For a club whose recent record was as close as you’ll get to a footballing version of Groundhog Day, it seems not a little bemusing looking back that last season was an eventual disappointment. With the obvious caveat that it was clearly one of the best seasons since our return to the Championship in 2010, the end of season whimper did little to ameliorate the fact that we had unquestionably over-performed last season, relying on Chris Wood’s first 30-goal season and having very little in the line of Plan B (let alone C or D). In the end, it seemed as though we were unstoppable up to the point where it became possible that we might actually make the Play-Offs at which point winning became impossible. But that, unfortunately, is often part and parcel of over-performance: when you’re running on confidence alone, it is a terrible thing when it all drains away.
I have diagnosed the problems with Monk’s team elsewhere. Fundamentally, our problems were offensive problems which stemmed from defensive inadequacies. In the modern game, the whole team is now responsible for attacking and defensive phases of play and, for the most part, our wingbacks were not good enough going forwards to support the team. This is hardly surprising: we bought Luke Ayling as an outside CB from a back three and Gaetano Berardi is a right back who is more defensively minded. Charlie Taylor, whatever you think of him, was sorely missed in the latter part of the season—think back to his assist to Wood in the Brighton game at Elland Road, arguably one of our strongest performances.
This lack of adventure from full back positions also had a knock on effect to our defensive shape. With wide players like Hadi Sacko, Kemar Roofe and even Stuart Dallas to some extent, all of whom like to get forward, there was often too much space in between the wide attacking positions and the full backs. The result was that the double pivot in the 4-2-3-1 (the two deeper central midfielders) were often required to cover those areas, which made us weaker in the central areas.
For me, if this season is to be an improvement on last season, we will need to improve in these areas.
1 July 2017 CM Madger Gomes Liverpool Free
1 July 2017 CB Pontus Jansson Torino £3,600,000
1 July 2017 CM Mateusz Klich FC Twente £1,500,000
1 July 2017 RW Hadi Sacko Sporting CP £1,600,000
1 July 2017 GK Felix Wiedwald Werder Bremen £500,000
6 July 2017 DM Vurnon Anita Newcastle United Free
11 July 2017 CF Caleb Ekuban Chievo Verona £500,000
13 July 2017 AM Samuel Sáiz SD Huesca £3,100,000
13 July 2017 RW Ezgjan Alioski FC Lugano £3,200,000
2 August 2017 CM Ouasim Bouy Juventus Free
18 July 2017 CB Matthew Pennington Everton 30 June 2018
Looking at the transfer business that has unfolded through the course of the summer, there is clearly a lot to be positive about. Pontus Jansson tied up. Matthew Pennington brought in to join him in the centre back position. A new keeper who was a regular in the German top division. A strengthening of the number 10 position in Samu Saiz. A more box-to-box player in Mateusz Klich. Macedonian international, Ezgjan Alioski to give us much needed creativity in wide positions.
Overall, however, and I hate to be cynical, we are still weak in certain positions and have very little depth in other positions:
Centre Back: Jansson is our only quality option in a central defensive position. Liam Cooper is simply not good enough to rely upon as a starting CB and Matthew Pennington, however promising he is, is still young and doesn’t have enough games under his belt to be considered reliable at this point. Given Jansson’s disciplinary flamboyance, we are only one long term injury away from no back-up centre backs.
Full Back: Despite news of the imminent arrival of Cameron Borthwick-Jackson on loan from Manchester United, we find ourselves in a similar situation in the full back area as we found in the central positions: a couple of injuries or suspensions and we’ll be playing Stuart Dallas as a full back (which, now I think of it, might be an idea). But the worry here goes beyond depth. As I suggested above, Ayling and Berardi were not good enough last season so the question remains why we haven’t strengthened in these areas. Borthwick-Jackson is, with the exception of a few rumours I’ve heard about attitude, a good signing. I was impressed with him in the handful of appearances he got under Louis van Gaal. But it is certainly not enough to make me think that we won’t struggle in those areas. All three teams who won promotion last season were strong in the full back areas: just think of how important Tommy Smith and Christopher Löwe were for Huddersfield, for example.
