December was a raging success.
There you go ladies and gentlemen, my expert analysis is complete.
Leeds United collected 13 points from their six league games in 2016’s last calendar month. The club looks to have survived the dreaded Christmas period and will enter 2017 inside the top six. Massimo Cellino’s wallet is smiling as should every person with a rooting interest in Yorkshire football.
The month of December was confirmation of what I’m guessing most Leeds United fans think, but have been afraid to admit out loud – the Whites have finally returned to footballing relevance and are capable of returning to the Premier League.
Not in dreams or a far off fantasyland, but in reality. In 2017, we could bear witness to Leeds United returning to the planet’s best footballing league.
That is my biggest takeaway from December 2016. It isn’t so much that the past 31 days have borne this out, it’s that they have reinforced the optimism that has been brewing since Garry Monk took charge.
What felt merely possible back at the beginning of the season is now achievable. We have seen Monk change the fortunes of Leeds United in less than six months. December reinforced this belief and showed why its time to raise expectations (more on this in a minute).
This entire season has felt like the beginning of a roller coater. The Monk train is on the tracks and it keeps going up. Sure, there have been minor blimps along the way but in a holistic sense, each day at Elland Road is better than the one that preceded it.
December ended a 12 match period where United has only lost twice in the league, with defeats coming at the hands of Newcastle and Brighton – the two best sides in this division. Subpar performances and cataclysmic errors doomed United against both, but that hardly seems damaging at the moment.
When is the last time you saw a United side ruthlessly dispatch their opposition on their own pitch like we witnessed on Boxing Day? Can you recall the last time a drawn contest at a ground like Villa Park was a bitter disappointment? Or the last time Elland Road was magical for three consecutive weeks?
Each of these occurred in December, and distressingly it has been a long time since this type of ‘success’ was last seen. It has never before happened in my adult life.
If you need any reminder of how far we have come, just take a look at Monk’s old employer. Swansea City sacked their favourite son just over a year ago and have been in disarray ever since. This week, they will appoint their fourth manager in 13 months. Does this sound familiar?
This was Leeds United just six months ago: a powerhouse club with an outstanding panache for ruining their own destiny. Thank goodness times have changed.
A new year also marks the midpoint of the League season. Thus, it represents the perfect time to measure performance against preseason expectations.
Before the season, we laid out expectations to measure the successfulness of United’s 2016/17 campaign. These were placed into three different buckets: the expected, the desirable and the ultimate.
The expected were considered the baseline for a pass mark, the bare minimum required. Achieving the desirable would transform a C minus grade into a B plus, while the ultimate, well, that spoke for itself.
Suffice to say, the results have been outstanding.
The Expected goals were:
More goals than last season
United only netted 50 times during the 2015/16 season. This year, the club is on track to score 59.
Stability part I – no more coach sackings
Garry Monk remains in place and I hope it stays this way forever. Grab your rabbit’s foot, rub buddha's belly, touch wood (or knock on it) or do whatever needs to be done.
Stability part II – consistent defensive unit
Kyle Bartley and Pontus Jansson are now in our lives. Enough said.
Playing meaningful football games in April
We’re on track for Elland Road to indeed be rocking in April. This will be awesome.
Re-sign at least two of Alex Mowatt, Lewie Coyle and Charlie Taylor
In yet another reminder of how much things have changed, this doesn’t even matter any more. Keeping Taylor would be a nice boost to the long-term profile of United’s roster, but it doesn’t seem vital given the overall depth in the squad.
The Desirable goals were:
Getting to 73 points
United are on track for 81 points (!!!!), which based on history would guarantee a place in the top six. Our James Mahoney did a wonderful job of projecting forward and analysing how many points could be collected between now and May.
30 goals from the Chris Wood / Marcus Antonsson combination
Wood is scoring like a madman and has already outdone last season’s effort with his 14 goals. Throw in Antonsson’s three goals and this combination is well on track to reach 30. While I still have some reservations regarding the ability of both, the results to date speak for themselves.
The Ultimate goals were:
Stay on target. Currently sat in a play off spot, we’d need some wins against the other 3-6 clubs, but that’s clearly not an impossible task. Catching Brighton and Newcastle might be difficult, but again, anything is possible.
Of these eight expectations, seven are on track and one falls into the category of non-relevance.
The season to date, just like the month of December, has been a resounding success. That is why it is time to shift the goal post and change our expectations.
The above measures are nice and serve as good indicators of a competent football side, something Leeds United is once again. We weren’t that when the season began. But these are baby steps, not the end game.
In just six months and one transfer window, Monk has cultivated a squad and overseen a rapid rise up the table. Just imagine what can be accomplished in the next six months.
The magical P word was our ultimate goal back in August and it remains the case as we exit 2016. For the first time in years it is a realistic possibility.
Happy New Year to all and here’s hoping 2017 will mark the return of Leeds United to the Premier League. MOT.