millwall 2 – 0 leeds united: preparation hBack
There’s always a lot of talk about responsibility at Leeds United; responsibility as distinct from blame, that is. We had Tom Lees for that.
The questions about responsibility at the moment centre on just who is responsible for what. Massimo Cellino, obviously, is at the centre of everything; but around him, or more accurately beneath him, is less a management structure and more a bucket of candyfloss with some Lego figurines inside.
Is Nicola Salerno confirmed in his job? What does Andrew Umbers, who at times has apparently worked with or for Ken Bates, GFH and Together Leeds, do? Same question to Graham Bean, former cyber-squatter – sorry, ‘sharp-practising businessman’ – of 1874 Northwich? Then there’s the nameless lawyer that sits next to Cellino at matches, plus all the kids and Peter Lorimer.
From outside it’s impossible to know who is doing what or fulfilling what role, and who is only ‘acting’ and who is a confirmed employee. It’s very difficult to hold anyone to account in that situation. That might be the point.
The biggest question of all, though, is what is Dave Hockaday’s role? He has been swatting back the same questions since he arrived: does he pick the players? Choose which ones to buy? Who decides the tactics?
“I’m in the charge of the team,” Hockaday told Clem, his latest interrogator, on the Football League Show. “So whatever goes on on the field, that’s me. Pick the team, run the game on a Saturday, done.”
Hockaday has stuck to that line ever since he arrived, and while people might struggle to get their heads round it – and wonder just how much input he really has had into the signings from the Italian leagues – there is a welcome simplicity to the main part of Hockaday’s role. He’s a coach. He’s here to coach the team. Coaching is what he does, and if he has arrived without much of a reputation, what good is said about him always focuses on his coaching. “Marvin Bartley said he’s a really good coach,” Jason Pearce told Clem when asked if he’d known anything about Hockaday before he arrived. “So he gave me a positive feeling about him coming in.”
All this gives us our one measurable. A lot has been slung at Hockaday, and a lot of it hasn’t been fair, but what is fair is to judge him as a coach and on the results of his coaching, and how they measure up to his own self-confident statements of intent.
“This team, my team, our team, will give the fans everything, they’ll be hungry, they’re going to have a great work ethic,” said Hockaday in his first interview, setting the template of hunger and hard work that is his mantra. “I don’t want any team, any opposing team, to outwork us. I don’t want any opposing team to be hungrier than us. I don’t want any other team to come here and need to win more than we do.”
And so to Millwall, and our first competitive game of the season. “The first half, we didn’t get up to the pace of the game,” Hockaday told Radio Leeds after the match. “I thought they looked hungrier, had a better intensity.”
If Hockaday hasn’t managed to instil the hunger he wants yet, perhaps he might at least have got the team properly prepared in the basics, but seven minutes were all it took for Millwall to burst that balloon, too.
A quick short corner became a cross, and an unmarked player became a goalscorer. Perhaps Hockaday got so caught up with the Hunger, Hard work and Humility in his coaching manual that he never made it to M for Marking or S for Set Pieces, but if this guy really is the coach he is made out to be, he should be able to drill the team well enough that it isn’t caught out by a short corner inside ten minutes.
That wasn’t the only example of defensive disorganisation. Later a lofted free kick found two Millwall players lining up unmarked to head at goal; seven Leeds defenders had managed to mark one out of three Millwall attackers, and it was only Marco Silvestri who prevented a second goal. I’ve tipped Silvestri to be our player of the season because I expect him to have a lot to do, but I didn’t expect his work to be coming about through a failure to defend simple set pieces.
If the team aren’t hungry like Hockaday said, and if he hasn’t drilled the team to defend dead balls, what has he actually been doing? And if he can’t prepare the team well enough to deal with the basics, how can he expect to last at Elland Road long enough to instil the brand of football – “the best the Conference has ever seen” – that he believes will bring success?
That Hockaday has no hiding place from questions like these is a symptom of Cellino’s set up, but while we can call the Hock out on failures of coaching, we should remember too that the buck stops with the president. The second goal was a reminder of that.
Lewis Cook’s league debut should be great news, after a successful summer with England U17s and in our pre-season team. Instead it’ll always be associated with the misplaced pass that allowed Millwall to break, and the panicked tackle he made when trying to recover that gave away a penalty.
None of that’s Cook’s fault. He’s seventeen years old, and seventeen year olds make mistakes along the way as they work to meet the challenges of professional football. We have to be patient with young players. We also have to give them help. Helpful, in this instance, might have been for Lewis Cook to have been left on the bench rather than be thrown into a losing side at The Den, but alongside him on the bench was only Zan Benedicic, not much older than Cook and also with zero professional games to his credit.
Needs must, and Lewis Cook stepped up and did his best, but his contributions mustn’t be so necessary for much longer. Bianchi should help – he’s 25 years old and has played nearly 200 games, and it’s no coincidence that the elder player has looked like the pick of the new guys in pre-season. But on the long list of problems for Cellino to address before the transfer window closes, finding some players who will protect youngsters like Cook and Benedicic is as important as simply upping the numbers in our thin squad.
The transfer policy so far seems to cut the other way, and Cellino’s plan seems to be to fill the squad will callow youths and hope that some of them come good. Developing young players with potential makes a welcome change from flogging old nags like Brown and Pugh, but it comes with its own risks, as Cook showed on Saturday; a team attempting to bring through so many young and inexperienced players at once needs to be extra sure its good enough to absorb their early mistakes.
Winning would help too. It’s obviously the point of all football, but it’s also the way to ensure that players like Cook are able to thrive; in an ideal world Cook could have misplaced that pass, given away that penalty, and all of it would have been forgotten and none of it would have mattered, because he’d come on in a game Leeds were winning 3–0. It’s fair to ask whether Lees, Byram, Poleon and Mowatt would have developed more if they could have played in some winning teams, instead of trying to find their feet in sides that were always struggling for form.
It feels like United have been on the back foot for years, scrabbling to keep up since Max Gradel left, never taking a step forward without taking two steps back. We’ve started 2014/15 in the same way: one game played, no points, no goals. Whatever preparation was done for the start of this season, whether to prepare for set pieces or to prepare to be hungry or to prepare to even have enough players, didn’t work, and now we’re running to catch up again.
“Fail to prepare, prepare to fail,” was an old favourite quote of Howard Wilkinson’s, whose famous Second Division championship side also started 1989/90 with a bang of the wrong kind, 5–2 away at Newcastle. Howard Wilkinson knew what he was doing, though. And he was at a club where he knew what everybody else was doing, too. If only it were so clear cut at the modern Leeds.