Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Leeds United 2012/13 Mid Season Review

A lot has happened in half a season at Elland Road so I'm going to take a quick look at Leeds United's 2012-13 season so far.

In my 2011-12 end of season review I ended by saying that: "Even inaction will lead to something giving way. It's building up to be an intriguing summer ahead."
And it was an intriguing summer, one that didn't really end for the regular Leeds fan like me until late November when something finally gave way!

After yet another summer of sales, secrets and silence, the start to the 2012-13 season in August was depressingly filled with yet more uncertainty and worry about what was to come of the club, both on and off the pitch. Ken Bates was still in charge, sticking to what I'd call his 'tell 'em nothing' customer relations technique. Everyone was in the dark, even the press. The proposed takeover was shrouded in mystery and dragged on like an NHL lockout.

Thankfully, the new owners were persistent and patient. The news we'd been waiting to hear since the 'Show Bates the Red Card' campaign back in 2007 broke in November, Bates was being bought out. Over 7 years since he first took a bite of Leeds, there was finally hope of some form of liberation for our club as a large sum of money finally relaxed a metaphorical sphincter that was keeping the football side of the club trapped in an ever constricting colon. GFH Capital, an entity involved in private equity, finalised a deal on the 21st November and completed the takeover on the 21st December.

Looking back at how Ken Bates treated supporters it brings out a lot of negative emotions. No matter what parasitic relationship to Leeds United he may keep from here on in - no matter how much we'd be better off without his presence and for all the facts of his reign to emerge - at least he's (hopefully) no longer pulling the strings - and that's the most important thing - as long as the new owners have a better idea of what a football club is supposed to be.

Though off the pitch issues dominated my focus and probably many other Leeds supporters, on the pitch, Neil Warnock put together a side of what we could see would be hard working individuals but we didn't really know what to expect from them as (per Neil Warnocks comments at the time) the squad wasn't the finished article.

The issue, as with football in general, was tied to finance. Neil Warnock prepared the base of a squad with the hopes of adding a creative flair - if and when funds were released. With some of the value of the squad being used to subsidise other aspects of Bates' plans, we sold our most creative player (Snodgrass) and the necessary funds for Warnock to complete the side further never surfaced. During the saga of the protracted takeover, it was reported that the new owners even had to dip into their pockets to keep things ticking over before they'd even bought the club.

Against all odds the side got off to a reasonable start but the problems of only having a thin squad soon surfaced. Just 7 points from a possible 27 between October to mid-November, including a 1-6 home defeat at the hands of Watford brought that home to anyone hiding their heads in the sand. Frustrations on the pitch pretty much reflected frustrations at the continued silence from the club around that time. If Ken Bates was ever going to sell up (and rhumor as to why he wasn't) became running jokes on fan sites. Holding our breath was officially abandoned. Thankfully, results picked up again in December in huge part thanks to some emergency loans - again funded by our owners to be.

Statistically, since the start of this season we've not been great. We've conceded too many goals for our league position and we have the joint 6th worst defensive record in the league, however, Leeds sit in 8th place, unsurprisingly we have the dis-honour of owning the only negative goal difference in the top half of the table. For the most part, the points on the board have been accumulated through tight wins, in the league we are yet to win a game by a margin of more than 2 goals.

In terms of going forward, in Championship games, shots and shots on goal have far fewer than the teams around us in the league table. Possession during games hasn't been great either. So how are we in 8th position?

One big positive from the first half of this season on the pitch has been effort. For the most part, the determination to somewhat punch above our weight has been excellent and results have been ground out. What has also made up for both the goals conceded and the lack of attempts on goal has been some clinical finishing from the awesome Luciano Becchio; prior to the Birmingham game (in which he scored) in 28 games in all competitions this season, ESPNsoccernet stats say he's had 25 shots yet scored 18 goals.

So what needs to change for this Leeds side to create more chances and concede less? The simple answer must be to complete the squad. To add the play-makers and creative passers that we're lacking which Neil Warnock hoped to bring in originally.

Digging into the positions we might look to improve:

Up front, we actually look pretty good right now but it wasn't that way earlier in the season due to injuries. Forwards like Ross McCormack and Davide Somma now back in action after being out injured for a while. Adding to the equation our current life-line – the brilliant Becchio and also the reformed Diouf too, up front we seem quite well covered.

