With the tour of Austria now under our belts, we now have a clearer idea of what Leeds United will look like next season. Here are some thoughts I rustled up for your delectation…
Ah the age old question: how many matches does it take before a set of friendly fixtures becomes a tour? In Leeds United’s case, we are told, the answer is 2.5. With the game against Ingolstadt cancelled for fear of crowd trouble – understandably given the long history of fan violence in the previous fixtures between such long-standing rivals (…….) – Leeds managed a hastily arranged game against Turkish Super Lig side, Bursaspor.
By the time the match had been played, though, the club might have been regretting organising it in the first place. From start to finish, it comprised little more than a PR nightmare – a textbook example of the best way in which *not* to conduct a pre-season friendly. As a result of the cancellation of the Ingolstadt fixture, Leeds wanted the match kept under wraps, asking for a behind-closed-doors staging to prevent a large crowd from turning up and jeopardising any chances of their remaining fixtures in Austria. In the end, the game was played just across the Austrian-Italian border and not a single Leeds fan managed to find their way to the venue. So the three-match tour promised to the supporters who had made their way across to the continent had effectively become a two-match tour… if that even is a thing…
If this wasn’t bad enough, the game was initially streamed live on the aptly-named BSTV channel before option was also removed from the fans in light of the fact that no licence had been applied for from UEFA. For the less faint-hearted Leeds fans, there was the option of Periscope as one of the Bursaspor fans staunchly sat broadcasting the match on his phone despite the pleas of those around him to stop.
What little of the game I saw reflected the general nature of its wider context. Leeds looked ragged through the middle, being easily bypassed by the Turkish club on a number of occasions before the feed went down. In the event, it was actually a relief that the live broadcast was pulled as it saved us from what turned out to be a 3-0 drubbing.
What was most notable, then, from this performance was less what went on the pitch than off it: the club, having conducted themselves so admirably in the preceding weeks, had managed to piss off the fan base within the space of about 48 hours. Apologies did follow along with the promise of an open training session but that was scant consolation. An open training session? Lucky us! By comparison, every training session held throughout the season by our next opponents, Borussia Mönchengladbach, is public which suggests that the new-look Leeds United still have a long way to go even in spite of the positive signs so far.
The Bursaspor debacle aside, the two-match tour did give us a much better idea of what to expect come the new season: a smartly-fought draw against Gladbach (albeit half of a Gladbach side whose other half played OGC Nice later that evening) was followed by a 4-2 loss to Eibar – a game of two halves in which the second was much more positive than the first.
It is becoming clear that 4-2-3-1 is the order of the season. As to the preferred starting XI, this is much harder to determine. In many respects, it is important to remember that the very idea of a starting XI is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Based on what I have seen from the preseason, I would suspect TC is going to implement a squad rotation policy in order to keep the team as fresh as possible. A brief internet browse of APOEL’s results from last season confirms that Christiansen used a fairly regular turnover of players particularly in attacking positions although, on occasions, he would switch defensive players about: even goalkeepers (Rob Green *cough*).
Back to the Future?
It seems clear from all this that Leeds will probably set up with a fairly settled back four. Given that rumours emerged about Rob Green looking for outs from the club, it is fairly obvious that Rob Green won’t be undroppable. Most probably Felix Wiedwald will be preferred although it may be the case that he and Green are interchanged (although most probably this will be a cup competition thing).
In front of the keeper, the two centrebacks are the only real nailed on starters (with the exception of Chris Wood). Pontus Jansson (albeit a currently injured Pontus Jannson) and Matthew Pennington will be the first names on the team sheet wherever possible. Obviously questions are to be raised about Jansson’s disciplinary record and one of the most interesting aspects of TC’s next season will be how he deals with Jansson in this regard. With Liam Cooper being the first back up – although this is likely to change once the management realise that Liam Cooper is the first back up… – we can hardly afford to make any mistakes in this regard.
On either side of the back two, it seems likely that Luke Ayling will be played on the opposite side to one of either Gaetano Berardi or Vurnon Anita (with Berardi being played on the left and Anita on the right). This lack of specialist full backs/wing backs should be a cause for concern for Leeds fans. Last season, the weakness of the team was its poor capacity to transition from defence to attack as a unit. Our reliance on Chris Wood for goals was caused primary by lack of width in attack which resulted from a reluctance for either full back to get forward. And that should come as no surprise: Ayling isn’t really a full back and Berardi is certainly not a left back. Charlie Taylor, whatever you think of him, offers much more going forwards than either of these two and so it is likely that his off-field antics have had a much greater effect on the team than we might care to admit. As such, it seems hard to see how Leeds will be able to iron out this problem that essentially did for the team last season without bringing in at least one more ‘modern’ full back (think Ryan Kent).
