sheffield wednesday 6-0 leeds united: shaking the throneBack
Before this game I wrote that what happened at Rochdale already felt like something that happened to some other team, from some other time.
The signings of Cameron Stewart and Jimmy Kébé had done the trick with the mood; they seemed so much like exactly what we needed, and what Brian McDermott wanted. It felt like we could regard Rochdale as the end of something; Sheffield Wednesday would be the start of something else.
Well, you know the result by now. And you know too that for the second time in a week Brian McDermott had to fess up to his worst moment in football. He’s lucky that he wasn’t here for the Preston, Blackpool, Forest or Watford games, but even by United’s standards in recent seasons, this really was something else.
There are other things you can look at, other directions where you can point an accusing finger. McDermott had woken up by half time, and perhaps 4-4-2 with Mathieu Smith would have brought us back into the game like a rerun of Watford at home. Smith barely lasted a minute, though, charging his shoulder across Johnson’s head and getting a straight red card; Johnson had delivered a forearm smash to the back of Kébé’s head in the seventh minutes but not got so much as a telling off. So we can point at Lee Probert for robbing Leeds of the chance in the second half to put the first half right.
We can look at individual players, too, although it could take a while to get through them all. It perhaps makes Marius Zaliukas’s brilliant form since he arrived even more amazing, now that we know he can be this bad. Rudy Austin has been getting worse with every passing game, and at the moment you almost hope the game does pass him by, for fear of what he might do when he does get the ball. Our once fearsome midfield warrior was brushed off in tackles, a bystander when Pearce took over ball-winning duties in midfield, and a total liability when he and Zaliukas got close enough to combine and set up Wednesday’s second goal. Lee Peltier must take the blame for playing Johnson onside for the first goal; Danny Pugh could maybe have bailed him out if his first thought had been tackling rather than appealing, though.
So individual errors, and a total gutlessness that set in once it was 3-0; although if I was charitable, I could forgive the players that – we could all see what was coming. They had the power to prevent it, though, and Zaliukas certainly has the power not to make so many simple errors – errors that led directly to goals. Hopefully all this and more will have been dissected at Sunday’s summit meeting at Thorp Arch.
What we also must examine, though, is Brian McDermott, whose throne has now been well and truly shaken. It’s not giving any of the players a pass to say that I place the blame for this result firmly at Brian’s feet.
Stewart and Kébé were, we thought, brought in to provide the width we have sought all season. Our side got narrower and narrower and created less and less before the 5-3-2 formation was introduced; it narrowed again at Spotland, when 3-4-3 was tried, presumably to see if it would solve the poor form of Christmas, and it plain did not work. But with two pacy wingers, suddenly the sense of the pitches at Thorp Arch being measured to match the pitch at Elland Road made sense again; two pacy wingers, toes tapping along the touchlines, jinking past full backs and crossing on to the head of Smith, who would have a brand new purpose. This was what, we assumed, McDermott had been building towards ever since he started his summer transfers with the battering ram from Oldham.
Except that’s not what we got. What we got was a continuation of the formation that had left huge gaps in the defence for Rochdale to exploit and embarrass us with. Instead of putting Stewart and Kébé on the wings, Pugh and Peltier stayed out there, neither wingers nor wingbacks but certainly standing where Stewart and Kébé would rather have been. The two new wingers were sent instead through the middle as partners for McCormack, who in trying to stay out of their way – and in trying to get the ball – would frequently disappear into the midfield.
We had full backs where the wingers should be, wingers where the strikers could be, and on the few occasions when the ball went into the box, the one player who might have benefited was sat on the bench, while our top scorer ran around in frantic despair.
The defence, meanwhile, suffered without Pugh and Peltier’s help in the channels. Five at the back worked well when either Lees or Pearce could attack the ball knowing that Zaliukas inside and either Pugh or Peltier outside would be there to cover and clear. With Pugh and Peltier standing on Kébé and Stewart’s toes, however, the cover was gone, and with Zaliukas’s liking for striding into midfield, we were often left with two at the back, both wondering where everyone had gone as Wednesday bore down upon them.
In almost every area of the pitch, then, the setup was wrong. In those circumstances I can almost forgive Austin for passing to where Peltier would once have been but where now there was nobody; I can sympathise when Peltier and Kébé, confused by each other’s presence, conspired to chip the ball lamely to Kirkland. Nobody knew what they were doing; worse, nobody knew what anybody else was doing.
What I can’t forgive, in those circumstances, is McDermott creating the circumstances in the first place. To sack him would be idiotic, when we’ve all said since day one that repairing Leeds and then getting them up will be a big, long job – the only criterion is whether McDermott is the best man to carry that job out. Despite Rochdale and despite Wednesday, the answer is still yes, and as such we have to keep backing him.
But if McDermott is here to deliver a long term plan, we have to trust that the long term plan is a good one. That’s why the signings of Kébé and Stewart were greeted with such positivity; it was the plan being put into action, or so we thought. Rather than balance, width and pace, it turned out McDermott had quite a different plan in mind: and it was not, by any reckoning, a good one.
Perhaps the failure to sign Ashley Barnes caused a problem; perhaps phase two of the plan relies upon a new strike partner for McCormack, although what Smith has done to not deserve a chance at that job is beyond me. We’ll almost definitely need a new striker while Smith is suspended, though (hi, Luciano…), so maybe we’ll see more moves in the transfer market this week.
But Hillsborough has raised a question. We’ve been buying into McDermott’s plan, into McDermott’s project and his long term vision, because we thought we knew what the plan was. What happens when the plan we get is a different plan?
As well as breezily casting Rochdale to ancient history after less than a week, I also wrote here recently about how changing this side wasn’t going to be easy. Even the slightest alteration to our best team – a Tonge instead of a Murphy, perhaps – seems to be all it takes to enfeeble the side that thrashed Birmingham not all that long ago. Making major changes, like introducing new signings, was always likely to cause even more trouble.
But I didn’t expect it to be this difficult just to give two players their debuts; and I didn’t expect it would expose us, so soon, to the idea that not all of McDermott’s ideas are good ones. Stewart and Kébé have been on the radar for weeks, if not longer; that means this formation, and this way of playing, has been in Brian’s thoughts for weeks, too.
Think again, Brian. And think fast.
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