They say you have to work hard for the right to play football in the Championship, and for the opening twenty minutes that’s exactly what Leeds United were doing against Brentford.
Confident, attacking, high-scoring; during their recent unbeaten run, Brentford have been all the things Leeds haven’t for what now feels like months. They went for Leeds from the start, Ryan Woods getting the ball to Ollie Watkins on one side, Florian Jozefsoon on the other, from where they aimed for Neal Maupay in the middle. They put in seven crosses in the first twenty-two minutes, and had six shots. Leeds United cleared the ball eleven times from their own penalty area.
It was a worrying start for Leeds, but it was spirited. Only one of Brentford’s shots had been from inside the penalty area, and that was blocked by a flying Pontus; Jansson and Liam Cooper were dogged about protecting their goal, and their goalkeeper, Andy Lonergan, who made an excellent save at full stretch moments after Jansson’s block.
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It was work Leeds had to do against a team that relishes attacking, and it was having the desired effect. Brentford began to look burned out by their own fast start after around fifteen minutes, and Leeds came more into the game; Samu Saiz began dictating, running, shooting, just missing Ezgjan Alioski with a through ball on the edge of the box. It hadn’t been the best beginning from United, but they’d earned the right to play football, and were getting the ball to their best football player, and getting ready to make a match of the remaining seventy minutes.
Then Andy Lonergan dropped a humdrum cross at Maupay’s feet, and he scored a goal. And the story of how Leeds United went from fighting their way into one of the most crucial games of the season, to limping wimply away at the end of a 3-1 defeat, is the story of Lonergan’s blunder, Jansson’s nonsensical challenge conceding a penalty, Kalvin Phillips’ brainless intervention at full-back conceding a free-kick, Lonergan conceding a goal from the free-kick that shouldn’t have got past him, and a third goal scored too easily past a defence that had lost all the resolve of its first twenty minutes.
Chuck in Pierre-Michel Lasogga putting the best chance of the first half high over the bar and you can understand why Thomas Christiansen must despair. I mean, we’re all despairing, but he’s in charge of this. Everyone is looking at Thomas Christiansen to do something, but, really, what can he do? Take the first goal. He put faith in Felix Wiedwald but soon had to drop him, then gave Andy Lonergan a chance to resurrect a career that was petering out in reserve football, and now look. Hindsighters everywhere are making Christiansen rue the departure of Robert Green to Huddersfield, but when Green was given a go for Leeds against Newport County, he dived to save a shot that was going wide and knocked the ball into his own goal. Perhaps the cosmic oneness of goalkeepers is punishing Christiansen for being a striker in his playing days.
It’s probably not higher powers that have turned against Christiansen, but a lot of what is happening in Leeds United games is out of his control. He shouldn’t need to tell Lonergan to catch a ball when he’s under no pressure, or tell Lasogga to shoot under the bar. Pontus Jansson is a Swedish international defender who aspires to playing at the World Cup, and he shouldn’t need specific instructions not to make sliding tackles from the wrong side inside the penalty area and facing his own goal; he shouldn’t need telling to mark Maupay, who he completely ignored as he watched a Watkins cross in the second half, giving the striker a great opportunity; he shouldn’t have to be told that, when receiving a throw-in from Luke Ayling near his own corner flag, his next move should not be to volley the ball high into the stand.
Christiansen bears overall responsibility for the team and results, but individual players need to take responsibility for their own decision making, concentration and performance levels. Lasogga has been given a chance to kickstart a stalled career, Eunan O’Kane has been trusted to be the main player in midfield after being frustrated on the sidelines under Garry Monk. Christiansen won’t criticise individual players in public, but he had to take both off at half-time because they simply weren’t playing well enough.
