Despite the awful start to the season last weekend at QPR, the ground-out midweek victory on penalties at Fleetwood Town managed to somehow restore an element of belief and optimism that things may get going on Saturday at home to Birmingham City and the memories of the trip to Loftus Road could be purged from our minds... how wrong we all were. Let's dissect this one and see where it all went pear-shaped.
Trial and Error
New faces, new management, new season at Elland Road. Three points were on the cards for many a Leeds United fan yesterday, and we couldn't wait to see the boys get the campaign underway on our own pitch. Having had two matches to try to establish what may be his best XI, Monk elected to make a raft of changes from the game at Fleetwood for the arrival of the West Midlands club.
New signing Luke Ayling came in for youngster Lewie Coyle, and Sol Bamba returned to captain the side with Liam Cooper making way. In midfield, Alex Mowatt's impressive effort in midweek earned him a start, with Hadi Sacko earning his spot on the other flank. Up front, the effective combination of Wood and Antonsson was tried out from the off.
All the changes meant that Monk had indeed gone to the traditional 4-4-2 formation we were all wishing he'd try. It's been said many a time that Chris Wood up front on his own just doesn't cut it, so the addition of the Swede into the front line was hoped to bolster firepower.
Monk had realised that things had to change, and he wasn't too afraid to try something else. As good as that is to see, it somewhat overshadows the fact that Monk still doesn't yet know either his best starting XI, nor his best formation in which to deploy the troops. Monk was quoted in his pre-match press conference by saying that he wanted Elland Road to return to the fortress it once was, and playing two up front was a clear statement of the intent to score more goals and bully teams on the score sheet, but at what cost?
Defensive Frailties Exposed Once More
The majority of us here at TIAT were adamant that we would once again be unable to keep a clean sheet. Our pre-match predictions had Birmingham scoring at least once yesterday, and so it proved. It's the same old story, but Leeds have now conceded seven goals in the opening three competitive matches this season. It's simply not good enough.
So where is the blame, what's going wrong? In my preview for the match, I alluded to the fact that we lack leadership. Every defence, let alone the whole team, needs a leader that will get a grip of the back four and organise. Leeds just don't have that. If Liam Cooper were 100% fit and Monk was convinced he would be able to see a game through for 90 minutes, then I have no doubts he would be getting the nod over Sol Bamba.
Hopes were high that the arrival of Kyle Bartley may bring out the very best in Bamba, but the two have just not clicked. The reality of the situation though is that even were Cooper to become the second choice centre-half, would there really be much difference? Monk gave the armband to Bamba because he knew he had no other options, and selecting Bartley as a loanee may not prove to popular with the fans. He covered this up by saying that he felt no need to change it - No Garry, you have no idea who it should be, and we feel sorry for you.
Although Birmingham had a fair few efforts on goal with multiple shots coming close to Green's post, their two goals were yet again down to the most basic errors. It is quite plain to see that Charlie Taylor has absolutely no desire to be at the club, and it's showing in his "performances.” Jacques Maghoma was allowed to breeze through the defence on a counter against the run of play, finding it easy being on the wrong side of Taylor and being found by the easiest of through-balls for a simple finish - questionable goalkeeping, shoddy defending.
The second goal was another in what is fast becoming an outrageously recurring theme. Stop letting the ball bounce and roll around the penalty area - it's absolute bottom-line basic defending. Clear your lines, and send the thing into Row Z if required. I've seen the goal back numerous times and literally cannot believe how many players in a white shirt are standing around watching the ball. Four Leeds players were between the ball and the goal when Michael Morrison had an absolute gift presented to him.
What's more, it was a simple ball into the box; no one marking, no one being picked up - it's an absolute shambles and an embarrassment. In fact, there were two red shirts in more than enough space to have taken the shot; it's an absolute joke. No leadership, no organisation, no commitment. Sol Bamba and Kyle Bartley need to have a serious look at themselves.
I will not stand for the case being made that they need time to gel as a group. Yes, to some extent effectiveness will come in time, as they get to know one another better, but the goals we are conceding are just down to pure laziness and lack of desire to act and not because they are new faces. That back four has played at this level or higher for too many years to know how to get the basic job done right, and I wouldn't be going too far to say that Sunday pub teams expect that level of competency at the least.
Midfield Lacks Robustness
Another issue that we all know needs resolving immediately is the middle of the park. Monk's willingness to make changes made for a potentially weakened midfield, and it didn't take long to work out why. Birmingham manager Gary Rowett had every intention of playing to his sides strengths, and it was a very accomplished away performance from his team. Set up to pack the midfield and play on the counter, Birmingham comfortably dealt with anything Leeds were attempting through the centre, sapping the energy and creativity from the likes of Hernandez and Mowatt.
