With five games of the Championship played so far, and the first international break of the season upon us, now is as good a time as ever to take a look at Leeds United’s opening to the season. In what is fast becoming the norm for Leeds fans, the club have begun the season in a rather Jekyll and Hyde manner, with the negatives outweighing the positives for most. Progression in the EFL Cup is contrasted against a slow start in the league, which sees the West Yorkshire club sitting in 21st after five games, one place above the relegation zone, at the time of the international break.
So what positives can Leeds United fans take from the season so far? Well, the 2-0 victory at Hillsborough against beaten play-off finalists Sheffield Wednesday in The Whites’ first Yorkshire derby of the season is something, surely. Goals from strikers Marcus Antonsson and Chris Wood not only put the shine on a dominating performance, but also highlighted the developing partnership between the two; while Chris Wood will always have his doubters in the crowd, he’s beginning to find the net on a more regular basis than last season, and that in itself is another positive. Indeed, Wood’s last minute bicycle kick equaliser in front of the Kop to rescue a point against Fulham was certainly memorable, and a reason for fans to remain optimistic; if Wood is capable of those kind of acrobatic finishes, surely it’s just a matter of time until he’s hitting the net on a regular basis.
Another reason for Leeds United fans to take some positivity from the season’s opening is the emergence of more young, talented players from the club’s academy. The brilliantly named Ronaldo Vieira has featured heavily in the opening of the season, and whilst his inexperience has been noticeable at times, his ability has been obvious for all to see. Furthermore, amongst the rumours surrounding Charlie Taylor’s future, the performance of left back Tyler Denton in his debut against Luton Town is enough to suggest that, should Taylor leave in January, there is a capable apprentice waiting in the wings. The quality of Denton’s finish, with the outside of his left boot, to win the cup tie further demonstrates his potential, and is a positive of the season so far on its own.
Similarly, Kalvin Phillips’ free kick against Nottingham Forest was a thing of beauty and a reason for fans to remain positive. Yes, it turned out to be a consolation as Forest walked to a 3-1 victory, but there’s just something about a local lad smashing one in from 30 yards that you can’t help but smile about.
Another positive of the season, which many fans were convinced would never happen, was the completion of Liam Bridcutt’s permanent transfer from Sunderland. The saga rumbled on for weeks, and the Leeds midfield had a Bridcutt-shaped hole during the first couple of matches of the season, so having the deal completed was definitely something for Leeds fans to be positive about. The fact that Bridcutt’s return to the side for his permanent debut, following last season’s loan spell, coincided with the dominating performance and victory against Sheffield Wednesday further emphasises the importance of the signing, and therefore the reason for positivity.
But the season has been far from perfect, and there’s been many negatives surrounding all the positives. For all the good of the victory against Sheffield Wednesday, the defending in the matches against QPR, Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest was poor to say the least. Starting the season with a 3-0 defeat in West London certainly emphasised the defensive issues Garry Monk has at the club; the capitulation against Birmingham at Elland Road in a 2-1 defeat and a basic inability to defend set pieces in a 3-1 defeat away at Forest further this point. On a similar topic, the release of club captain Sol Bamba is another reason for concern; whilst he had fallen down the pecking order in defence due to some worrying errors, he was a likable member of the squad and a big personality in the dressing room, which the current squad is clearly lacking.
Whilst the loan signing of Pontus Jansson from Torino helps to bolster the backline, the release of Bamba leaves The Whites with only three recognised centre backs; the fact that only Liam Cooper is contracted to the club, with Kyle Bartley also on loan (from Swansea), highlights the defensive frailties in West Yorkshire.
If the lack of centre backs is reason for Leeds fans to worry, so is the lack of strikers in the squad. Summer signing Marcus Antonsson has impressed so far, but Chris Wood is yet to convince many Leeds fans; whilst he has started to hit the back of the net, he has a reputation for missing chances more than converting them and that, alongside his injury issues last season, is enough for Leeds fans to worry. The only other striker in the squad is Souleymane Doukara, who has struggled to make a significant impact since joining The Whites two years ago; throw in the eight-match ban he received last season for biting Fulham’s Fernando Amorebieta, and the Leeds United attack looks less than convincing. Everyone who knows anything about Leeds United knew that signing another striker before Deadline Day had to be a priority, and the failure to do so has many fans feeling less than enthusiastic about the Elland Road outfit’s forward line.
So, how can Garry Monk and co. go forwards with the squad after the international break? Well, building the team around Liam Bridcutt is the obvious first step. His influence in his first match saw Leeds dominate the derby against Wednesday, so his place in the heart of the team has to be the first step to take; Monk may even consider making him captain following the release of Bamba, that’s the importance of Bridcutt to the side.
Another new signing, Pontus Jansson, also needs to be bedded into the team quickly. The defensive weaknesses were highlighted against Nottingham Forest in the final game before the international break, so adding the Swedish international to the first team must be a priority. Other than that, Monk needs to encourage and develop the attacking talent at his disposal, and work it into the side as best as he can; Pablo Hernandez has shown flashes of brilliance, particularly against Fleetwood Town in the EFL Cup, and if Monk can get him performing at his best on a regular basis, he can be the catalyst for driving Leeds up the table. Similarly, Stuart Dallas was an important part of Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad, and if he can replicate that form during the season, he could be a key player in the Leeds starting XI. Furthermore, if Deadline Day signing Eunan O’Kane, who was a member of Bournemouth’s promotion-winning squad in 2014/15, can work his way into the Leeds midfield and demonstrate his ability, The Whites could soon be climbing up the table.
It will be interesting to see, therefore, how Monk lines up against league leaders, and West Yorkshire rivals, Huddersfield Town for the first game after the international break. Who will skipper the side? Will new signings cement starting places? One thing is for sure; Leeds will have to raise their game for this Yorkshire derby, like they did against Sheffield Wednesday, get their season back on the right track, and march on together up the table.