TC United: Some pre-Pre-season thoughts on Leeds

As part of my bid to committing to writing more through this season, I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to write a weekly bulletin-style stream of consciousness Leeds United post here on my website. A lot of my commentary about Leeds is done through the medium of Twitter which has is benefits but also its downsides. Hopefully by fleshing out my ideas in longer form I’ll get into the habit of writing more whilst also committing to a level more substance than social media allows.

A Word of Warning

It would be a brave person who suggested that the future of Leeds United isn’t looking rosier than it has done for a while. Since Andrea Radrizzani became the sole owner of the club, a number of promising moves have been made: the stadium has been re-bought which, despite the alleged £20 million that its erstwhile owner demanded for it, makes the club feel a little more like ours; the Leeds Ladies (we still need a name change btw) are now the Leeds United Ladies; there are plans in place to redevelop the area surrounding the stadium and to move Thorp Arch more centrally; and most importantly there are the beginnings of a squad overhaul which is probably a decade or so overdue.

However, an interesting sort of assumed binary thinking seems to have emerged amongst Leeds supporters where you find yourself in one of two camps between ‘everything is great, we’re going to win the league’ or ‘everything is death’. Of course, the general positivity is very welcome given the last 15 or so years. But it is important in these occasions to make important differentiations. There is, it must be said, a distinction to be made between the general set-up of a club and the squad of players it puts out in competitions. Whilst this may be so obvious as to be banal, it is helpful to remember that you can be positive about one without being sanguine about the other. The best examples of this are clubs like Swansea and Southampton, both of whom have developed impressive infrastructures which allow for new managers to come in and be successful with relatively ease.

At Leeds, the changes of infrastructure that are happening are positive moves: we want to get to a point where the infrastructure and the playing squad are carefully differentiated so that the manager doesn’t become the club. The travails of Manchester United, satisfying as they may be, resulted from this inability of the club to make this distinction under Sir Alex Ferguson. Many clubs are, in light of the total decline of Manchester United after Ferguson’s retirement, updating their management structures by implementing Directors of Football. This has the effect of allowing the general day to day running of the club to continue even when there are big changes on the squad side of the club hierarchy. Think of the functional relationship between the Civil Service and the House of Commons: after the shake up of a General Election, the country doesn’t grind to a halt because the Civil Service are doing the basic procedural running.

A word of warning then: just because we’re sorting the fundamental infrastructure of the club out doesn’t mean that there will be an immediate effect on the squad. Obviously, as I mentioned, there is an overhaul occurring at the moment. But it is important not to get carried away with this. There are still areas of the squad that are weak and, regardless of how much bravado Twitter gives a person, there is no way that any of us have any real idea how good are signings are going to be. It also must be said that there is a lot happening in a short space of time here: new owner; new hierarchy; new director of football; new coaching staff; new players. It is unlikely that everything will click immediately into place without hiccough. Given that we know very little of how Andrea Radrizzani will operate, it could be the case that, if Thomas Christiansen isn’t performing well, we might find ourselves managerless as has become all too common. I would hope that more time would be given to him but we simply don’t know what will happen.

So a level of cautiousness is important as we go into the new season. It isn’t misplaced negativity to be restrained about the squad at this point. And it doesn’t call into question the leaps and bounds the club is making in terms of its infrastructure.

What we’ve learned about Thomas Christiansen from pre-season so far

There has been a fairly obvious structure to how TC has approached pre-season so far. It’s clear that he is treating the Austria tour as pre-season proper. The three matches that Leeds have played so far—Harrogate, Guiseley and North Ferriby—were clearly treated as preliminary fact-finding games for Christiansen. They too had a specific format: Harrogate and Guiseley were played as four mini matches with completely different line ups so as to give as many chances for Christiansen to see how his players performed. In each of the mini matches, there were two first choice defenders in the back four usually separated by a position (so LB and RCB then RB and LCB accordingly). Between the two matches the back four line-ups were shuffled, allowing each player 45 minutes to prove themselves with a different player alongside them in each match. Beyond this, the double pivot (the two central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1) or the two CMs in a midfield four were shuffled about in the same way. Across these games, TC moved between 4-2-3-1 (a la last season) and 4-4-2—giving Marcus Antonsson, Lee Erwin and Souleymane Doukara chances to prove themselves up front.

The game against North Ferriby was clearly treated as a dry run of the sort of line-up and formation that TC will want to play in Austria. There was a strong first team line-up at the beginning of the game and then substitutions were made at half time and then at 71 minutes. Most importantly, the back four lined up as they most likely will next season: Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Berardi (give or take a LB and a CB or two). The double pivot was preferred, suggesting that TC is going to stick with Monk’s formation and O’Kane and Bridcutt were started (which was, in fact, the most successful pairing in that position last season). With Vieira and Klich also available in this position, it seems likely that TC wanted to make up his mind about how the two pairings might work, indicating perhaps that Vieira and Klich might be his preference. It’s also hard to read too much into the midfield: Dallas and Doukara were used wide with Roofe (easily the brightest player) in the middle behind Antonsson. I suspect TC is using this as more fact-finding, given it is likely that Samu Saiz will play no. 10 with some combination of Roofe, Sacko, Dallas and Alioski on the wings.

In short, TC is giving all of his squad a fair run out to prove themselves (with the exception of Bellusci who is clearly just been kept fit in the hope that he’ll move on soon enough). He’s experimented broadly with 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 which are likely to be his formations of choice (there is a suggestion that he likes 4-3-3 but I can’t see the squad he has at Leeds really excelling in this formation, not least because the full backs he has at his disposal are fairly makeshift). In Austria we should expect him to field a starting XI in a 4-2-3-1 which will be working up to the following formation: Wiedwald; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Berardi; Klich, Vieira; Sacko, Saiz, Alioski; Wood.