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leeds united 0 – 2 nottingham forest: give it up

leeds united 0 – 2 nottingham forest: give it up

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After several games this season I’ve thought that Brian McDermott would be better advised to take a leaf out of Stephen Warnock’s book and just not even bother to try.

This was one of them. In fact the thought struck me before the game, as soon as I saw the line up. Brian was trying again. Why does he even bother?

After sixteen minutes it was already clear that McDermott had made a mistake. Warnock, Wootton, Lees and Pearce had also made mistakes, but the focus was never going to be on the players.

As soon as McDermott made changes to the side that beat Blackpool and Barnsley, all eyes were on the dugout again, and as Nottingham Forest strode through the middle of our defence and into a 2–0 lead, all arms were outstretched towards the dugout too, palms upward, pleading for answers. Why had he changed it? Why, just when it was working?

Granted, it wasn’t working very well. Leeds were poor against both Blackpool and Barnsley, but their opponents were worse, and at least Leeds could be said to be going into this match with the momentum of two consecutive wins and a settled line up – if it had stayed settled.

The injury to Marius Zaliukas appears to have caused McDermott’s first mental derailment. Maid Marius had to be replaced, but that didn’t have to mean big changes; Wootton could move inside from right wing back to be part of a defensive three and probably be no worse than he was at right wing back in the first place. Austin could then be put on the right, or even White to add some pace to the side, but the basic shape didn’t need to change.

How much the knackeredness of Matt Smith played a part in McDermott’s thinking isn’t clear, but Hunt for Smith should have been a straight enough swap – it would just mean reminding the players at fairly regular intervals not to aim for Ghost Smith anymore, but to try and play to the Actual Hunt’s feet.

The combination of the two changes, however, seems to have sent McDermott into a tactical tailspin, and once he started the domino effect could be felt throughout the line up. Austin replaced Zaliukas, but Wootton didn’t join the three man defence that kept two clean sheets on the spin; he went to right back in a flat back four, while Austin went to the sort of edge type area of a kind of midfield diamond thing, which rotated redundantly around the centre circle as Lees, bewildered even more than usual by the four players in front of him, continually lofted the ball towards Smith whether he was there or not.

The results were there for all to see – and live on Sky, too. Matt Derbyshire made a couple of runs through the middle and got a couple of goals, and even when Leeds went to a straight 4–4–2 in the second half, with Tom Lees at right back now, Wootton back in the middle and Austin on the right wing, the increased possession was still just as pointless as not having possession had been in the first.

“These guys are trying everything they can, they’re doing their best,” said McDermott after the game, when Adam Pope asked him on BBC Leeds if this squad is “poor.” That’s another thing Brian got wrong. Stephen Warnock has been to a World Cup and is only a season out of the Premier League; Scott Wootton was brought up in the academy at one of England’s larger sides back when they were good. What they showed against Forest was not everything they can, and was not their best.

Warnock in particular barely tracked a runner in the first twenty minutes, and not for the first time this season was substituted off injured after a soft looking tackle. Wootton, who seemed barely interested in the wing part of playing wing back at Barnsley, seemed content to only do half a job in this match. He could have tackled Derbyshire properly as he broke for the second goal, but settled for just getting a touch on the ball as it bounced back to the striker, the absolute minimum Wootton could get away with.

At one point McCormack raced back to the right back position to win a tackle, and then tried to get the ball back up the pitch by playing a series of one-twos; when your striker is a better defender than your defenders, and the best use he can make of his team mates is as walls for him to bounce the ball off, you have to question whether the effort is really being put in all over the park.

McDermott is putting the effort in, though, although why he’s bothering and why he keeps getting it so wrong is beyond me. I’d like to rewind time to before the game, and be there with Brian when he took the lid off his pen and started writing out the teamsheet for today. “No, Brian,” I would say, gently taking the pen from his hand and placing it out of his reach. “You’re thinking about this too much.”

“I tried something different today, we played a diamond,” he told Adam Pope after the game, and I don’t think I’ve heard sadder words from a Leeds United manager since Howard Wilkinson’s heartbreaking interview at the end of the League Cup final in 1996. Brian keeps trying something different – and he’s got two more lineups to go this season – and the players keep not trying at all, and it’s all become one never-ending loop that might break if we get a new manager, but won’t break unless we get some new players.

For now, Brian’s doing himself no favours by trying to fight against that loop. He won’t win, and neither will Leeds United.

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