leeds united 0 – 1 fulham: mowatt, mo’ problemsBack
There are some advantages to the diamond formation. For one thing, it’s one of a select group of formations that has a name, which is helpful if you’re bad at maths and keep advocating 4–5–2.
For another, it brings the midfielders closer together and allows them to swap positions. That is helpful because it means that, if someone is having an off day, their part of the pitch needn’t be a total write-off.
If Bianchi’s a problem, Mowatt will solve it. In deep between Tavares and Cook the midfield revolves it. With the freedom to move from the left and play on the right, in the middle, up front and in defence, Alex Mowatt can make us look like a half decent team.
As advantages go, though, that it allows a 19 year old to do the work of four players is not one of the diamond’s best contributions to our season.
Mowatt looks like the one player capable of making the diamond actually work, but at the moment he is doing it alone. Stephen Warnock has taken deserved credit in recent weeks for the way he has been attacking the byline, but there’s a reason why so much of Leeds’ recent good play and last three goals have come down the left side: it’s Mowatt’s starting side. Warnock can bomb forward there with confidence.
Sam Byram, stranded on the other side of the pitch, must wonder what he did to deserve Tommaso Bianchi. Through all the experiments with the diamond, the different roles, the different players, the disturbing flirtation with Norris, Bianchi has been the one constant; and his performances have hovered persistently between underwhelming and poor.
It’s becoming clearer that confidence is an issue for Byram, who saw a lot of the ball against Fulham, but struggled to find any good use for it. It’s hard to know what’s stopping him from doing what Warnock does – play a fast one-two with the midfielder inside him and head for the byline – other than that the midfielder inside him is Bianchi, and Byram doesn’t expect he’ll get it back.
While the ball zips around the left side like a marble down a school corridor, over on the right Byram steps inside and tries difficult passes to the strikers, or shoots with more hope than conviction, or squares the ball to Bianchi who as often as not turns away to find Cooper or Pearce. It makes of the Leeds diamond a schizoid formation; while the left is all forward-thinking, He Who Redders Wins slickness, over on the right it’s still Hockaday’s world, where full-backs fear to tread too far forward in case their run turns into a surprise bleep test designed to keep them ‘sharp.’
The only solution presenting itself at the moment is Mowatt, who is taking it upon himself to run the Leeds midfield single-handedly, flitting the short diamond distances from left to right and back to do what Bianchi can’t; tackle, run, pass, threaten opponents. The emphasis under Redfearn is much more attacking than it ever was under either Hockaday or Milanic, but much of that philosophy depends on the Maradona-shaped barrel in midfield setting a tempo for Warnock, Tavares and the front two to play to.
It’s not unusual to see a Leeds team being dragged along by the expectional performances of one player, but after McCormack last season and increasingly Mowatt this, it’s not healthy. Apart from anything else, big performers attract big bids, and it would be interesting to see how Cellino would react should another £11m be dangled in front of him.
And whereas McCormack was club captain and seemed to actually relish the task of keeping Leeds United in the division on his own, Alex Mowatt is 19 and in only his second season of first team football. He has come on leaps and bounds since last year, but his improvement has been so intense and so sudden that it feels inevitable that, at some point, he will crash. Mowatt should not be leading this team, but should be surrounded by leaders; he should have players around him who can support his good form, not use it as a crutch for their own poor performances. Instead the best he has is Lewis Cook, who was nearest in form to Mowatt yesterday, but is even younger and even greener.
Lack of leadership could end up costing Leeds dearly this season, and not only through Football League bans. The traditional source of leadership, the defence, is conforming to recent Leeds United tradition by being rubbish. Fulham’s goal on Saturday was a crime against defending; Leeds let Fulham do what they wanted from a relatively unthreatening throw-in, and what Fulham wanted to do was score a goal. So they rolled Bianchi, picked their spot, and did.
It wasn’t the only occasion when Leeds made routine defending look like the most difficult thing in the game. Any ball played slightly above head height that required any of the back four to turn, whether the ball came from a throw-in or just a ball over the top, seemed to perplex and transfix our players, who stood and watched as Fulham’s energetic forwards ran around them and headed into the six yard box. If you missed this game, just watch Ipswich’s first and third goals against us last week; that.
Redders was talking this week about the need to fix the away form after the battering we took at Portman Road, and that a change of tack might be needed when we’re on the road. The creeping danger is that, before he can sort out the away problems, the away problems will have come to Elland Road and made themselves at home. The vivacious performance and secure clean sheet against Derby got those fond whispers about Fortress Elland Road circulating again; two weeks later and Leeds were defending as if they were still at Portman Road, and lost to Fulham to one goal among several chances that were much too easily given up.
The biggest fear about the Derby game, when Leeds were frighteningly good, was that subsequent games would soon make it feel like Derby never happened. Two defeats later, here we are. Ipswich, up near the top with Derby, were always going to be a tall order, but the three points given to Fulham will hurt us more. They had a bad start to the season but are improving and climbing the table; Leeds also had a bad start to the season, and while you’d have to be a real grouch to claim we haven’t improved since then, what we haven’t done is climb the table, or shown any sign that we’re going to.
It’s nearly Christmas, and we’re 19th, and teams like Fulham are beating us as they make their way into the safe distance. It won’t be easy, on current form, to get anything from our trip to the City Ground next week; it is absolutely essential, whether we get anything against Forest or not, that we beat Wigan at home on Boxing Day.
Alex Mowatt’s going to have to play out of his skin.