Jon Howe: Multiple choice
In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe assesses Leeds United's attacking options.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
As problems for a head coach go, having too many cooks for a particular position is not one that will elicit much sympathy from football fans. And in Leeds United’s case, it’s not a problem we’re used to having. Routinely described as ‘a nice problem to have’, I’m not sure Javi Gracia would currently agree, because he has to find a tune from an assemblage of eight attacking players in the Leeds United squad at a time when there is little scope for experimentation. And the other headscratcher the boss is having to contend with, is that those eight players aren’t vying for one position, in fact he doesn’t even know, from game to game, how many positions they might fill.
With the return to fitness of some key players in the 2-2 draw versus Brighton & Hove Albion last weekend, Gracia now has an attacking armoury of Rodrigo, Patrick Bamford, Georginio Rutter, Luis Sinisterra, Willy Gnonto, Crysencio Summerville, Brenden Aaronson and Jack Harrison. Discounting for a moment the sheer number of willing and able personnel at his disposal, the problem comes in the flexibility and potential combinations those players present. Arguably only Bamford has a single, natural position, while the others can all play wide, narrow, centrally, as the main ‘number nine’ or as a support striker, albeit many of them have a preferred position and are much more effective in certain positions compared to others.
These eight players have scored 23 of our 31 Premier League goals so far this season, so it’s reasonable to suggest within that group is the answer to our concerns about survival, if only Gracia can work out what it is. Of course, Gracia’s tactical flexibility, which he has already demonstrated in his four games in charge, enables him to switch his personnel to suit the game and the opponents, and the five subs rule, which many of us were sceptical of when it was introduced this season, comes into its own when you actually have the squad and the fitness levels to name a bench of legitimately game-changing options. But nevertheless, it is an intriguing puzzle to solve, and Gracia’s own version of Wordle which will be furrowing his brow on a daily basis at Thorp Arch this week.
As a case study in how to attack as a unit, Brighton presented Gracia with plenty of food for thought; routinely finding space, making runs, passing neatly and incisively, beating a man and looking all the world like an organised team much further down the road than Leeds United currently are. But Gracia will have learnt a lot from that game, and all being well, another free week on the grass with his plentiful attacking resources will find us a step nearer to cracking the code.
Certainly I can’t recall a period with such attacking riches in our toolbox since the bloated excesses of the O’Leary era. For a period around 2001/02 we could call on Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Robbie Keane, Robbie Fowler and Michael Bridges, when fit; what is perennially called an ‘embarrassment of riches’, perhaps made even more absurd by the fact that we almost always played 4-4-2.
Typical attacking formations and a player’s individual profile and skillset have changed a lot and become far more malleable since then, indeed. While maybe Bamford is an example of a dying breed at the top level; a spearhead, archetypal number nine. Either way, you look at the attacking options available to Gracia now and it is as intoxicating as any period I can remember and you feel sure the right combination is in there somewhere, and for any given game situation.
Rodrigo’s return to fitness feels ahead of schedule given his early injury diagnosis, but it’s welcome all the same. He only missed seven games, and actually remains in the top 10 Premier League goal scorers despite that absence. He’s still ninth, and tellingly, no one else from the eight clubs in the mix for the drop can boast a player in that top ten, the closest is Leicester’s James Maddison in 13th place with nine goals. It shows what Leeds and Gracia can bring to the party if they can find that precious blend.
The early season form of Luis Sinisterra is another source of hope that Leeds have the armoury to make sufficient advances into enemy territory over the final 12 games of the season. Replacing Raphinha was always going to be an impossible task, but Sinisterra showed he had the skills and the nonchalant class in those first few games to make a decent fist of it. Sadly, he’s only made eight Premier League starts this season, with five sub appearances, and that tells its own story about how our season has gone. And with Rodrigo’s scoring exploits and Willy Gnonto largely picking up the mantle Sinisterra’s injuries have left, the Colombian’s return to fitness is timely and intriguing. Perhaps he can take some of the pressure off Gnonto and Summerville and deliver the star quality his early performances promised?
When comparing O’Leary’s attacking arsenal at the turn of the millennium to Gracia’s now, you could maybe surmise that we have less proven Premier League pedigree in the squad at the moment, and more ‘unknown quantities’ trying to find their feet. Gracia has to make them click at the right time and in the right place, and a couple more years down the line we may have more confidence of that happening. But undoubtedly the talent is there.
Maybe it is home advantage that will prove the key for Leeds? It might not feel like it having just witnessed how comprehensively Brighton took the game to us at Elland Road last Saturday, but we actually have a half decent home record this season, having only lost four games at Elland Road. Only Nottingham Forest can claim a better record of those bottom eight clubs, with three defeats. And given many people agreed that Brighton were probably the best opposition team we’ve faced at Elland Road this season, apart from maybe Manchester City, it is heartening that we secured a draw in the circumstances, and it suggests a number of upcoming fixtures at home are eminently winnable.
While Javi Gracia works out how best to set-up and employ his attacking troops, and how they need to combine and move and understand each other, if he instructed them to just shoot on sight and ‘to hell with it’ in the meantime, then it worked a treat versus Brighton and augurs well for the season’s run-in.
Leeds have the individual star quality and Brighton showed how that can be moulded together to make a team. On the first anniversary of last season’s epic comeback win at Molineux, Leeds return to Wolves on Saturday in the same circumstances and in search of another vital win. You have to say that squad-wise we look in much better shape than we did in that game last season, and Saturday is a great chance to use that squad effectively, and show what difference that can make.