A little over a month ago I wrote an article calling for Neil Warnock to be relieved of his duties. On the back of a pathetic display against Barnsley, 86% of fans agreed it was time for him to leave. Despite plentiful evidence to the contrary, Warnock quickly insisted he still had the support of the Leeds United fanbase and since he wasn’t going to resign and GFH seemed to be backing him, I left it at that.
But in the thirty odd days that followed, it’s difficult to see an improvement.
Our biggest problem remains the prehistoric style of football Neil Warnock insists on playing, a style Dean Saunders described as “the easiest type of football to defend against” following our 2-2 draw with relegation-threatened Wolves.
Saunders went on to perfectly describe the Warnock system;
“Leeds play for goal-kicks and free-kicks. They pick out the smallest defender and put the ball in behind you. And if you can’t deal with it you’re not going to get very far in this league.”
He’s right. It’s amateurish football. Any club who can’t defend against a bit of hoofball in this day and age doesn’t deserve to be in the Championship. It just doesn’t work any more.
Following our latest poor showing (a 1-0 defeat to a Middlesbrough side who had lost 5 on the bounce) Warnock made his usual attempts to blame everyone but himself before admitting that he didn’t “know where a win would come from.” A statement which in itself justifies his sacking.
That statement may have been said tongue-in-cheek (he laughed his way through most of the interview), but the worrying thing is, it’s not hard to believe Neil Warnock doesn’t know where our next win will come from. A better manager would switch things up, adopt a new style of play, stop our opposition effortlessly predicting our every move. But not Neil Warnock. No, Neil Warnock has used the same system since the 1980′s and it’s never failed him.
But things have changed since the 1980′s. The game has changed. You can’t hit balls long and expect your strikers to get away with out-muscling defenders to win it, because even when said striker does manage to out-muscle the defender, nine times out of ten, the referee will award a free-kick to the opposition. All the defender has to do is get in front of the striker leaving two possible outcomes – 1) he wins the ball or 2) the striker is penalised for climbing/pushing/any kind of physical contact whatsoever.
Even if the defender can’t get in front of the striker, an experienced defender knows he can pressure from behind, catch a trailing elbow or appeal for obstruction. Referees always favour defenders and Warnock’s system plays into their hands.
This is what Dean Saunders meant by it’s the easiest kind of football to defend against, and it’s also the reason we aren’t scoring goals and dominating matches. When we attempt to play the ball around and retain possession (like we did against Spurs), we look like a pretty good side. It’s less predictable and the impetus is on defenders to challenge us, dragging them out of position which creates pockets of space for us to work with. Space which the likes of Byram, Diouf and McCormack can be deadly in. But it doesn’t seem to be encouraged, especially away from home where we’re far, far worse than at Elland Road.
In hindsight, Neil Warnock was always the wrong choice. Every team has a signature style of play, at Leeds, our fans do expect a certain amount of uncompromising physicality which perhaps made Warnock a candidate. But alongside that, we also expect a team comfortable passing the ball around, we have little tolerance for hoofball because every successful Leeds United side has been built around a strong passing midfield, from Dacourt and Bowyer, McAllister and Strachan to Giles and Bremner.
Augmenting those solid foundations has always been a little bit of flair – Eddie Gray, Gary Speed and (forgive me for using his name in the same sentence) Harry K***ll. And it’s not that we lack the players to create a Leeds United team moulded in the style we all want to see – Paul Green fits the central midfield role perfectly, while Diouf and Byram can provide that little bit of creativity – it’s that Neil Warnock is a stubborn advocate of the direct approach, he’ll always bypass the area which Leeds United fans consider to be most important.
No one can be blamed for thinking Neil Warnock was a good choice 12 months ago, we were desperate for promotion and didn’t care how it was achieved. Warnock’s record dazzled us and we sold our soul to the footballing devil, forgoing any right to be entertained, insisting we could stomach a season or two of hoofball if it delivered the desired results. And the truth is, we probably could have. But when you’re not winning and you’re not being entertained, what remains of the Faustian pact we signed?
We’ve already waited too long to replace Warnock, the defeat against Middlesbrough ended any chance of promotion this season. But the rest of this season doesn’t have to be a total waste, not if GFH act swiftly and start building towards 2013/14. The season is over so there’s no pressure which effectively leaves 15 games for a new boss to assess the players he’s inherited, experiment with a new system and start building towards next season. There are so many benefits to bringing a new manager in now it’d be foolish not to.