Can Leeds United Overcome Defensive Frailties to Earn Promotion to the Premier League?
Leeds United have long enjoyed the support of boisterous fans with Elland Road considered as one of the most intimidating and hostile environments for visiting teams. Despite the financial crisis which resulted in the fall of Leeds into the third tier of English football for the first time, the Whites were able to earn promotion to the Championship last season. Leeds came close to fighting for a return to the EPL but barely missed on the play-offs after finishing in 7th place.
Various figures provided by Hitwise show Leeds United’s website as the 6th most visited football website for weeks in the last few years. The same source, Hitwise, showed the Whites having a very popular website in the UK with a ranking as high as 5th overall. A few years ago, and despite Leeds languishing in the lowly third tier of English football known as League One, the club not only broke all attendance records for that division but was also considered as the most popular and best supported club outside the EPL and the Scottish Premiership (according to http://www.roymorgan.com/news/press-releases/2006/490/ in a report published by Roy Morgan Research).
Leeds ranked as the 9th most popular club in the UK. The Whites are clearly not lacking in terms of fans, many of whom are renowned for their loyalty and boisterous support. Based on popular support alone, Leeds deserve to be in the EPL despite the fact the club is also considered as one of the least liked outside Leeds and it vicinity. None other than Sir Alex Ferguson has singled out Elland Road as one of the most intimidating places to visit in Europe.
The challenge mounted by Leeds last season was effectively undone by the team’s weak defensive line which conceded a disastrous total of 70 goals in 46 matches. Once again it appears the club’s weak defensive unit will serve as a major hindrance in the face of achieving promotion back to the promised land. The Whites have already conceded 26 goals this season with the Championship’s worst defensive team leaking 30 goals, a clear sign of how poor the Leeds back-line has been.
To blame the defenders alone would be unfair since football is a team sport. The successive managers of Leeds during the last decade have failed to replace one of the club’s most dedicated players in former midfield anchorman David Batty. Since Batty’s retirement, Leeds have not had a reliable and omnipresent holding midfielder who can help shield the back four. There are a number of reasons behind the staggering tally of goals conceded by Leeds during the last couple of seasons; below is a list of some of the important ones:
1) The Failure to replace Batty as mentioned above has become a massive disadvantage and has left the club’s back-line exposed. It must be noted that none of the midfielders and wingers present on the current Leeds squad are intimidating and aggressive enough to strike fear into the hearts of opposing players.
2) The lack of consistency in goal has had a negative influence on the club’s fortunes as well. In the 2010-11 season, Leeds conceded 70 goals and at the end of the campaign Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel was allowed to leave despite some solid performances in a number of matches. Prior to the financial collapse of the club, Leeds used to boast some of the better goalkeepers in England such as Nigel Martyn. The Whites have yet to find a goalkeeper who can provide both the consistency and confidence in protecting the net.
3) The injury to Patrick “Paddy” Kisnorbo deprived Leeds of their best defender for an extended period of time and despite his return this season, Paddy has yet to return to his best. The lack of quality defenders on the squad means Kisnorbo’s return is a welcome relief but the Australian defender still needs time to improve his sharpness and to return to his best.
4) The club’s defenders tend to lack certain characteristics with the likes of Aiden White relying on pace yet lacking consistency and experience. However, many of the club’s defenders are either slow or prone to making the occasional yet costly mistake. Red cards, own goals and various errors have epitomized the Leeds defensive line in recent years.
5) The club’s ownership has not pumped enough money into the club’s coffers and having a limited spending policy has cost Leeds in terms of the ability to sign quality defenders who can help shore up the porous defensive line. In the last couple of years, Leeds have often relied on loan signings, older players in the twilight of their career and in some cases veterans who are way past their best. These recruits are often temporary and at best they are below the needed standards at a club of the stature of Leeds.
In conclusion, Leeds can not only challenge for promotion but also win the division if the proper funding is made available to fix some persistent problems in recent years which are related to the defensive options available at the club. At least two quality centre-backs must be signed while a full-back is also needed. Adding those three defenders alone will not completely solve the problems because there is a need for a capable holding midfielder who can provide cover for the defenders.
If Leeds do not address these issues, then the club will likely be headed to the playoffs at the end of the season provided the attacking options continue to compensate for the defensive weaknesses.