The half-time changes gave Christiansen something positive to focus on after the game, although that’s becoming double-edged, as fans are decreasingly receptive to hearing about what’s gone well in a 3-1 defeat, especially when half-time changes suggest the starting selection was wrong. It had been right when the same players and formation did so well against Bristol City, but it was only when Kemar Roofe and Pablo Hernandez replaced Lasogga and O’Kane that Leeds got anywhere near to the Bristol levels.
Hernandez added some clear thinking to United’s attack, where before there had only been Saiz operating on instinct. Phillips and Vieira battled in central midfield, reunited from some of the best performances of last season, and Vieira in particular dominating the game; with more of the ball, Saiz looked relieved to have Hernandez to give it to and get it from, finally, a player on his wavelength.
Roofe played as a striker with the all the energy and movement Lasogga had played without. A static striker who scores and sets up goals can be useful, but Roofe’s running made a big difference to Leeds. If only he could score.
With a grand total of one cross to show for the first half, Leeds put in ten in the first twenty minutes of the second, three of them from Gaetano Berardi, who as well as defending for all his worth against Josefzoon and overlapping fullback Josh Clarke, got on overlaps of his own and cracked out his lesser spotted left foot. One of his crosses, a high looping centre, was missed by Brentford’s ‘keeper David Bentley, and Alioski popped up behind him to head an equaliser.
It was a deserved equaliser, and this part of the game means Christiansen can argue that Leeds deserved at least a point. During the game, however, Christiansen obviously felt that Leeds could get more, which turned out to be his undoing. Leeds were getting crosses into Brentford’s box, but without Lasogga there to finish, they needed a mistake or good fortune to make them useful. So Christiansen brought on Lasogga Junior, Jay-Roy Grot, presumably hoping he would get on the end of something and score the winner.
For such a careful analyst, I’m not sure if Thomas Christiansen has been paying attention to what Grot does when he comes on as substitute. In any case, Grot did exactly that again — nothing — while the chaos Roofe had been causing Brentford’s centre-backs ended when he moved to the wing. Leeds managed one cross in the time Grot was on the pitch, plus a crossed free-kick that Ayling headed just wide. In that time, Brentford scored twice.
Grot was signed as a player for the future, so it’s hard to know what Christiansen sees in him for the present, unless he sees his only fit alternative striker and he’ll be quietly Cibicki’d once Caleb Ekuban is fit. But in highlighting the individual errors that are costing Leeds, and chipping away at Christiansen’s job security, this substitution can’t be glossed over. Perhaps it was made with the best intentions — who doesn’t want to win? And Andrea Radrizzani certainly wants an attacking team — but it would be acceptable to improve Leeds United’s form in small increments, like away draws, before we worry again about taking three points from an away game our goalkeeper made harder than it should have been. Had the game ended 1-1, we could talk about how well Christiansen had done to change Leeds so completely from a blunt first half, about how you can’t legislate for Lonergan’s mistake, about earning a good point and giving Christiansen something to build on during the international break.
Instead we’re talking about sacking him. It still ought to be too soon for that, although Christiansen himself is a realist. “I have the confidence of the chairman and Victor,” he said before the Brentford game, “But okay, if you tell me that we lose eight more games in a row, then there’s nothing they can do. They can believe so much in me, but the situation will demand some other things.”
What the situation demands right now is vast improvement, and that’s not only from Thomas Christiansen. He’ll be held accountable for his tactical mistakes, and Victor Orta for his recruitment, but neither of those is a factor in Pontus Jansson volleying the ball off the pitch from a Leeds throw-in, or a grown adult goalkeeper who has played more than 300 games in the Championship not catching a cross, and those will still be problems whether Christiansen is the coach or not.
When Ezgjan Alioski won an award for goal of the month, the whole squad came together for a photo, to emphasise that Alioski’s individual achievement was built on collective endeavour. Perhaps now the squad need to come together for another photo, to show they understand that seven defeats in eight games should be a source of collective shame. Win as a team, lose as a team, take responsibility as a team, and improve as a team — together. And fast. ◉
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(feature image by Jim Ogden)