So the diamond is finally starting to yield positive results, this just as another new manager takes the reigns for Leeds United. On this occasion it is Darko Milanic who will be charged not so much with turning the ship around, but keeping it steady to its course and maybe tweaking a few things along the way. Under the watchful eye of Massimo Cellino and, you’d hope, the close aid of Neil Redfearn, Leeds can hopefully continue their momentum. Despite Milanic being a reported 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1 man with a predilection for wingers, the players populating United’s squad at the moment largely conform to a wingless structure. This has been noticeable in Leeds’ attacking play this season, with the wing-backs usually offering the width for the side. However, whilst defending, it has been increasingly perceptible that, whilst defending, the Leeds midfield has often simply levelled out, with the diamond reverting to a flat four shuttling across the entire midfield in order to protect the wing-backs.
In truth, Milanic’s preference of wingers and the lack of them at Elland Road shouldn’t present too much of a problem. The Slovenian is an extremely experienced coach and has at his disposal a confident team not appearing to be hindered by the lack of a Callum Mcmanaman or Harry Bunn. The grand scope of what Milanic can bring to the table is unclear at the moment, but one would hope that his grievously trophy laden playing and managing career has imbued him with a simple but not easily acquired knowledge of how to win, something that he can hopefully instil amongst his new players. At the present moment, you wouldn’t think that anything needs to be drastically changed, only fostered. The worst thing that Milanic could do and something that I can’t see happening is a disruption of the quite thrilling progress some of the summer signings, particularly Mirco Antenucci, Giuseppe Bellusci and Souleymane Doukara have been making at Elland Road. If anything, these players can only help him sustain Leeds’ momentum. In the case of the latter two names mentioned, one becomes even more filled with expectancy when one recognizes that the pair are aged just 25 and 22 respectively, with time on their side to become even better, particularly since this is their first season of Championship football, a challenge they are taking to with great relish. In contrast to the relative youth of the pair above, Mirco Antenucci is a player that you can simply admire for the performer he is now, that is a seasoned pro at the peak of his powers, blessed with a lovely touch and an incredibly sharp mind.
Ever since Leeds’ second-half renaissance at Birmingham the Italian seems to have settled into a grove that marries a bustling strength and directness with a flowing technical ease that I for one can’t get enough of. What’s more, he can finish, with his two goals in five games examples both of a cold-blooded conviction in front of goal and of superb aerobatic enterprise encompassing all of the technical skill mentioned above. It’s hard to believe how he went so far in his career in Italy without making the step into Serie A, as he certainly has the ability. It is for these reasons that I believe Antenucci will continue to faze out Billy Sharp from the first team under new management, and rightly so. Even at this early stage, having watched Antenucci on every occasion since the draw with Birmingham, contrasting with Sharp’s efforts in the games the Englishman has played, the Italian already looks the more all-round player, certainly besting Sharp in a technical sense. During the games the pair have played together, the formation was a rather stilted 4-3-3, with Sharp looking fairly ineffective playing as a conventional striker. Indeed, without regular service to rely upon, the 28-year old struggled to make an impact. Antenucci on the other hand clearly had no problem with dropping deep and dribbling with the ball forward from the midfield. You could argue that Sharp’s frustrations could have been due to the system’s flaws, or that it was his brief to plough a lone furrow up top and not drop back to create from deeper areas. But I’I’m not so sure. Having watched Leeds in a 4-4-2 with Sharp in the match against Middlesbrough, I would say that dropping deep to instigate moves with a pass or direct running doesn’t seem to be his game, he is much more of an on-the-shoulder type striker.
