Thomas Christiansen’s lack of familiarity with the English Football League is mirrored by our unfamiliarity with him, and that hasn’t been helped by his inscrutability.
He’s relaxed and friendly, but he doesn’t give anything anyway. Injuries? He’s not a doctor. Transfers? Ask Victor Orta. Team for Saturday? Wait and see. What’s he said to the players? That’s between the players and him. Is he feeling under pressure? He loves pressure. That’s why he’s here.
This was fine while Leeds United were winning their way to the top of the league, but three quick defeats created a crisis of confidence, because nobody was sure how Christiansen would react. His steadfast refusal to flap was hard to interpret, because it could either be a confident expression of self-belief that was driving good work on the training pitch, or signs of a Garry Monkbot style refusal to deviate from a failing plan. I wanted last week to last forever, so Christiansen could have as much time as possible to sort the players out. But I also wanted the Bristol City game to happen immediately, so we could find out what Christiansen was doing, even if he wasn’t telling.
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The result was such an emphatic return to form that the rest of this report risks becoming a list of ways that Thomas Christiansen was right. It might be more useful, though, to emphasise the things we now know about Christiansen that we couldn’t be sure of before this game.
Ronaldo Vieira was key to this. His absence this season has mushroomed into a cloud of conspiracy, when the simple explanation now looks closest to the truth. After thirty-four appearances in his first season, and a summer on international duty, it was sensible to start with other players in the first eleven, rather than run Vieira until he broke like an abused pit-pony, or Sam Byram. United’s good form meant no reason to change the midfield, but when a change did look handy, Vieira was unfortunate to have a knee injury; Christiansen hinted that he’d wanted him to play at Hillsborough. The Reading game came too soon after his recovery, but for Bristol City away Vieira was both necessary and available, at the same time, for the first time. So Christiansen played him.
Which was easier said than done, because Christiansen didn’t just chuck him in. It couldn’t be that simple, because United’s attacking strategy depends on a diminutive soldier of complexity, Samuel Saiz. While Leeds were beginning winning, Saiz was the problem to which Christiansen had to give most thought, moving him around the team from the bench, to the wing, eventually to no.10, displacing Pablo Hernandez — something nobody thought probable. Once in place, Saiz looked immovable, because surely the wing would be a waste of him.
At Bristol we saw that’s not so, and learned that perhaps he’s not so complex after all. Play him at no.10, and he’ll dominate the attacking half of the pitch. Play him on the wing, and he’ll dominate the attacking half of the pitch. He could probably be named as sweeper, and he’d dominate the attacking half of the pitch. Saiz doesn’t have to be treated gently; Leeds just have to put him on the pitch and let him go. But there has to be a plan for the gaps he leaves behind him; plan, thy name is Kalvin Phillips.
If it was unlikely that Hernandez should have given up the no.10 spot to Saiz so soon, it was unthinkable that it would pass quickly to Phillips. But his presence around the opposition penalty area has been a feature this season — remember the goals he scored at Bolton? the set up for Alioski at Forest? — and at Bristol this was formalised and refined. He was ready to score goals if required. But first of all he was ready to fuck shit up in Bristol’s defensive third, defending from the front, chasing and tackling, and setting the tone for the team behind him.
Three big changes: Vieira in the team, Saiz on the wing, Phillips at no.10, were joined by a fourth — Pontus Jansson on the bench — four changes that were so harmonic that the all-action commitment epitomised by Jansson at his best was played at even greater volume in his absence. Instead of looking to the one true Pontus for inspiration, Leeds played like a team with eleven of them, dominating every part of the pitch.
Vieira was in his element, and excellent, tackling and intercepting and making midfield his and Leeds United’s. He did plenty of this work on his own, demonstrating how we’ve missed him — his absence might have been necessary, but it was painful — but the help Christiansen had put alongside him helped him shine. With Phillips as the first point of disruption, Bristol players arrived in Vieira’s midfield under pressure, off balance, without control, inviting him in for the kill. He judged his opportunities well. It was a ruthless and efficient combination when the midfield three worked together: Phillips knocked them over, Vieira got the ball off them, O’Kane gave the ball to Saiz; a simple plan, with plenty of assistants and variations.
It started from the front and it started from the start. The game had hardly begun before Vieira and Phillips were closing in on Bristol’s back line, a clearance booming off the latter’s backside into the path of Pierre-Michel Lasogga. His run towards goal was oblique but skilful, as he skipped past two; his flick to Saiz was unexpected, and used up all the available grace, Saiz making do with a deflected shot into the goal to put Leeds ahead.
Ten minutes later Gaetano Berardi brought a long clearance down on his chest, and Saiz played a one-two with him before giving the ball to O’Kane on halfway. Lasogga, Saiz and Phillips all ran ahead of O’Kane as he drove through midfield, but he selected Ezgjan Alioski for a precise through ball, rewarding his run from the wing with a position to score in front of the keeper. His attempts were cleared by the keeper, and the ball ran loose for Saiz, who added more gloss than was strictly necessary to his strike into the goal for 2-0.
Saiz had already tried to make a second, using all the space on the left-wing, committing a deceitful crime with his feet to get to the byline, and trying to cut back for Alioski or Lasogga; he tried to get a hat-trick, juggling the ball in Bristol’s box, pretending the volley at the end was a lob towards Lasogga, who was furious with him. Then again, Lasogga had tried to van Basten a volley into the goal from a five degree angle, so he wasn’t innocent. And of all the things for Leeds players to be arguing about, keepie-ups in the opponent’s penalty area is one I’m very comfortable with.
