There may be six games left of the nPower Championship season but to all intents and purposes the season is now over for Leeds United. Saturday afternoon saw the Whites bow out of the play-off race with nothing more than a whimper, capitulating to Watford in a display which will hopefully have persuaded even the most ardent of the Leeds support that promotion to the Premier League is not going to happen for another 12 months at least.
From back to front Leeds were inept at best in the 2-0 defeat to the Hornets on Saturday. The only saving grace to come out of the game is that the limitations of the squad at Elland Road have been exposed for all to see. It has been a frustrating 18 months to be a Whites fan with no real investment in the playing squad seeing the side tumble from a place in the automatic promotion places at the turn of 2011 to this seasons probable mid-season finish.
With United resorting to loanees and free transfers, the quantity of the squad increased, but to the detriment of the quality. Leeds have lost Kasper Schmiechel, Bradley Johnson, Neil Kilkenny, Max Gradel and Jonny Howson from the side that finished 7th in the Championship last year, recouping around £5m in transfer fees. They have spent £500K on Danny Pugh and picked up Andy Lonergen, Darren O’Dea, Michael Brown and various other short term fixes. Those players are not up to the standard of players who have left and so Leeds have slid down the table.
That Leeds have maintained a theoretical push for the play-off is in the main down to the total inconsistency of the Championship. The defeat to Watford yesterday was United’s 9th at home in the League this season, as many as they lost in 2006/07 when they were relegated to League One. Three of those defeats have come in Neil Warnock’s four games in charge at Elland Road and have exposed the deficiencies between the style of football he wants to play with the squad he has at his disposal. Backs to the wall defending and hitting long balls do not work at home when Leeds are expected to dictate the pace.
From back to front the side needs a complete overhaul. Goalkeeper Andy Lonergan has been massively inconsistent, and his distribution is appalling. Saturday saw ironic cheers greet the occasions he decided to give the ball to a full back rather than lump the ball up the field. His kicking is erratic at best and needs to be improved if he is to be the starting point of most of our attacks.
The full back positions area a massive worry. Paul Connolly has probably played his last game for the club. He was already out of favour under Simon Grayson and received a lifeline with the appointment of Warnock. His stupid sending-off yesterday will see him banned for the Reading game on Good Friday, and with experimentation very much on the manager’s mind he is a prime candidate to be moved on in the summer. Left back has been a problem for Leeds United since Ian Harte left the club in the aftermath of the financial meltdown. Paul Robinson is the current incumbent, the loanee from Bolton. He was at fault for the opening goal yesterday and at 33 is not the long term answer.
In central defence Tom Lees looks a prospect, but seems to be draining in confidence with every defeat. Alex Bruce alongside him is nothing more than adequate. Darren O’Dea has been the main centre back all season, but is another loanee. It seems that both player and manager are keen to make the move a permanent one, but to say he is limited as a footballer is being kind.
The biggest worry is in midfield. Michael Brown may have added some steel, but his lack of mobility is causing the talented Adam Clayton to be overworked. Brown’s passing has also been poor, one misplaced 5 yard pass yesterday causing Clayton to pick up a yellow card which sees him miss the next two games. Clayton himself looked like the find of the season in the early months, but the loss of Jonny Howson has seen him lose an equally mobile partner. Clayton tries to cover every blade of grass but seems physically unable to continue that role. The two match break may be just what he needs for now. In the long term he needs some legs alongside him.
The fact that those two are the only established central midfielders shows the worrying lack of depth in the squad. The only possible like for like replacements are Pugh and teenager Zac Thompson with the other potential candidate being a flair player like Ramon Nunez.
The forward areas have strength in depth, but in recent weeks have shown an alarming lack of understanding stifle their output. Luciano Becchio is a hardworking striker, but is becoming frustrated by the constant ariel bombardment. That applies to his strike partner Ross McCormack who at 5’9 is not best suited to the long ball game. Worryingly he and Becchio are no nearer forming a partnership, both miles apart whenever the ball is launched forward.
The flanks are where Leeds were at their strongest last season. With Gradel and Robert Snodgrass flying down the wings, they provided a constant source of goal scoring chances. With Gradel gone, teams are aware that Snodgrass is the main attacking threat, and as such he is being shut out of most games. He has been made captain by Warnock, but has looked thoroughly disinterested in recent weeks and seems to be biding his time before moving on in the summer.
All in all the picture at Leeds is thoroughly depressing at the moment. The club have now been outside the Premier League for as long as they were in the dark days of the 1980’s. In its current state, United do not look capable of a return to the top flight any time soon.