nottingham forest 1 – 1 leeds united: time to keep tryingBack
If Neil Redfearn is going to drag Leeds United out of the mess we’re in this season, he’s going to have to innovate to an ever greater degree than we thought.
The resources he has, though, do not inspire invention.
Against Nottingham Forest we saw the first signs that, with new assistant Steve Thompson at his side, Redders is willing to get experimental to get Leeds going. Leeds have deviated from the diamond at times this season, but never for long, and not from the start of a game; but here we were, starting a game in a 4–3–3, safe knowing that if nothing else a change is as good as a rest.
To succeed, though, you need to make the right change. That when Leeds started the second half they were back to the diamond tells you something about how Redfearn’s first attempt at getting experimental with the formation went.
That a remix is required has been obvious for weeks, but 4–3–3 wasn’t the instant floor-filler we had hoped for. Leeds were far from bad, and you could argue we had the better of the first half; but then again, Stuart Pearce had tinkered the fluidity out of Forest and neither side really had any rhythm about what they were doing.
The details of Redfearn’s changes were curious. After the last game it was obvious that Billy Sharp should replace Souleymane Doukara; he had looked more involved and lively as a substitute than Doukara has for a few weeks. Even if Billy’s one meaningful effort on goal against Fulham had swerved out of play for a throw-in, well, he was only copying Rudy Austin at Ipswich, and it didn’t detract from an obvious willingness to play his way back into the team.
The place Sharp wanted in the team, though, was probably not to the left of Tavares in a forward three; and the place he ended up for much of his time on the pitch was pretty much left-back, helping out Stephen Warnock, a waste of everything that’s good about having Billy Sharp in the first place. Redfearn said after the game he wanted more width to prevent Forest from attacking down the sides, which worked, but whether that’s because Nottingham were off their game or because Sharp is a secret full-back isn’t clear.
Equally sending Tavares through the middle with Sharp and Antenucci either side might have been a ploy to allow our most flamboyant and potentially creative player as much field as possible in which to frolic and, hopefully, eventually, surely, cause havoc and maybe even goals. Or, it was a reluctance to stray too far from the diamond too soon. When Tavares is at the attacking corner of a midfield four the two attackers are still able to stay reasonably close together and bother the opponent’s penalty area, one or the other breaking wide whenever Tavares gallops between them; but with him as a striker our actual strikers became wingers, and if there’s one thing our strikers don’t need to do this season it’s to get any further away from the six yard box than they have already.
It was Sam Byram that forced the issue for Leeds United’s goal, at the end of a move that suggested where United are going wrong is not in shape, but intent. Individually, Tavares, Bianchi, Mowatt and Cook are all fleet of thought and foot; Cook in particular was brilliant against Forest, receiving the ball and taking it on twenty yard dashes to freshen our prospects. But put them together in any combination and the play slows.
Whether it’s a lack of mobility from the forwards or a collective Hockover, Leeds never look a long way from lethargy. Going back to the diamond in the second half took them back to some bad habits, with short, slow, sideways passes that didn’t trouble Forest much. One blunt attack fizzled out like many others, the ball meandering back to Silvestri, but from him it went to Mowatt wide on the right and he changed gear. Resisting any urge to be patient, instead he fair wellied the ball forward and hit Antenucci, who diverted it into the path of Sam Byram. Forest’s defence were woken from their slumbers to find Byram charging their way at top speed; bewildered and wondering if it was all a dream, they kicked little Sam until he fell over.
A penalty, a goal, and Leeds were level thanks to a moment’s zip and rapid movement that was finally faster than Forest could cope with.
The speed with which opponents attack our own penalty area remains a problem for the unchanged back four, and the unspoken story of Matty Fryatt’s two disallowed goals is how awful the defending was for both, and worse for the one he did legally put away; there’s a dark side too to seeing newly bald Marco Silvestri back to his best in goal, because if he hadn’t been, Forest could have made this game 4 or 5–1 in the closing stages.
By that time Leeds had changed formation again to a 4–4–2, to “see the game out” according to Redfearn; I’d say that in the last twenty minutes the final score was less to do with tactics than with the one player who never counts towards a formation, the goalkeeper.
But you can’t undo the cumulative effect of a Hockaday and a Milanic with one formation change and two days’ worth of assistant management. When Redfearn revealed that Tonge and Warnock have been helping him take training it was an insight into the scale of the job he’s been doing, hindered by the job his predecessors did and without so much as a Junior Lewis for support. He may joke about having to put cones out himself, but then he puts his hand on your shoulder and looks you in the eye. “No, listen, seriously – I’ve had to put the cones out myself.”
This is, remember, one of the biggest football clubs in the country, less than twenty places down the league ladder from the richest league competition in the world. Even without the impending embargo, the player budget was largely spent before Redders took control, and it was spent in a way that doesn’t allow for much flexibility. Exchange Doukara for Sharp, there’s barely any difference between them. Replace Bianchi with Sloth, would you notice? Pearce out and Bellusci back is a popular shout, but will that solve any problems?
4–3–3 might not have brought instant success, but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong change; it only shows how hard Redfearn is going to have to work to get any kind of freshness from the squad he’s got, and how much time he’s going to have to spend, basically, trying to think of something. Steve Thompson will help, and not only by taking over cone duties; two heads are better than one, surely.
Nobody would demand overnight success of Redfearn in these circumstances. But nobody can pretend we’re not all looking anxiously at each other and whispering behind our hands about how little time he has to sort this out. We’re with him, though; it’s just that short of going out there and putting the cones out for him, there’s not a lot any of us can do except watch and hope. Let’s hope Steve Thompson can do more, and soon.