Indeed, it was telling that when the decision was made by Redfearn to change the system to a 4-4-2 diamond against Huddersfield, Sharp was dropped in favour of the Antenucci and Doukara. What I think you can glean from this is a move from Leeds toward starting players with more refined technical traits or more geared towards playing a part in a system of ball retention than those who may not. Perhaps this was a move urged along by Cellino ahead of the Huddersfield game in discussions with Redfearn. But who knows, I would like to think that Redfearn himself could have spotted the evident tactical discrepancy that occurred with Sharp playing alongside two other strikers. It was rather over-indulgent, a little too striker-centric. With Doukara and Antenucci working as a pair against Huddersfield, things ran a lot smoother. Leeds were ultimately more balanced, for one thing, Sharp’s central striking position was ditched in favour of an attacking midfield player in Casper Sloth, a logical move that connected midfield and attack well. But to a greater extent, the forward pairing of Antenucci and Doukara gave Leeds a front duo that acted not solely as goal-providers but pivotally as strikers who enforced Leeds’ technical superiority over their opponent, both willing to roam into deeper areas to receive the ball, whereby they would pass the ball on or run forward with it, engaging the Huddersfield defence and thus creating gaps for others to run into. With regards to the importance placed on Leeds having technically astute players to fill the forward positions, one could argue or assume that this is an area of the team that you can perhaps skimp on craft in favour of pure goalscorers, poachers if you like. You could say it is not a strikers place to be too heavily involved in team build-up or contribute much towards it, rather, they are there to hang on the last line of defence, time their runs well, be a general nuisance and to ultimately stick the ball in the net. These are certainly required qualities, but football is changing, and so are Leeds, which is why it is such an exciting time.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for a Billy sharp at Leeds, there certainly is, and I would not be disheartened in any way if he were to come in for an injured Antenucci or Doukara. But I would be very surprised if Milanic were to extinguish the partnership of these two at the present moment. In this new Leeds side, where ball retention is held in the highest regard, it is necessary for most if not all players to be able to contribute towards this retention, in order to craft chances or to simply maintain possession of the ball. This necessity therefore makes it logical that those who take up the two striking positions of the team to be more than just standard centre-forwards. They need to be willing and comfortable with receiving the ball in deeper positions, roaming off the front into space to create openings for others, playing passes off the midfield, or turning and seeking their fellow striker, or even running forward with the ball. Without wingers zipping the ball in at every opportunity, the striker in this system has to be willing to adapt, to create and actively participate in a different kind of service, one which may not always end up with a ball in from wide, a more multi-purpose striker or strike-force if you will.
As of this moment, Doukara and Antenucci are meeting these requirements, the Italian for reasons covered already, but Doukara also earns his place in this system over Sharp or any other striker for good reason. Firstly, Doukara is quite tall (standing between 6ft1 and 2) and physically imposing, which, when matched with his rapid turn of foot and array of skills and tricks that are being used to positive effect, the Senegalese gets in every time. He is also just coming up to his 23rd birthday, which only adds to the excitement that he is already generating on the pitch. He does need to work on his passing, which was wayward against Huddersfield, but for now he is a player Leeds cannot afford to leave out. We now have a complimentary partnership upfront with a range of talents, Doukara offering a useful counter-punch to the measured technicality of Antenucci with a vibrant blend of pace, power and flair. The pace aspect is important here, as without the 22-year-old in the side we would be quite noticeably flatter in attack in my opinion. We have often found ourselves in this position before, bemoaning our lack of agility or settling for players with pace like Dom Poleon, Jimmy Kebe or Cameron Stewart simply because they just had pace, but not a great deal else. Doukara is unlike these examples, as he appears to be able to possess a variety of abilities that supplement his speed, including a pretty deadly finish, which no doubt helps account for his very respectable tally of four goals in six appearances so far. With he and Antenucci in attack, Leeds have a partnership of many qualities and a very refreshing spirit of hard-graft that Darko Milanic should seek only to cultivate.
Looking a touch back from the striker positions comes the issue of attacking midfield, the trequartista role that Leeds now have the luxury of filling regularly with skilled technical operators such as Casper Sloth, the as yet unseen Adryan Tavares or the almost completely unseen Zan Benedicic. Sloth is a player who I think has surprised some of the Elland Road faithful. It seems that many believed Adryan would be the player who, upon arrival, would slot straight into the play-maker position, turning Leeds’ build up probing into gold with his customary prodigious Brazilian brilliance. However, Casper Sloth, in every appearance he has made, has either caught the eye with his ease on the ball or has just been another calm operator in possession for the Whites to rely upon. Despite perhaps seeing himself in a deeper role, Sloth gave a very solid performance in ‘the hole’ and should continue to start ahead of Adryan if this remains the same. It is easy to forget that Adryan is just 19 compared to Sloth’s 22 years, so perhaps it is to be expected that Sloth should not be immediately usurped by a Brazilian still in his formative football years. That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see the youngster play, or that he and Sloth couldn’t dovetail, either way, Adryan’s debut will not be lacking in hype. As far as Zan Benedicic is concerned, he is an even younger talent that hasn’t had much playing time this season, reportedly due to match fitness not being tip-top, which is fine. From watching a few YouTube clips and doing a little research, he does look and is billed as a skilful player with physical prowess to boot. Perhaps under the management of a fellow Slovenian, Benedicic’s involvement will increase, but for the time being, it is a nice thing to be able to debate and ponder the involvement of a trio of talented youngsters in a Leeds starting XI. It is certainly a world away from questioning whether Luke Varney or Noel Hunt should take left-side midfield.
