Leeds United: Can Heckingbottom usher in a new era?

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    Photo: leedsunited.com 

    Andrea Radrizzani has been a shareholder at Leeds United for just over a year, and he’s been the sole owner for nearly 9 months. So why is the pressure on for the Italian owner?

    Repetition

    For Radrizzani, this is his first experience of a full Championship season. For the fans, it’s our 14th outside the Premier League, with no top 6 finish in the division for 12 years.

    That’s not a slight on his ownership, but a fact that explains why there is a sense of familiarity when a manager is sacked midway through a season as we tail off towards mid-table.

    He may have underestimated certain facets of English football – not least the physicality with relentless regularity. Saiz initially struggled with the sheer volume of targetted tackling he came under. His quality and desire to win, combined with a realisation that you just aren’t going to get fouls given in your favour, allowed him to adapt.

    Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of Thomas Christiansen.

    New year, new problems

    Despite the best start of any manager in the history of the club, results and performances fell into a worrying pattern. Two separate runs of poor form, the latest seeing the club go 7 games without victory meant that his time was up.

    Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom was quickly appointed as Head Coach. Radrizzani then apologised for the ‘mistake’ of appointing Christiansen in a television interview.

    The apology was an admission that the club hadn’t got everything right. The relations between the club and fans had become strained for the first time.

    The ‘new badge‘ was a concerning development by an ownership structure that had mostly improved the club. Credibility was damaged and trust diminished when the badge suddenly appeared and was welcomed swiftly by a petition signed by 70,000 people in one day.

    It might be a new start for this regime, but as a fanbase, Leeds United have seen too many false dawns to take notice. It’s not the first season of the Radrizzani regime – it’s the 14th outside the top division. And that isn’t good enough.

    I’m not sure if Radrizzani was made aware of the infamous ‘gypsy curse’, but it might be time to bless the pitch again. Monsignor Philip Moger, anyone?

    A new coach

    Paul Heckingbottom has to be a success at Leeds United. We can’t afford for him not to be. This is a squad with the majority tied down to long-term contracts, with a level of investment in them that hasn’t been seen for more than a decade. It’s simply not feasible to rip it all up and start again.

    Conversely, the level of performance that we’ve seen from them suggests that the club’s official line of “this is a top six squad”, simply isn’t true. Saturday’s loss at Sheffield United shows that a malaise may have set in for certain players.

    So how does ‘Hecky’ ensure that he doesn’t join the list of Coaches that tried and failed to revive Leeds United?

    Tactical nous

    Heckingbottom has to do something differently. Suspensions and injury have robbed Leeds of options throughout the season. Samu Saiz’s six-game absense is perhaps the most damaging. The Spanish midfielder is the standout attacking player in a team that has been too predictable, too often in the final third.

    But how can you fit both Hernandez and Saiz into the starting eleven?

    That’s a challenge that can resolved by playing Hernandez on the left, but that leaves a decision for the new boss to make. Which formation does he play in order to the best out of Saiz without leaving the side exposed defensively. 4-2-3-1 has been the staple diet for 18 months, with both Garry Monk and Thomas Christiansen opting for the system.

    Last season’s late collapse suggested that some improvements were needed, but the scenario has largely been the same. Opposition teams have figured out how to stop us.

    Formations are more broadly about finding the best fit with the options that you have, and often in modern football that means playing with 3 in a central area to retain possession more effectively.

    The problem we’ve faced is that the two deeper central midfielders become too entrenched, leaving a wide gap between them and the attacking midfielder, and it invites pressure upon the defence.

    Something different

    There are other options, and it would be interesting to see us try something new. Seeing the same ineffective wide play and poor ball retention becomes tedious to the point of frustration.

    Heckingbottom’s team selection against Bristol City should show what kind of coach he will be. Roofe and Alioski will need to show a drastic improvement if they’re to hold down a starting position. The central midfield positions also seem to be up for grabs, barring Adam Forshaw who should be starting every game.

    The injury and suspension list reaches what I hope is the crescendo this weekend, with Cooper, Saiz, and Berardi all serving their final games of suspension. Unfortunately, new signing Tyler Roberts will be out for a prolonged period after injuring his shin.

    One possible danger looming over the side is Pontus Jansson’s potential suspension – just one more yellow card will trigger a two-game ban for the Swedish defender.

    The future

    It has been a season played in stages. A tremendous winning start was followed by a series of defeats, then a recovery before the new year. The fixture congestion post-Christmas took its toll, with a loss of discipline and a series of injuries hampering team selection. That was exemplified when there was only one recognised centre-half left against Cardiff.

    It’s the start of a new regime at Elland Road, but it’s hard to look to the future current performances being so poor. Much like the Middlesbrough game, a win here could rejuvenate the entire club.