WHEN the last international break came around, Garry Monk was under pressure and pledging to use the fortnight without a fixture to eradicate Leeds United’s defensive failings.
United had taken just four points from a possible 15 and were sitting fourth bottom of the Championship, a 3-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest on the final Saturday of August having laid bare the problems Monk was facing even at such an early juncture in his reign.
Five weeks on, however, and victory tomorrow against Barnsley at Elland Road would mean the picture has changed dramatically, as the 37-year-old is the first to admit.
“I have to be happy with the improvements we have made this month,” said Monk yesterday when asked about a September that has seen Leeds start to turn their season around after that slow start.
“But I always want more. In the best scenario, we should be undefeated this month. I didn’t think we deserved to lose against Huddersfield or Bristol City.
“For me, it has been a good month so far, but we can turn it into a very good month. To get 12 points from 18 would be a good return. It would also mean ending the month on a real positive note.
“It was always going to take time to get things right out on the pitch and improve the team. But now you are seeing a confidence and understanding of what is expected of us. If we can continue this way then we can get success.”
United will be chasing a fourth straight win on home soil tomorrow after seeing off Blackburn and Ipswich Town in the league, either side of easing into the fourth round of the League Cup with a 1-0 victory over Owen Coyle’s Rovers side.
Chris Wood found the net in all three of those victories, though perhaps the most pleasing aspect from a Leeds perspective was a much improved defensive display.
That has very much been a feature of the past month with Pontus Jansson’s arrival shortly before the end of the summer transfer window having made a big difference.
The 6ft 5ins Swedish defender was forced out of the midweek loss at Bristol City with a hamstring strain, but is expected to be fit to face Barnsley.
Less happy news for Monk, however, is Liam Bridcutt being out for up to eight weeks after a second scan on a troublesome foot injury revealed a fracture.
“We are always working on everything,” said the Leeds head coach when asked about what has improved the most since the last international break. “We were excellent defensively on Tuesday. We have improved drastically over the past month. It is just that last little bit in attack we need to improve, that is usually the most difficult part of football.
“If we can be a bit more smart and show a bit more composure, chances are that we will deserve to win games.
“That is not just about the strikers, I mean everyone. We all have that responsibility. We work on it daily. Big strides have been taken, and the big thing for me is we are competitive in every game now.”
United expect a bumper crowd of around 26,000 for the first derby between these clubs since the Reds were relegated at the end of the 2013-14 season.
Monk added: “We have won our last two home games in the league and got through in the Cup. The Ipswich game (last weekend when United won 1-0) was the best atmosphere I have seen here. The fans really took a step forward and decided to back the team no matter what.
“We didn’t quite convert the chances we should have, but the fans got us over the line.”
Barnsley have already won on the road this season, at Preston North End and Wolverhampton Wanderers, the latter a stunning 4-0 triumph that saw all the goals scored in the final 17 minutes.
It displayed the attacking threat that Paul Heckingbottom’s side pose and Monk admits his side’s new-found defensive steel will have to be in evidence once again.
“This will take our biggest effort yet,” said the United chief. “But, in terms of how we have been performing, we are in a good moment. What we want to see is the right reaction against Barnsley in another tough game.
“We are very focused. My job as a manager is to focus on my team.
“We have had a real busy month and it hasn’t stopped. We had a disappointment in terms of the result on Tuesday against Bristol City, but we are ready to bounce back.
“It was a good performance on Tuesday, the only thing missing was us being more clinical. Whoever goes on the pitch will clearly know what is expected of them. That is the key to having a squad, whoever comes on the pitch – and we made 11 changes at Luton and seven against Blackburn – then they all know their role.
“We are improving all the time, but we have to be that bit more clinical. We need to be a little bit better in our decision-making in the final third. If we do that, we can go into the game with a good belief.”