Parking Ford Cortinas next to Ferraris – is it an instant upgrade? Graham Smeaton August 25, 2014 Leeds United 13 Comments Reflecting on past memories is always dangerous; what was once bad tends to take on the soft, golden glow of reminiscence. The further back that you go, the more golden the glow. For example, the summers of our youth seemed to be the hottest of days, there was never any rain in the six week holidays of our childhood and there was always snow every winter that was much better than the snow nowadays. Ah, those halcyon days of years gone by, all those memories. Some more recent memories though are much harder to taint with positivity; memories such as the ineffectiveness of Leeds United’s midfield last season (the 2013/14 Championship campaign) and how this has been represented under the new regime taking shape up in the LS11 area. It all started so well for Leeds fans, sat there opening their Christmas presents on 25th December 2013 with their team nestled in 6th place on the back of an encouraging run of results. By the season’s end, this had all fizzled away – a season that had promised so much ended up delivering so very little. GFH were the owners, the team had gone into a destructive free fall only halted when Brian McDermott steered Leeds to safety, it can be argued, by readopting the 5-3-2 formation that had driven Leeds to the promised land of the playoffs come Christmas Day. Looking back at the embers of last season and picking through the charred remains, two things stand out like a blind cobbler’s thumb: defensively we haemorrhaged goals and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with inept performances and, apart from the defensive duties of Rodolph Austin, Leeds United’s 2013/14 midfield was, well, pretty mediocre. Player Name Appearances (Sub) Accurate crosses per game (rank*) Key passes per Game/Season (rank*) Average Passes per game (rank*) Rodolph Austin 40 0.6 (90th) 1/39 (110th) 37 (77th) Luke Murphy 37 0.9 (43rd) 1/37 (54th) 30.6 (151st) Alex Mowatt 24 (5) 1.7 (13th) 1/30 (99th) 31.4 (141st) Michael Tonge 16 (7) 0.5 (99th) 0.7/16 (186th) 34 (113th) Rank* – ranked in Championship amongst all players in that category Source WhoScored.com Figures such as these only tell a partial tale when isolated from others that are of importance. When looking at the ‘stock trade’ of a midfield player you expect that passing features highly as they are the distributive link between defence and attack; between stopping goals and providing them. In both ‘Key Passes per Game/Season’ (passes leading to a shooting opportunity) and ‘Average Passes per Game’ not one Leeds United midfield player manages to break into the top 50 players in the Championship division. An indication of how far away Leeds’ midfield players were can be seen when comparing them to the 6 top passing midfield players in the division during the 2013/14 season. Player name Appearances + Sub Team Average Passes per Game (rank*) Daniel Drinkwater 43+2 Leicester 66.4 (1st) Joey Barton 33+1 Queens Park Rangers 65.4 (2nd) Tom Carroll 23+3 Queens Park Rangers 57 (3rd) Adam Clayton 41+1 Huddersfield 55.6 (4th) Richie Wellens 36+1 Doncaster 53.3 (7th) Keith Andrews 28+3 Brighton 52.2 (9th) Source WhoScored.com Whilst ‘Average Passes per Game’ is only one aspect of a midfield player’s game, it does give you a flavour of the type of game that Leeds United played during the 2013/2014 season. Put bluntly, the output from the Leeds United midfield, last season, was mediocre in how it compared to the most productive passing midfielders in the league. Another indication of the perceived lack of creativity and attacking nous in the Leeds midfield can be borne out by looking at the number of through balls that the main 4 midfield players at Leeds (Austin/Murphy/Mowatt/Tonge) played last season; the total standing at 8 – yes EIGHT. That was last season, how are things reflected in the Leeds midfield this season? Come the new season and many changes are in place/underway at Elland Road; these ‘changes’ being reflected in the areas of player recruitment (12 thus far), a new ‘coaching regime’ under a ‘head coach’ David Hockaday and the proclamation of a new ‘passing-based’ game. My worry with such a bold proclamation would be as follows; based on last year’s mediocrity in the middle of the park – where’s the increased output going to come from? Table of Midfielders’ contributions – First 4 games of season Fwd Bwd Success % Avg P p/g* (rank) Chances (Assists) Rodolph Austin 177 69 83 62.8 (9th) 0 (0) Michael Tonge 88 74 86 41.8 (81st) 0 (0) Luke Murphy 78 63 73 36.5 (108th) 6 (0) Tommaso Bianchi 89 60 82 51.3 (35th) 1 (0) Avg P p/g – average passes per game (total) ‘Chances’ – pass leading to a shot: ‘Assist’ – pass leading to a goal ‘rank’ – position amongst current Championship players Source Squawka.com and WhoScored.com What does the table show us about the current Leeds United midfield four? Well, firstly it indicates that the new ‘pass first’ mentality has improved Leeds’ overall passing numbers from the 2013/14 season both with returns from individual players and as a team (2013/14 292 short passes per game – ranked 20th in league vs 2014/15 366 passes – ranked 8th in league); also reflected in this improvement is an increased pass accuracy rating, predominantly for the midfield four. This has left the Leeds midfield players more highly ranked amongst their peers than they were last season. There are worries, however, such as the fact that very few passes are leading to actual chances which more than hints at the worrying lack of shots at goal that Leeds United produce as a team. With English players of quality being seen as ‘over-priced’ by many, Massimo Cellino has, with the help of Nicola Salerno, largely raided the Italian market to bring a little flair and Latin passion to the Leeds United ranks. The latter, it can be argued has worked too well what with the ‘sendings off’ of Gaetano Berardi (vs Accrington Stanley) and Giuseppe Bellusci (vs Watford), both on their full debuts for the club. With Alex Mowatt currently injured and unavailable for the first 4 games of the 2014/15 Championship season, new recruit Tommaso Bianchi (signed from Sassuolo) has filled his place in midfield. What I’m interested in is whether the declaration from Coach Hockaday that Leeds will play a ‘passing game’ has shown any change on the figures returned in the first 4 games of the 2014/15 Championship season when compared to the output of the previous season. I have mentioned previously in this piece that there have been changes in the overall effectiveness of Leeds as a ‘passing team’ but that there are other worries such as the lack of creativity and chances/shots at goal. Coupled with the above, improved figures, you then have the potential of what I call ‘the intangibles’; those players you cannot rate as they haven’t played at all/enough. In the midfield area you have: Lewis Cook, Zan Benedicic, Casper Sloth and Brazilian starlet Adryan; Sloth is due to sign when personal terms are complete and Adryan is a ‘signing in the pipeline’ with more to come next week. So, it seems that the ‘ligiona stranieri’ (foreign legion) policy of signing overseas players has worked in a way; Tommaso Bianchi’s passing output is more productive than that of Luke Murphy over the opening 4 games of the Championship season and the new focus is leading to more passes per game from the midfield area. In that way, placing a Ferrari amongst the Cortinas has worked; the jury is still out on the effects of the other imports in defence (games missed due to dismissals – although Berardi will be the ideal replacement for the suspended Sam Byram) and attack (not enough game time.) Coming up next – Spotlighting the defence.