Throughout last season, Garry, Garry Monk rotated the two central midfielders playing the double pivot role in the 4-2-3-1. TC will follow suit, the question is how. So far in pre-season, Christiansen has paired two players together and subbed them on an off together: Eunan O’Kane and Kalvin Phillips are one duo with Liam Bridcutt and Ronaldo Vieira being the other. Prima facie this makes sense – each pair has a more defensively-minded player (Phillips, Bridcutt) and a more box-to-box player (Vieira, O’Kane). The spanner in the works here is Mateusz Klich who played on the outside of a midfield three in a 4-3-3 at FC Twente last season. This would suggest that Klich, if he is to be a regular starter, will need to be paired with a more defensive player. Of course, Christiansen may pair him up with one of O’Kane or Vieira in games which he expects Leeds to be more expansive. But for now, expect to see one of Bridcutt or Phillips on the starting XI for more defensive matches.
In front of the double pivot, the options get a little more predictable. Probably the best two performers during Preseason have been Kemar Roofe and Gianni Alioski. Both are wider players. One is left-footed (Alioski) and one is right (Roofe… in case you hadn’t followed the logic). These will be the preferred starters in wide positions of the midfield three ahead of Hadi Sacko and Stuart Dallas.
In the number 10 role, Samu Saiz and Pablo Hernandez will be used interchangeably. This is unquestionably a good thing as both encapsulate diametrically different styles of play – the one offering more explosiveness and industry, the other more creativity and intelligence. I suspect Saiz will be started and Hernandez will be brought on when a little more guile is needed against teams sitting deeper.
Up front? Guess what. We’ll play Chris Wood.
This is what I reckon our strongest line up is:
It would be remiss of me to end my thoughts without some mention of the ongoing ticket price hike drama that is currently percolating in and out of my Twitter feed. Here’s what you need to know in summary form:
* We’ve sold a record number of season tickets at a price freeze from the last five seasons.
* There is around a 5% increase of ticket prices “in line with inflation” which will allegedly lead to an increase of around £2 per ticket.
* There is still a £5 surcharge added to tickets bought on the match day.
* The introduction of an A+ Category… for those occasions when we play Barcelona presumably…
* Ticketing is the biggest revenue stream for the club according to Angus Kinnear, the new Managing Director.
* Kinnear: “It’s clear from the business that we have done in the transfer market this summer that all money generated from ticket sales is going straight back in to improving the first team which is vital for an ambitious club like ours which wants to be competitive, yet does not benefit from parachute payments.”
In light of this, these questions must be asked:
Why is the club pretending that this is being done in the name of improving the team? The financial gains that will be made from this are set to be minimal – most likely around £200k from the year with a best case scenario still coming in below £500k. To put this in perspective, the club set to benefit to the tune of £500k per year simply by releasing Giuseppe Bellusci on wage and bonuses alone. £200k wouldn’t even buy you Gianni Alioski’s haircut.
Why is the club punishing the fans who are most likely to be financially struggling? Those who are less well-off are likely to be unable to deal with a cash flow outlay of a season ticket and so will likely buy tickets as and when they are needed, perhaps even waiting til the match day to be certain. This will add a £5 cost.
Given the fans supported the club when the club was being financially irresponsible, why should we suddenly be expected to shoulder the cost as soon as the club is trying to sort itself out? We have bought tickets to truly dreadful games for the last 13 years which were certainly not value for money. Why should we be expected to stump up extra money which won’t, in fact, make much difference to the clubs finances anyway?
Why did the club not mention this increase in ticket prices until it was well on the way to selling a record number of season tickets which will ameliorate any real protest about the hike? The only way that prices will drop is if we protest by refusing to turn up to games. With a huge number of season tickets being sold, the effect of a mass walkout will be negligible. The club has played its hand and it looks a little bit deceitful to be honest. They should have been upfront about this before season tickets even went on sale – fans should be able to make decisions with as much transparency as the club can offer.
In short: The club-fan relationship is one that has been stretched to breaking point over the last 20 years to the extent that the club is lucky to still have such committed supporters. Rebuilding the club has as much to do with rebuilding trust as buying back the stadium and committing to squad building. As it stands, the club is preying upon the good will of the fans. This will continue to happen unless we refuse to accept these creeping impositions upon us. As Del Amitri sang, “Nothing ever happens – nothing happens at all. They’ll burn down the synagogues at six o’clock and we’ll all go along like before…”
In light of this, if you aren’t a member of the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust – sign up. Let them know you’re unhappy. They are here to represent you to the club to ensure that liabilities aren’t taken.