Right wing-back is another position of tactical significance in this Leeds side for Darko Milanic. Over on the left-hand side, Stephen Warnock has been excellent. Solid in defence and always an outlet for the team in a wide left position, the 32-year old has banished many doubts about him by playing his best football yet in a Leeds shirt. On the right side things have been slightly fuzzier, but clarity is starting to come. I am of the opinion that Sam Byram, in his last two substitute appearances, has delivered the kind of thrust down the flanks that Neil Redfearn will have wanted out of regular right-wing back Gaetano Berardi in his time as caretaker manager. During these games, Berardi has undoubtedly impressed defensively; he looks to be a player who is assertive and diligent in most of his work behind the half way line. Apart from the obvious moments of over-assertiveness which are very lamentable, Berardi has failed to offer Leeds a proper attacking outlet down the right hand side with anywhere near the kind of regularity needed from a wing-back. He seems to prefer taking the safe option when the chance is there for him to drive on, which may be down to an unfamiliarity or lack of confidence in doing so.
Byram, in a heartening cameo against Huddersfield Town with Leeds down to ten men, produced a daring and willing desire to run into the space ahead of him, committing defenders and generally trying to make something happen. The Whites had to do without this kind of outlet until Berardi’s self-inflicted departure. Not only does Byram seem to understand the need to provide Leeds with options down the flank, he can also do so with a technical proficiency, meaning that he does not always have to play an aimless cross when he gets into an advanced zone, he can recycle possession back into the midfield, or try to create something himself. These are the qualities that you need when playing with the formation that Leeds are, and with the philosophy they are trying to apply. In this wing-back role, technique and daring are required, especially the latter, and it will be interesting to see Sam play from the start in this berth against Brentford if, as expected, he is picked to play there.
I will close on some interesting things I have noted from Darko Milanic’s press conference and other sources with regards to tactics. Obviously like Neil Redfearn and even Dave Hockaday before him there was the usual emphasis during Milanic’s press conference placed on hard work, a clear staple of Leeds’ play this season, as well as the commitment to passing football, something that would have ingratiated Cellino towards him and possibly he towards Cellino. However, it was when Milanic mentioned a wish for Leeds to play “aggressive football” in his press conference that things became interesting. Then there were comments from Milanic in the YEP about an unfulfilled desire to play pressing football at Sturm Graz. As if to emphasize the point, a short video placed on YouTube by LUTV a day or two ago showed Milanic taking his first training session at Leeds. Taking up about a minute of the video is Milanic going through a clearly audible training exercise that seemed wholly geared towards pressing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAYT4AzXIWo
Of course, I may be reading too much into this, it may well have just been a standard exercise. However, if Milanic truly follows up on his intimations towards a pressing style of play then it could be a very exciting development to the strategy that Leeds have already built. In our fairly narrow 4-4-2 diamond, it has been sometimes difficult for us to turn our build-up play into goal scoring chances. In fact, most of our goals from open play this season have come from counter-attacks, or from positions where we have nicked the ball from a disorganised opponent and made them pay. As the season progresses, and the players start to get know each other more, the number of chances we create from open play should increase, and situations such as Tommaso Bianchi’s pinpoint through ball to set up the Doukara equalizer against Bournemouth should occur with greater regularity. However, I feel that we have added a whole new string to our bow this season when our players have engaged in collective pressing and attempted interceptions in order to retrieve the ball. This has occurred at particular moments, such as during the second half at Birmingham, when, for just a minute or so, the entire Leeds midfield doggedly fought for the ball as a move broke down between our forwards. First Alex Mowatt slammed into a tackle and then Lewis Cook burst forward to retrieve the loose ball, taking it past one player and then being felled for a free-kick. I can remember the stirring of the Leeds fans as this momentarily cavalier style of play was adopted by the Whites, the players themselves seeming to respond to the roars by taking the risk to fly forward just as the ball broke loose.
Against Huddersfield the players were again driven into a short, sharp frenzy of pressing when, three goals up and full of confidence, players charged forward, retrieving the ball and then finding themselves open in positions irregular to where they normally are on the pitch. In this case, Lewis Cook was available in a left-wing position with Warnock appearing centrally. By pressing the opponent in their own half, Leeds could certainly add a whole new dimension to their play. By going out and challenging for the ball in positions whereby if intercepted, would place us directly at an advantage and in a dangerous position, and the opponents at a disadvantage, we ultimately could become a more unpredictable and uncontrollable outfit. The system isn’t’t without its risks, and teams that play it usually need defenders with pace or very good reading of the game to cope when a long ball is clipped into the space behind the high defensive line, this being a necessary by-product of the advanced pressing tactic. Of the back four that will probably start against Brentford, Bellusci and Byram wouldn’t have many problems in this regard, and Stephen Warnock, despite not being the quickest, could compensate with his sharp eye for danger that has been in impressive evidence this season. Jason Pearce would probably be the biggest cause for concern if this system was implemented, as he can struggle when having to run back with agile forward players. In any case, these are just musings, Milanic may not even put this tactic in place. The good thing about pondering at this moment as a Leeds fan is that it comes from a warm feeling that something great could happen, rather than just a dull smattering of ideas about what could get us by, as in previous campaigns.
Roll on three points at Brentford!