Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Amid The Drama, Leeds United Face A Dangerous Test

Sabotage Times
Just in case you'd forgotten, amidst the ever-spinning whirlwind of madness that has been the last 5 days, Leeds United have a football match tonight.
Patrick Gunn
Yes, it may seem fanciful to expect a drama production team such as the one based at Elland Road to play a game of professional football from time to time, but that's the reality of things. Less than 24 hours after being confirmed as the club's new manager, after which the man who hired him was effectively banned from the club by the Football League, Steve Evans hopped on the team bus down to London to take his new side to face Fulham at Craven Cottage. What can possibly be expected of Evans in his first game is hard to say - Leeds have been in poor form for weeks now, and the circumstances surrounding his appointment are typically muddled. Going by his press conference, however, Evans seems fairly confident of his chances.
Saturday's game against Brighton was an unfortunate end to the short tenure of Uwe Rosler, a man I felt would have done well given more time to build a side capable of playing his preferred style of football. Cruelly reduced to 10 men for the last 5-10 minutes after Liam Cooper's injury, Leeds were put to the sword by Bobby Zamora with just a fraction of the game left to play, after impressing in spells against the league leaders. Not a great result, all things considered, but a promising performance against a good side following the previous capitulations to Middlesbrough and Birmingham. Chris Wood's shocking miss in the second half could even have put Leeds in a winning position come full time, but his free header was atrociously off the mark, flying wide of a half-open goal. The last time Wood missed such an opportunity, it was immediately repaid with a crushing, game-winning-strike against Derby. He would do well to pull out one or two against Fulham tonight.
Rosler's dismissal on Sunday was kept quiet by the club, who chose to announce his departure on Monday morning, hours before the Football League announced that Cellino was once again being disqualified from his position as owner. Eagle-eyed readers pointed out that the 2-week appeal period for this decision ended on the 28th of the month, meaning that Cellino had seemingly known about this decision for 5 days already, 5 days in which he forcibly limited the number of away tickets available to fans in a shockingly ill-conceived "protest" against the League and Sky TV, before sacking yet another manager a mere 11 games into his first season. With all the wildly optimistic talk in summer about Cellino's perceived "transformation" into a calmer, more laid-back owner thanks to the presence of Adam Pearson, it's no surprise that a day like Monday would come at some point, like the cork firing out of the shaken up champagne bottle that is Massimo Cellino's entire existence.
While Monday was simply another day to those fans who had grown tired of the Italian's antics long ago, it seems to have sparked a fire in the bellies of those who had been willing to give him more time in the past. As the football world once again pointed its mocking fingers towards Elland Road, another section of the fanbase decided that enough was enough, Cellino had to go. Has any announcement of an owner's disqualification ever received such unequivocal praise as the one released by the Football League on Monday afternoon?
Regardless of the fallout from the announcement, and the general uproar that followed his surprise appointment, Steve Evans is, for all intents and purposes, the Leeds United manager. As such, it is up to him to make sure that his team is focused and prepared for a stern test come Wednesday night. Fulham may not be the best team in this league, but they possess dangerous talent going forward, talent that Leeds fans will be well aware of. After Brian McDermott, Ross McCormack was one of the first victims of the Massimo Cellino dictatorship at Elland Road. Having spoken out staunchly to defend his manager and voice his distaste for the direction the club was heading, McCormack was purposefully kept at Leeds at first by his new President, who refused him the opportunity to head out to the preseason training camp in Italy, before being sold to Fulham for a reported £11 million. Many will look at McCormack and form images of a man who was unwilling to pledge his loyalty to the club he had almost single-handedly kept in the Championship, but regardless of your personal opinion of him, he will always represent a goal-threat at this level.
Alongside McCormack at Fulham are former Leeds men Matt Smith, Luke Garbutt and Tom Cairney. Garbutt & Smith have played minor roles for Kit Symons' team this campaign, and Cairney is suspended for tonight's game, but their presence at the club gives this fixture an extra kick, though given the importance that 3 points would represent to Leeds, that kick seems irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. With Charlie Taylor out with illness, Gaetano Berardi is likely to cover at left back, meaning that Evans will be forced to choose between Scott Wootton and Sam Byram on the right side of defence.
In his final game, Rosler went for the first option, provoking accusations of interference in his team selection. Evans however, like so many other before him, has promised Leeds fans that he, and only he, will pick the team on matchdays. Tonight's team selection could play a huge part in determining whether Evans is justified in his assurances, or simply deluded. Playing Byram tonight would represent, not only a show of authority to the fans, but also a strong backing of a young player that has been through a troubling few weeks. This is the perfect opportunity for Byram to prove that he still has the talent and desire required to play for Leeds.
Evans is likely to revert to a basic 4-4-2 formation, one that Rosler had switched to at times, but ignored in the long run in favour of his preferred 4-3-3. While it allows 2 up front, which looks to work well for Wood & Antenucci, the drawback of the 4-4-2 is that the central midfield can often be over-run by more modern, midfield heavy formations. If Lewis Cook advances, one or more of the wingers will have to drop back inside, leaving the team light in width, while the alternative of not allowing Cook the opportunity to move forward would, frankly, be madness. Against Brighton, Cook once again looked magisterial in comparison to some of his more experience team mates. The 18 year old seems to glide over the turf at times, but now finds himself under his 5th permanent head coach in his short professional career. Cellino's trigger finger has been responsible for a lot of negativity at Leeds, but if it ends up ruining the development of a player like Cook, who has the world at his feet in terms of pure, raw talent, then there will be hell to pay.
Look, I really don't know. Form books go out of the window with a new manager, could go well, could go wrong, you just never know. Evans has only had 2 days with this team, which doesn't seem long enough to learn their intricacies and strengths as a squad, but going back to a simple formation could help the players after the constant rotations under Rosler. 3 points would be huge for Leeds tonight, but I don't see that kind if impact coming straight away. All things considered, I'd be happy with a draw tonight, and hopefully Ross has a quiet game.