The Curious Case Of Leeds United's Vanishing Midfield

If Leeds United are to return to the promised land of Premier League football, they can't afford any more sluggish starts at Elland Road.
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Cardiff City took advantage of a lethargic first-half performance from Leeds Unitedto earn a draw at Elland Road.

Against the backdrop of six straight defeats to Cardiff, a late equaliser yesterday would appear to be a point gained for Leeds United in the circumstances. However, having not beaten Cardiff since 1984 there will be no better opportunity to put them to the sword than that which faced Leeds amid a flat and uninspiring Sunday lunchtime encounter.

In the build-up to the game on Friday, manager Simon Grayson was asked about Leeds' dire recent record against their South Wales counterparts, and he bluntly dismissed it with a biting riposte, typical of the nonchalant demeanour that endears him to the average football fan.

"Look, the players will have forgotten what they had for breakfast, so I can’t see this bothering them." An inspired response to the inane line of questioning that bored hacks often trot out in the absence of anything more imaginative; if in doubt reel off a few banal, historical statistics that bare no relation to the two sets of players taking to the field today.

That said, Leeds' nervous and tepid first half display bore the hallmarks of a team with doubt, paranoia and insecurity on their mind, but much of that is attributable not to the displays of players who left the club many moons ago, but to the curious case of their vanishing midfield.

Of the starting 11 yesterday, only Connolly, Howson and Snodgrass were on the pitch for the 4-0 annihilation Cardiff subjected Leeds to last season, a ritual slaughter that left Elland Road in suspended animation, frozen in fear at how bad it could actually become. That display was mainly the catalyst of the since-departed Bellamy, Chopra and Bothroyd, and the Cardiff that took to the pitch yesterday was a poor imitation of that beast. Toothless and bereft of pace or guile, this was a Cardiff team ripe for the picking had it not been for an equally docile first half display from Leeds.

Quite apart from the unholy mess created by Darren O’Dea in gifting Cardiff an early lead, there was no urgency or tempo from a Leeds side seemingly engaged in comatose tranquillity, matched off the field by an insipid atmosphere provided by the lunchtime kick-off and the ongoing discontent of the Leeds fans' disenfranchised relationship with chairman Ken Bates. A push in the back of O’Dea by eventual goalscorer Joe Mason clearly contributed to the confused demeanour the Irishman carried in the sorry episode surrounding Cardiff’s 17th minute opener, but we later learnt that he was suffering from blurred vision, which goes some way to explaining his dithering in dealing with the seemingly innocuous situation.

In many games at Elland Road in recent years it almost feels like fans have to dismiss the first half as any kind of spectacle, and just await a half time foot-up-the-arse from Grayson.

On the field, what mystifies Leeds fans most is how a midfield quartet of Howson, Clayton, Pugh and Snodgrass can affect a game so little and yet Leeds manage to stay in the game. Granted, Snodgrass probed with vigour in the opening 45 minutes yesterday but to little effect, and it is a testimony to the wholly average nature of the 2011 version of Cardiff City that they came nowhere near cementing a commanding half time lead. In many games at Elland Road in recent years it almost feels like fans have to dismiss the first half as any kind of spectacle, and just await a half time foot-up-the-arse from Grayson and the atmospheric lift that attacking the Kop always generates before anything of note happens. Sunday was just such an occasion.

Straight from the whistle for the second half, Messrs Clayton and Howson shook themselves out of their befuddled stupor and wrestled control of the midfield area; finally, prompting and spreading play with the zeal we know they possess. This in turn brought Snodgrass and, through Pugh’s less conspicuous involvement, the excellent Aidy White into the game and ensured a dominant 45 minutes of relentless pressure which, but for the distinction of Cardiff Keeper David Marshall, would have resulted in a comfortable victory. That Leeds had to rely on Snodgrass poking in a 73rd minute equaliser to salvage a meagre point, owed as much to wasteful finishing and careless offside decisions as it did the keeper's resounding man-of-the-match performance.

The central midfield pairing at Leeds has been a moot point for several years; not since Shaun Derry in 2006 have Leeds had a dominant midfielder who can wrestle control of a game. And even his fleeting Leeds career achieved little of note, just a nostalgic longing for a skilful brute that, in truth, every club in the Championship is searching for.

Last season Leeds flourished with a 4-5-1 formation which played to the strengths of Jonny Howson as an attacking midfielder ‘in the hole’, and the extra body allowed the shortcomings of both Bradley Johnson (in terms of craft, guile and composure) and Neil Kilkenny (in terms of strength, verve and athleticism) to be largely papered over. Indeed Johnson and Kilkenny were like two half players. What one had the other lacked and vice versa, and Leeds found themselves needing to accommodate the extra player in midfield to compensate for this. That it also allowed Howson to bloom in a role free of restrictions, affording him 11 goals in the process, made the formation a natural fit, but the array of talented strikers on the clubs books, not least the barely-used McCormack and Somma, meant the formation would never survive into a second season.

Howson now finds himself back in the dogfight of central midfield, where his physical attributes as an all-round midfielder are exposed as being, on occasion, a little short. Grayson’s decision to give Howson the captaincy means there is little chance of him being substituted on the frequent occasions where more bite is needed, and so it is maybe not Howson’s position that should be debated, more the decision to make him captain. The early season combativeness that Adam Clayton provided has not been seen to such good effect of late, but certainly he has the physical presence to make himself known to the opposition throughout the game. Michael Brown does not appear to have the legs for the battle anymore, and Finnish international Mika Vayrynen has shown the promise that suggests he could be the answer, should he ever get the opportunity.

So we are left with the conundrum of how Leeds' midfield can stamp their authority on a game and dominate, even at home, from the first whistle rather than the second. Credit is due to Grayson and the team yesterday for lifting a flat occasion and providing a one-way second half that did not get the reward it so richly deserved. Credit is due to the vast improvement in the defence, marshalled by the rapidly maturing Tom Lees. The concern remains that had Leeds encountered a team in better shape than the limp Cardiff outfit seen yesterday, the game could have been out of sight before the half-time oranges lifted them from their slumber. For Grayson there remains the telling predicament that games are won and lost in midfield, and does he have that winning combination within his ranks?

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