp does well.
By the time of the Ipswich game, Rodolph Austin who had been one of the bright lights in both the aforementioned Huddersfield game and the Watford match was unavailable due to injury and was replaced by a little re-jigging of the formation with Mowatt being pushed into a more central role to cover the absence. This meant that Charlie Taylor was moved from left-back to left midfield and Liam Cooper was moved from central defence (where he had been so poor last time out) to left back.
Finally to complete the eleven, Giuseppe Bellusci returned from suspension. He is a formidable presence at the back but that comes with a cost – 2 red cards and 11 yellow cards since the start of the season, with the accompanying suspensions.
And Bellusci and Bamba were one of the factors that led to Leeds victory on this late Winter’s evening. It was very hard to see anyway that Ipswich could get two goals past them – indeed the one that did come came only because of a Silvestri fumble – and Silvestri was to redeem himself with a penalty save when the fixture seemed to be hanging in the balance, undeservedly.
Errors like that come very infrequently from Silvestri and he has been a real find for them this season.
Taylor did more in left midfield than he had done at the back but Cooper once again showed very little and it would seem he is hanging onto a regular spot in team by his fingernails and his captain’s armband. Having sold Pearce and Warnock, it is hard to see who you would give the captaincy to, if you dropped Cooper – Austin has been tried and relinquished the role and too many others have English only as a second language to be dependable to communicate in that job.
Murphy still had much to contribute but Austin was missed. The young lads are doing well in supporting roles but they need big personalities to show them the ropes and that was an asset a little too thin on the ground tonight.
Of that group of young players, Mowatt’s ability at hitting a dead ball brought another goal for the opener as he hit a powerful free-kick from the right side. An unmerited equaliser from Sears had a short-lived impact on the outcome as Sharp hit another from a volley to give him two-in-two games.
Antenucci had once more joined Sharp upfront and tellingly this change came before the deadlock was broken. In the late moments, Morison replaced Charlie Taylor very late on but, consequently, brought nothing to the game. He must be kicking himself that the injury he suffered came at the time it did. He has lost his place at the head of the list of strikers Leeds rely on – and on a team that choose to use only one that is a difficult race to regain the lead in.
Unused substitutes against Ipswich were Taylor, Cani, Berardi, Sloth and Doukara with Doukara replacing Adryan in the squad but without being given chance to impact the game.
And so, what does all this mean to Redfearn and Leeds’ report card? Well, obviously things are looking much more stable than they were in September – and indeed before Christmas – not least because the ridiculous chopping and changing has ceased and there seems to be only one reason for that but it would be ‘unfit’ and unseemly to mention the reason for it.
The younger players are quite an asset for the future and keeping this group together into 2015/16 will be quite an achievement. What they do need is a wider variety of mature players around them. Many signings have been made but without sufficient thought to the shape of the squad with very similar strikers being signed and very few midfield options with Championship experience. Redfearn needs to be given a much greater voice in player selection.
Bellusci and Bamba should fare well at the back, if Bellusci can restrain himself a little without losing his edge and Bamba can avoid complacency. On this evidence, Cooper is not the man they need for a third option and he is not their best choice at left back.
Neil Redfearn is doing well and a top 10 finish would be a great reward for him. He should be given an extended run at continuing the transition he has begun as impatience in the past as cost the Yorkshire team dearly.