Wide Attacking Areas:
We now have four wide attacking players: two good, two less so. Of course, Dallas has his place and will be an important sub, as will Sacko. The problem is, once again, depth. Injuries or suspensions to Roofe or Alioski and we’re left with two impact players starting. This is beginning to sound like a litany.
Chris Wood, Caleb Ekuban, Souleymane Doukara. FFS.
Much of the discussions I see about the team on social media or even amongst pundits seems to be ignoring the fact that teams who get promoted from the Championship have to have an impressive depth. If you take our best XI and compare it to the best XIs of the other teams, do we have a chance of promotion? Potentially. But take our first XI and remove even 2 or 3 players and ask the same question… the answer is less certain.
Player of the Season:
My tip for the season is, unsurprisingly given pre-season, Kemar Roofe. Roofe arrived from Oxford last season with that huge amount of pressure on his shoulder that only a large transfer fee and a club like Leeds can give. With the transfer allowance this season being generous and players being brought in for a comparable price, I expect Roofe to relax a little which can only be good for his game. We also have a forward midfield that is composed of players with both creative guile and explosive power which, last season, was certainly not as obvious. I expect Roofe to thrive alongside Saiz or Pablo Hernandez and look forward to him interchanging with Alioski on either side.
Signing of the Season:
This is hard to call. The trifecta of Saiz, Alioski and Klich will all be very good this season in all likelihood. I’m going to go with Alioski not simply because, of the three (with the caveat that I haven’t seen much of Klich at all), he looked the best in pre-season. Of course, he plays in a position where it is easy to look good, but Klich and Saiz are both playing in positions where we have strong cover and so, as a result of that, I’m pipping him to the top spot here.
Disappointment of the Season:
Call me negative, but I’m nominating Chris Wood for this one. I’m on record elsewhere comparing Wood (very loosely!) to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Context is everything here: Zlatan had his first 30-goal season at the age of 30; Wood has his at 25. Given the fact that they have similar body types, I would suspect that this could be Wood coming into a rich vein of goal-scoring form. But a nagging part of me thinks that there could be all sorts of other explanations. In light of the fact that we’re likely to be trying to play a more fast-paced football this season, I think Wood might struggle to recreate the sort of form he found himself in last season.
Top Goal Scorer:
That said, I’m still nominating Wood as the highest goal scorer. Which doesn’t worry me so much. Where we faltered last season was on relying on Wood too much. Fewer goals from him this season will be fine if Alioski, Saiz, Roofe and Hernandez chip in with 20+ between them.
It’s hard to look beyond Samu Saiz for this one: his boyish Top Gun good looks matched with his creativity on the pitch make him easy on the eye in every sense. Sharing the number 10 spot with Hernandez means that we have two of the most exciting central attacking players from the last ten years playing on the same team. Where Pablo has a tendency to drift out of games, though, Saiz looks more gritty and will likely prove to be a gamechanger on a number of occasions through the course of the season. This will go down well in the stands at Elland Road, I suspect.
Going against my general temperament, I’m being conservative. Wasn’t it Aristotle who talked about wholes being more than simply the sum of their parts. In this case, the sum of the parts at Leeds United this season is very promising. But there are so many variables, it seems hard to know how you could possibly predict anything on the basis of what we know. We have a new owner, a new head coach, a new Director of Football, and a crop of new players who have no experience of the Championship… We could finish anywhere between 1st and 24th. We also have no telling of how the ownership will deal if Thomas Christiansen bombs in the first ten games. I think that the fans should be pleased with a top half finish. This would count as progress after last season and would give a solid foundation going into the next season with serious promotion ambitions. As such, I’m going with 8th – don’t @ me.
If last year’s Europa League is anything to go by, Thomas Christiansen is a bit of cup fixture motivator. I’m going to suggest that we’ll go deep in either one of the domestic cups, most probably the FA Cup. I’ll say we sneak into a quarter final and lose to a Premier League side.