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Leeds United: Breaking the Mould

8 October 2015
Leeds United: Breaking the Mould
One of the things that excited Leeds United fans when Uwe Rosler was given the job as the Club’s latest head coach, was his conviction of how he wanted to play and his steadfast belief that his entire ethos at the Club would be based around that.

‘Heavy Metal football’ was the very quotable tag put on it, and while that is a phrase Rosler may possibly wish never to hear again, at least we had something….and we liked the sound of it: high-pressing, getting the ball forward quickly through incisive passing, lots of crosses, shooting on sight; essentially steamrollering teams, like a textbook Leeds United team should. Indeed, it had all the ingredients that any football fan loves. Attack, attack, attack.

Some of Leeds’s most successful sides have been based on this philosophy; midfielders eating up opponents, wingers and full backs bombing forward, attackers forcing errors and delivering savage blows before a baying crowd, smelling and gorging on blood. It was more Deathcore metal than heavy, but we weren’t about to quarrel over technicalities.

However, it was not so much the gung-ho mentality that enchanted Leeds fans right from the off, it was the confidence that Rosler exuded; the belief that his methods had worked elsewhere and here was a credible coach who wasn’t afraid to walk into the biggest job of his career and lay down the law on exactly how it was going to be. Impressive stuff.

It was a far cry from the wafer thin cogency and transparent bluster displayed by Dave Hockaday and the dumbstruck Junior Lewis twelve months earlier. Furthermore, the words were backed up with actions in the transfer market.

Today though, Leeds United lick their wounds from a second home defeat of the season, 2-0 to Birmingham City, and the dark clouds are building in the knowledge that Leeds have now gone ten home games without a win, despite nearly half of those being relatively meaningless affairs at the end of last season; another campaign effectively over by mid-March.

Ten games into Uwe Rosler’s tenure, the very last thing we should be doing is questioning whether the German is the right man to be in the Elland Road ejector seat. History tells us many times over that kneejerk resolution doesn’t work. Patience and faith is required; something the game of football increasingly has little of, however much we complain about the treatment of people and the short-termism employed by those above. In the heat of the moment, we can all be party to imprudent conclusions, but forbearance and resolve is required now to stick doggedly with the best squad of players we have assembled in a decade, and to allow conditions of permanence to seek the right blend and solution.

It can’t be denied, however, that Leeds have a problem, and it’s nothing new nor exclusive to Uwe Rosler. Just 17 wins over the last 51 home games says it all, and with last week seeing the fifth anniversary of Leeds’s 6-4 Elland Road humiliation versus Preston North End pass by with due remembrance, the history books tell us that many have failed with lesser tools than Rosler has at his disposal.

Undoubtedly, the 2-0 defeat to Birmingham City on Saturday raised questions over the plausibility of Rosler’s trusted methods; and he himself admitted as much. Looking at home games specifically, where it is a pre-requisite that you impose your game on your supposedly vulnerable opponents, it is not so much that the ‘heavy metal’ approach isn’t working; it is more the point that we haven’t seen any of it, bar maybe a twenty-minute spell during the opening game against Burnley. Clearly Rosler is introducing new players to a new system, many of whom are, by design, young and inexperienced, but the high pressing game becomes superfluous when teams come to Elland Road to soak up pressure and hit Leeds on the break, like Birmingham did on Saturday and like Brentford, Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday did to a lesser extent in previous games.

In such instances, Leeds are left to build slowly from the back, pass attractively between themselves while an unlikely opening is created, and in the meantime the opposition are keeping them firmly and calmly at arms’ length. Few teams come to Elland Road to attack Leeds; they sit deep, soak up the pressure and attack on the counter, knowing we have a defence vulnerable to pace and with a mistake or two in it. There is little room for Leeds to force errors, little room for our wide players to turn and run at defenders and little room for Leeds to impose their edicts and beliefs on the game; all before a disgruntled and increasingly impassive audience. Not so much an environment for barbarous heavy metal, more a village hall commune experimenting in folk-jazz fusion.

The build-up to Saturday’s game saw Rosler claiming that his staff had ‘done their homework’ on Birmingham, having watched them three times in recent weeks. The ease with which Gary Rowett’s men subsequently picked Leeds off therefore suggests Rosler had nothing in his armoury to counter them doing exactly what was expected. I don’t believe that is true.

Leeds dominated possession in both halves, but once again only looked cohesive when crisis point approached and initial plans were ripped up. Another first half was written off with barely anything created and only the introduction of Mirco Antenucci – once again – and Congolese winger Jordan Botaka in the second half raised more than a resigned murmur from the crowd.

That Leeds could do nothing to repel Birmingham’s pre-destined plan suggests Rosler does not have the wherewithal to implement the ethos he so boldly proclaimed in his opening June press conference, or at least he hasn’t yet found it within the squad he has assembled. This, you feel, is the key to Leeds’s stuttering start to the season and their inability to impose themselves at Elland Road.