Leeds could have had four or five in the first twenty minutes, a world away from the performance against Reading. I was a rare voice in not totally hating every minute of that game; we could have won as easily as we lost. But there was no way that style would have done against a supposedly more attacking Bristol City side. Turning that team into this one puts another feather in Christiansen’s cap, but he made it a full peacock’s tail by pointing out that his team had played exactly the same way in the first twenty minutes at Sheffield Wednesday, steamrolling their opponents to give Saiz a smooth surface, they just hadn’t managed to score. All the times since that Christiansen has insisted on seeing the good his team did in defeat make sense now we’ve seen that same approach, back on the pitch, working.
That opens the door to a question about what might have happened at Ashton Gate had Leeds not scored early, but gone behind; but we’ll close that door for now and concentrate on the positives. For this game wasn’t finished, and after the early dopamine rush of the goals, United were confident and focused in pursuit of their rewards.
Bristol City, after eight wins and six draws this season, and up among the top scorers in the Championship, were bound by their responsibilities to have a go at getting back into the game, but United’s shut out was effective and nonsense free. Obvious among the stats is United’s unusually low pass completion, 58% compared to 76% against Reading. But that wasn’t due to any change in midfield: Phillips was the most careful individual, up at 78%, Vieira 71%, O’Kane 61%; Vieira played more accurate passes than anybody on the pitch. But the defenders dragged the stat down by opting for blasted clearances when in danger, that Lasogga, Saiz and Alioski inevitably found it hard to do anything with, and in turn dragged United’s overall performance up. The defenders just had to defend, and the forwards had to fight.
I don’t think I’m stretching a point too far to say the players were fighting with themselves as much as with Bristol, or rather that they were fighting with their recent form. Christiansen has been critical of Jansson’s self-criticism on Instagram, saying he’d rather the players internalised those thoughts and turned them into actions. That he also said he’d been considering dropping Jansson for a while suggests he’s wanted fewer words and more actions, and the players that were picked played as if that message had been received loud and clear. Football loves its metaphors, but here the cliches about improving through hard work and fighting for the right to play were all visible in the game, on the pitch.
Berardi ended up taking it a bit far and getting sent off, although he was hard done to. There was no particular malice in his foul on Matty Taylor, yet Taylor flew up from the ground and straight into Berardi’s face, and then back to the ground again almost before anyone knew what was going on. Berardi’s head butt looked more like the result of someone who will step forward into confrontation, rather than back, and he looked bemused as he turned to the referee and made a motion as if to say, ‘I was just standing here, why was this guy in my grill just now?’ The referee, to be fair, got the situation right: Taylor deserved sending off for a ludicrous over reaction to nothing, and Berardi had to go for reacting to him.
It was a frustrating moment, for Berardi more than anybody, who is sincere about wanting to leave the suspensions behind. But he’ll be back; Vurnon Anita has had injury problems, and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson form problems, that suggest Berardi will get his chance again. And that Leeds were standing up for themselves, after weeks of looking softhearted, with Jansson in the midst of things, marauding around the Bristol bench to remind them whose pitch this was today, said a lot for the inner strength and togetherness of the team, two traits that have been heavily questioned since standards have slipped.
By the time of the red card it was 3-0, Leeds making a mockery of Lee Johnson’s attacking substitutions with a corner kick that looked rehearsed: rehearsed and difficult, Phillips chipping to the near post, Lasogga running ahead of the defenders and flicking his header over his shoulder into the goal. Since Lasogga replaced Chris Wood, United have looked unsure about what to do with him, but it’s amazing what a week on the training pitches together can do.
Which, three goals and three points and three big, big, big sighs of relief apart, is something else we should celebrate about this result. Not only was this the best performance and result of the season so far, but it was a vital milestone in the fans’ — and perhaps the owner’s — relationship with and understanding of Thomas Christiansen. The Championship comes at you fast, and after his early momentum, it hit Christiansen like a flurry of Josh Warrington jabs, knocking him from Millwall to Cardiff to Sheffield with hardly an opportunity to take stock and start swinging back.
Last week didn’t lack disruptions: the terrible news just before the weekend that Stuart Dallas had lost his mum has become a footnote to the celebrations, but came when Christiansen will have wanted the squad to concentrate on preparations. The game itself was played on the edges of Storm Brian, the wind and rain taunting United’s players into one more show of naivety for the likes of Millwall and Cardiff to crow over. Leeds United withstood, and excelled, and every player deserves credit.
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And Thomas Christiansen deserves for this game to be remembered. It has seemed lately as if Burton, that wonder day, really was just an alcoholic dream. But it really happened. What hadn’t happened, yet, was a response to adversity; well, it has now, and how. And while we can’t afford for this game to become the Garry Monk’s Win Over Derby of this season, to repeat the way that performance haunted our failures to repeat it, we should call on it next time Leeds find themselves in bad form.
They will: it might even start against Sheffield United on Friday, as cranky a fixture as we’re going to get this season. But whereas before we couldn’t be sure if Thomas Christiansen had what it takes to get Leeds out of a slide, next time, we’ll have the evidence that proves he can. Can is not the same as will, and that’s how Christiansen will be judged: the frequency of Burtons and Bristols, against occurrences of Millwalls and Cardiffs. But hopefully that judgement can take place over successful months, now, rather than pressurised weeks. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)