In defense there is still much room for improvement; stability and cohesion are needed. Alan Tate was brought in from Swansea after it became apparent that our central defense lacked leadership and he's done well but sadly we've still leaked goals. I really don't think our defense is as bad as some of the results like the Notts Forest match (a 4-2 loss) might suggest. We have plenty of good players and a couple of great young players who in a couple of years will be the finished article, but for the moment there is still work needed and we're a bit short for pace in the center.

Another glaring issue for this part of the squad is that Alan Tate is currently only on short term loan from Swansea. If Leeds aren't planning to sign Tate up longer term (beyond the 26th January anyway), we have to be in the market for a central defender during this month or we're back to square one on that front. With that leading central defensive role hopefully addressed before the end of the month, we could probably make do with the defense we have if we can get a better balance in midfield to help shield them and allow our talented younger players to get forward in support more often.

From what I've seen, our midfield is the area that most urgently needs improvement with some creative qualities. When facing sides with a hard working midfield, we've struggle to put the ball to good or even safe use when we finally get possession. To compensate we end up playing the long ball far too often and giving up possession far too easily. In games like in the league cup run, it's been a case of just determination and hard work getting the job done, but when that underdog motivation hasn't been there (against the likes of Derby, Notts Forest, Watford etc) we've been rolled over. Our midfield has a lot of hard grafters but too few with the creativity and quality. Without an extra edge and re-organisation in midfield it'll probably be another mid-table finish.

Sadly there are likely to be very few players available who fit the bill required during the January transfer window and those there are will no doubt be in high demand and go to the highest bidder (which I hope we're not if the likes of Leicester are involved as the price is likely inflated and too high). Still, you never know what strings Neil Warnock might be able to pull if resources are made available to him.

Another thing that has to change for us to progress is to stop selling our best talents - the likes of Becchio, Byram, White and Lees in this transfer window. If Becchio is sold and it's for less than the cost of purchasing a new midfield and another talented striker or 2 (who each have good-great potential) then it would be a major folly because we're just not going to be able to replace his goals within the side we currently have. His goals have literally been the difference between being in touch of the playoffs and fighting relegation. Not only that but he's a fans favourite, yet another sale of our prized assets would just further demoralise the fan base and that's the complete opposite of what needs to happen for the new owners to get the club moving forward.

Almost everything really does hang on what the new owners plan to do. The good news is that they do seem to understand that there has to be some investment in the playing squad if the club as a whole is to succeed and give a reasonable return on their investment. Obviously no silly risks! We've had our fair share of Ridsdale-like gambles, but owners and fans can generally all be on the same side and push the club forwards together and I very much hope that is now the case with Leeds again. With David Haigh stating recently "It will take investment; we are ready to make that investment. We won’t spend crazy money, but we will make the investment sustainable and make the club successful.", it's looking reasonable to cautiously hope for the best.

Though I don't really know anything about GFH Capital and don't know what to expect from their ownership, it's still early days and so far they seem to be going about things the right way. For instance, the clubs' communication with it's fans has improved greatly. The new board members and club use of social media exists (unlike with the last regime) and is being done well. Their willingness to have 2 way communication with supporters has been a breath of fresh air after the suffocating silence of our club president to be. A reintroduction of half season tickets and rebuilding of burnt bridges with supporters groups have also been a great welcome to what we can only hope is a new era for the club. I have to admit I don't dare to build my hopes up, probably a symptom of once twice bitten, twice always shy. Saying that I never had any confidence in Ken Bates except to do what is best for Ken Bates so that wasn't exactly a shock.

In terms of expectations for the rest of the season, although I'm not expecting great things like promotion to the Premier League, progress is a must. Getting fans back in the stands and re-engaged with the club has to be the first thing. That, and if possible, improving the squad so that the hard work given by a lot of the current squad (to stay in touching distance of the play-offs whilst also going on an unexpected cup run) may have a chance to lead to something more. Hopefully their hard work will continue and a little sprinkling of skills we are currently missing can be added to give the side a realistic opportunity of making the play-offs at the end of the season.

The big difference I see between where the club was at the start of the season to where it is now is the realistic hope of improvements to come (both on and off the pitch). We'll not know where we are until after the transfer (and then emergency loan) window closes, so in more ways than one, the rest of this season is a case of wait and see.


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