During the improbable tumble down the table that Leeds United endured last season, perhaps the most puzzling by Garry Monk was the exclusion of Eunan O’Kane. O’Kane had started the season strong and had experience in the Championship, helping AFC Bournemouth during their promotion campaign during the 2014-15 season. He was injured against Liverpool in November of last year and was out until the end of January, however he rarely played in the new year.
O’Kane has been the most impressive central midfielder for Leeds during the preseason, and many pundits and fans think that he will likely start the season as part of the starting XI, a far cry from sitting on the bench as a unused substitute as he was far too often last year under Garry Monk. Talking to Phil Hay of the Yorkshire Evening Post O’Kane said of his time on the bench last year, “It was extremely disappointing. I had an injury problem around Christmas time which kept me out for two months but to then come back and be fit, and for the team to be going through a bad run of form – to not be given the opportunity to turn that around was really difficult. But it’s not my decision to pick the team. I can only do what I can when I’m given the opportunity so it’s not something I can hold onto or be bitter about.”
O’Kane has looked like a changed man during the preseason under Christiansen and he rewarded the faith that the new manager showed in him by putting in a man-of-the-match performance against Oxford United in the final tune-up for the regular season. O’Kane is a more positive player than most of the other central midfielders, and with the new emphasis on possession and ball movement from Christiansen, O’Kane will have a vital part to play in the middle of the park. Rather than emphasizing the dark arts of midfield destruction, the central midfield pair look to be responsible for advancing the play up the pitch for the wingers to play into space and jump start the attack. With a team that focuses more on playing the ball on the ground rather than lofting the ball towards Wood and hoping for the best, O’Kane is poised to take an important role going forward. As he told the YEP, “I always want to get on the ball, to play and pass forward and to be positive. Hopefully you’ll see a lot more of that this year.”
There has been some talk of the Republic of Ireland international being named captain for the new season, and while it would be nice, it doesn’t seem like something that he is focusing on. As for the stated target of the top six for Leeds this season, O’Kane said “Regardless of whether it’s been made public or not, we all knew that was the expectation before it was said. It’s not shock to us and why shouldn’t it be the case based on how we did last season?”
With all of the talent in the midfield, it appears that Christiansen is spoilt for choice and may be able to get a good rotation going to keep the troops fresh this season. The team was out of ideas down the stretch last season and a rotation could help keep the players fit in March and April. The midfield is going to be relied on to help score goals if Leeds are going to recreate the success of most of last season, as besides the unproven Caleb Ekuban from Chievo Verona, no reinforcements have appeared to compliment Chris Wood up front. For Leeds to advance up the table, O’Kane may have to play up to the potential that he has been touted to have since his arrival from Bournemouth. Christiansen has put his faith in the midfielder, and time will tell if the faith is warranted or not.