Changing to 4-4-2 was always going to bring other issues, and not knowing what players would fit where meant Mowatt was back in his unhappy place, on the left wing. With Hadi Sacko on the opposite side, it meant for a rather untried midfield pairing of Hernandez and Vieira. Now we all know that yesterday was very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance, but the sheer decline of Mowatt through the game was remarkable.
In a first half where Leeds dominated proceedings, Mowatt's through ball to Sacko for Leeds' only goal was his only real highlight for the match. Plenty of bark in the guy, but no real bite. The concerning aspect of Mowatt's game is his lack of ability to see out 90 minutes. I'm not sure why his fitness is causing him issues, maybe the extra tracking back when exiled to the flanks is working against him, who knows. He needs to realise that a match is 90 minutes, and not 45.
The Liam Bridcutt transfer saga has been going on far too long. The deal needs to be done with or done away with. As fans, it's of course hard for us to find any real insight as to what holds these things up, but if it is indeed the difficulty with negotiating his wages, Cellino needs to swallow his pride and dig into those growing pockets of his. Without the likes of Bridcutt providing a bit of steel to our midfield, we are going to find ourselves overrun every single game.
The issue is that with playing 4-4-2, although in theory it should provide more opportunities to score - and I hold my hands up and say that I encouraged the trial of it - it leaves us incredibly vulnerable in midfield. Ronaldo Vieira is only 18 years old, and the lack of other options means Monk is asking him to do a job he's not capable of. Championship midfields are no place for lack of size and experience, and although Vieira shows plenty of potential, he is either going to burn out or start to really struggle to play his best football is he's getting beaten up week after week.
Hernandez is undoubtedly at his best when given the freedom to roam in the hole as a number 10, but having him in the centre of the midfield isn't going to work. Hernandez isn't that sort of player who can really function to his best in a flat midfield. He's not going to be able to run up and down all game for the season. Not only that, but having him in that role means we lose a lot of potential flair and creativity going forward, as he's always having to think about covering and getting back to help defend more than he would like. Of course some element of this is expected as a midfielder, but Monk needs to play each player to their strengths.
Forward Line Faltering
I feel sorry for Marcus Antonsson. Although he has worked for his chance and Monk has duly obliged by giving him the start yesterday, Chris Wood is dragging his name through the mud with him in the sense that the goals aren't coming and chances aren't getting buried. His effort off the crossbar early on in the first half showing he is in the right places; the Fleetwood goal proving he has the instinct and the ability.
Chris Wood is currently 100% not fit to wear the shirt. The ability to put a penalty away should not be a good enough excuse to play the guy. He has been poor overall since his arrival last season, and is continuing in that vein this campaign. He's lazy, doesn't make space, doesn't move, doesn't provide a viable option as a target man, isn't willing to put the extra work in to generate chances, can't score, and doesn't deserve his place in the team.
He is simply not good enough to play at this level, and he is quite frankly just taking up a spot on the team sheet. I would rather Monk give Doukara a chance up front than see Wood mope about and do absolutely nothing productive. Wood is making a strong case for yet another addition we need before the end of the window - another striker. It wasn't an area we really thought we would have any concern about once we got going, but evidently Antonsson is going to need to do all the work on his own this season. The less said about Wood right now, the better.
What Needs to Happen Now?
We all fear it, we all know it could be coming. A defeat to Fulham on Tuesday and knowing how ludicrously our club is run, it wouldn't be too farfetched to say we could be seeing Monk packing his bags - how ridiculous. But it's true, that threat is well and truly there, you know it as well as I do.
Monk is not to blame here. The transfers stalling, the inability to play the formation he would like, and his lack of options of playing staff are a real drain on his current position. We know Monk is good enough to manage Leeds, and we all want him to stay. His post-match interview showed he makes no bones over the performances, and is very, very unhappy with the players.
They need to stand up and be counted as a squad, and yesterday's second half showing was an absolute disgrace to the club and to Monk. There was no desire, no heart, no commitment and no care from the players. Where is the will to win?
Fans have always been fantastic at Leeds and are a huge part of the club and what it is. Everyone knows Leeds have "fans" - home, away, anywhere. The players are doing that life blood a huge disservice at the moment. It's preferable to lose 5-0 and see them giving absolutely everything and being dead on their feet, but losing 2-1 at home to Birmingham and not caring about it is wholly unacceptable.
The Bridcutt deal needs to happen and fast, a centre back is desperately needed to ensure we don't see that impostor Bamba playing again, and the players need to get down to the local chemist and get a bottle of "Man Up" pills each and remember to take them before Fulham on Tuesday, and show some damn heart and desire. Over to you, Mr. Monk - I hear hairdryers are going cheap online at the moment, I suggest you get an order in.