Evidence so far suggests that Stuart Dallas, for all his general qualities, is not an out and out winger who will charge at a right back and pound him into submission. Botaka on the other hand doesn’t just have the tricks, but also has the inclination and bravery to commit a defender and make things happen. Whether he has consistency and the composure to deliver that killer pass, we have yet to truly see, but he had fans off their seats during his brief cameo and you had almost forgotten what the excitable hum created by someone taking the game to the opposition actually felt like.

Elsewhere, Leeds still lack a central character; or indeed any character. Our midfield is supposed to be our strength, but the three-man formation doesn’t appear to be working whichever combination we try. I feel that everything should be built around Lewis Cook, who at 18 is the only player we have who will take the fight to the opposition in the mould of Rosler’s trusted policy. However, when things aren’t working and we need ideas and an injection of old-fashioned stimulus and incitement, we don’t have the character. For all their assets, Alex Mowatt, Luke Murphy, Tom Adeyemi and Lewis Cook are not bloodthirsty generals who can get in the faces of opponents and/or their own team mates and demand either that they are the boss or that things need to change.

Perhaps this is a trait of the modern game and the modern footballer? The media decry the lack of characters in the game, while building up to knock down those that do emerge. The vicious and unforgiving playground of social media doesn’t help, and as a result footballers possibly prefer to be meek and mild, and do their job to the best of their ability without upsetting the status quo and drawing undue attention.

Football protocol also demands people talk about players not being able to live up to the expectations of the Elland Road crowd and their vehement nature, and undoubtedly this has claimed many victims in the past, but it must be ten years since Elland Road truly held any fear for the opposition, or justifiably provided a stage upon which its own players were too timid and nervous to perform.

Elland Road has been half-empty for more than a decade and increasingly its inhabitants have been conditioned to mediocrity. This is maybe a little simplistic, but the defeatist atmosphere bears it out; the older generation is passively accepting of the uninspiring and the younger generation is not even aware of what the beast deep in the stadium’s DNA is capable of producing. Add to that the relatively pedestrian targets set by owner Massimo Cellino and Rosler himself – ‘progress’ measured by a top ten finish – and you wonder what ‘expectations’ Leeds’s players are struggling with?

If the name of ‘Leeds United’ is still weighing down our players and the shirt is heavy to wear, then this gives our fans some bravado to travel the country with, but the name doesn’t appear to mean anything to the opposition, who visit our home with the full expectation of taking three points, and while they’re at it they will rifle through our CD collection and, feet up on the sofa, will help themselves to the wife’s Milk Tray while they’re at it. Birmingham striker Clayton Donaldson spoke post-match of a tangible feeling of tension at Elland Road, which away teams salaciously exploit. I think it is more a feeling of apathy and indifference, a sense of resignation after years of prosaic mid-table stagnation, where Leeds fans can barely raise the inclination to get angry anymore.

How Rosler now uses the two weeks at his disposal - before unbeaten league leaders Brighton & Hove Albion visit Elland Road - to change his players’ disposition is difficult to judge, when much of the problem is deep rooted and in the head. It wouldn’t do him any harm to cast an eye a few miles across the City to where a sporting institution is readying itself for another tilt at glory in Saturday’s Grand Final at Old Trafford and has enjoyed unprecedented success since 2004, indeed for all the time Leeds United have been furiously paddling everywhere but the right direction. Leeds Rhinos may well partake in a different sport with different values and expectations, but their key is their strength of mind and the forging of a relentless winning mentality. There is something in the water down there, and it has always struck me as remiss that successive regimes at Leeds United can’t even share a cup of tea with what is most likely a willing and reciprocal resource on their own doorstep, and uncover even one tiny nugget of knowledge that might unlock the mental chains that Leeds United are bound by.

What Rosler suggests he will do is take a more simplistic approach, and you feel here that maybe his trigger-happy philosophy has been lost among players without the bellicose nature to truly implement it. However, you would agree that somehow we need a formation that doesn’t require radical de-construction after 60 minutes and is capable of dictating the game from the start - and we need to stick with it.

Whether this is a concession to 4-4-2 or not, you feel that a different approach is required, certainly at Elland Road.; something that will accommodate Antenucci for ninety minutes and work to his strengths, something that will get our wide players into the game and attacking at will, and something that will allow our talented midfield to flourish. Something to create goal-scoring opportunities, something to make us an attacking unit, something to allow freedom, initiative and momentum and to wrestle the game in Leeds United’s favour once and for all. It isn’t easy, because countless victims have failed with an endless list of resources at their disposal. But we need to break the monotonous cycle; we need something to break the mould.

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.