Isn’t it funny what a few victories can accomplish?
Just two and a half weeks ago, Leeds United was five minutes away from disaster. Sitting 22nd in the league and locked in a dire 1-1 stalemate with cellar dwellers Blackburn Rovers, a nuclear explosion was brewing at Elland Road.
The collective was questioning the stewardship of Garry Monk, and if not for Mr. Kyle Bartley, those with a reason to hate would have had the ammunition to launch verbal grenades from the Donald Trump playbook. Thank goodness for this goal.
For me, any review of September must start with Bartley finding the back of the net. It turned around the month, and potentially a season, football club and managerial stint.
The goal itself was nothing special, rather benign really. As too was a victory over the worst team in our division. But it was our first glimpse into a world in which Monk made Elland Road matter again, where a Tuesday night at the footy can make us smile like it did at the turn of the century. Where last minute goals are rainbows and butterflies, not a habitual disappointment that makes us cry (or drink) ourselves to sleep.
What followed an element of good luck against Rovers was the best run of form this decade! Seriously... it has been seven seasons since we enjoyed a four game-winning streak. If you needed reminder number 285 (yes, this is an official count) of how diabolically dyslexic United has been of late, this little statistic is it.
But alas, Bartley helped buck the trend and had us running around Elland Road quicker than Frank the Tank.
Before I pull out the beer funnel and start imitating this hero, here’s a quick recap of the September action.
United bookended it’s four game winning streak with 1-0 defeats to Huddersfield Town and Bristol City, two sides currently sitting within the top 10. Importantly, this saw Leeds improve its league position by eight spots and sit only four points outside the playoff picture. The League Cup campaign is still alive, and while I am against prioritising fanciful cup runs over league contests, Monk has towed this line nicely. He has utilised a deeper squad and harvested confidence from a prolonged Cup run. No doubt about it.
So what else did we like about September? Well, can I interest you in the thoughts of Pontus Jansson?
When you give fucking everything, sooner or later you will get the result! #MOT— Pontus Jansson (@PJansson5) September 13, 2016
And for his on field exploits, tackles like this appeal to my inner centre-back.
How could you not love this man? The combination of Bartley and Jansson in the centre of defence now gives United a firm standing to build a competent backline around. The winning streak was highlighted by three consecutive clean sheets, including our first league shutout at Elland Road in 12 contests. With only three goals conceded from September’s six contests, the defensive unit looks to be coming along nicely.
As for the pointy end of the pitch, there are two things I want to cover. First, goal scoring remains an issue. United averaged only one goal per game throughout the month, with the majority of these coming from my favourite big ole Kiwi. More on him in a minute.
We have done a great job of collecting points on the back of outstanding defending and collecting the timely goal, but this can only go so far. United put forward one of their best performances this season against Bristol City, but couldn’t capitalise on the scoreboard. And this means we dropped points we not only needed, but perhaps deserved.
The big boys in this league will continue running away from us if more goals are not discovered. Something Jack raised last week.
The Newcastles, Brightons and Norwichs of this league will no doubt make Leeds suffer for not putting chances away; defending a single-goal lead against those sorts of sides will be a different story.
As for Chris Wood, he still remains impossible to judge. On one hand, he is scoring goals: four of our six for the month to be fair. His confidence is clearly on the rise, and a universe exists in which he can become a dominant striker at this level. I mean, try defending this.
But I am still left wanting more. The New Zealand International continues to leave goals on the field; infuriatingly easy opportunities are still being butchered. It’s frustrating because Wood has almost everything we need. He is the clear number one attacking option in the squad at the moment, and an obvious favorite of Monk. Plus, he has the talent to guide United into the top six... I firmly believe this.
But a trend is developing, and one figures he has until the January transfer period to jump from occasional goal scorer to proven talisman. I hope, pray and even believe that he will develop his game further and get there, but time will ultimately tell the story.
Being fair to Wood, it would sure help if goals came from other sources. Sure, Pablo Hernandez put forward his contender for goal of the season against Cardiff, but besides his wonder strike and Bartley’s tide turning effort against Rovers, the remaining members of the squad scored the same amount of goals as you, me and entire Leeds cheer squad.
At the end of August we called for patience and maturity from this squad. Mission accomplished. September was a great month, maybe even the best since United returned to the Championship in 2010.
As we project forward into October, greater nuance in game style is what I am looking for. I am ready to say that Monk has fixed the defence, recent results bare this out. How he juggles a stingy backline and the need for greater potency upfront is worth watching over the next four weeks. With plenty of winnable games on the docket in October, we look set for a firm dose of reality, if nothing else.
Hopefully this reality is a world we all want, a world where Leeds United are bona fide contenders for the top six. #MOT.
(Editor’s note: Our September TIAT Player of the Month and Reader Player of the Month will be announced next week, during the international break. Stay tuned.)