After Saturday’s 2-1 defeat away to Blackburn Rovers, Neil Redfearn’s record at Leeds United as the full-time first-team manager now stands at one win, one draw and two losses from his first four games.
Miscommunication between centre-half Liam Cooper and goalkeeper Marco Silvestri resulted in what should’ve been a simple shield-the-ball-back-to-‘keeper scenario into a laughable moment (for non-Leeds fans) in which both Leeds players collided into each other and gifted Blackburn striker Jordan Rhodes his team’s equaliser.
As Thomas Hill wrote here on TIAT that this was not the first time this season that specific type (there have been plenty of miskicks, horrendously inaccurate outward passes, needless fouls and idiotic positional play) of grievous error was committed by Leeds, but if Redfearn wishes to remain in charge then it needs to be the last.
And Redfearn himself knows it: "[…] It was only that last little bit that has let everything down. That's the most important bit. We've got to get across the line."
It seems that our main hindrance during the last half of the previous year’s campaign has continued on to this season; our defensive fragility saw us flirt with relegation after last Christmas and has seen off three managers.
If it sounds simple it’s because it is: defensive fragility – individual errors being committed by a backline not yet a cohesive unit – and profligacy up front are the two main problems that effect teams in the Championship. The best teams have offered few, if any, examples of either problem, the above-average sides make up for having one by enhancing the other and the below-average teams have a larger degree of both. Simple game, football.
But of course it really isn’t. While both problems have plagued Leeds United throughout recent memory, it’s our defensive frailty that has always been our biggest issue and one that many managers have failed to sort out.
With players such as Jermaine Beckford, Luciano Becchio and Ross McCormack, we used to be able to score enough to secure a top-half finish, until our defence worsened and we lost our strikers in a descending order of proficiency and were left lucky enough to tally a total of goals to avoid relegation.
Former Leeds manager Brian McDermott was accused by some fans of playing unattractive football that, even more unforgivable, failed to yield results. Personally, I’d put this down to the team left to him by the man he replaced, Neil Warnock, whose apathy resulted in a team comprised mainly of talentless, listless driftwood the likes of which make tactics and formations almost irrelevant.
McDermott was sacked (twice, technically.) before he could craft the team he wanted, though it may not be incorrect to assume that, between the funds made available to him and his own recruitment process, he might not have succeeded anyway.
Fans will always be divided between the results-orientated who would secure three points and trophies at all costs and the aesthetic-orientated who don’t believe a fan, player or manager should have to accept either reactive, pragmatic football, or free-flowing football and noble defeat.
Wigan’s rise to and duration in the Premier League proved the aesthetics-orientated correct; Wigan punched above their weight for years before they won the F.A. Cup. Of course, this also led to the squad being over-extended during a lengthy campaign and their relegation the same year.
Of course, this doesn’t prove the results-orientated correct either. Tony Pulis has shown during his tenures at Stoke City and Crystal Palace the inherent value of pragmatism and organisation ahead of playing openly against richer clubs with better players; in all his years as manager Pulis was never relegated, but unlike Roberto Martinez at Wigan, he also never one a trophy while in the Premier League.
It seems then that an even, functional mixture of proactive and reactive football is the key to success. Certainly this season’s Chelsea side shows extremes of both, as do, to some extent, Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola . But then it’s easy for both José Mourinho and Guardiola to claim a Midas touch when they have access to almost as much currency as the Phrygian king of Greek mythological fame.
Championship clubs, however, have to rely much more on the manager and his coaching staff to excel at cheap recruitment, beneficial training and tactics that get the best out of the players on hand.
So, when ex-Forest Green manager Dave Hockaday assumed control over a Leeds squad injected with new blood (which may or may not have been chosen by the owner, Massimo Cellino) he attempted to apply a new, more free-flowing style of football.
The result was more entertaining than what was witnessed under Warnock or even McDermott, but the same defensive problems remained and it didn’t look like there was a difference between "free-flowing" and "loose" as Leeds’s defenders showcased time and time again.
It all begins at the back. Once you sort out your team’s defence and prevent shipping goals from preventable mistakes, either individual or collective, then it’s fair to say you’re usually looking at an approximate mid-table finish.
While the romanticist in me cringes at the thought, the pragmatist openly yearns for some Pulis-like stability. And that’s Pulis-like, not full-Pulis, because after all the reason he and Stoke parted ways was due to their stagnation under his philosophy.
All we need at Leeds is to become defensively solid enough to get a consistent run together and buy our manager, whether it’s Redfearn or his eventual successor, enough time to sort the team out for the rest of the season.
Maybe it’s true we don’t have the players to push on and challenge any higher than mid-table, but right now we definitely don’t have the system, and with managerial consistency not a viable expectation under Cellino the longest-serving manager under his reign will be the one who cuts out the mistakes from his defence and gets them to work as a coherent unit, finally sorting out our most longstanding problem – on the pitch, that is.