Thomas Christiansen was such a bolt from the Mediterranean that trying to fathom his team selections is not an exercise in criticism, but an attempt to get to know him. Who is this high-pitched Spanish-Danish cutie, and what team will he pick tonight, with what results?
It’s interesting too because he seems to be a lover of curve balls, taking Ronaldo Vieira’s four year contract as an invitation for Vieira to prove his way back into the team, and a lover of attacking changes, as we saw in the second half against Preston.
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Against Fulham there was an enforced change, Conor Shaughnessy replacing Liam Cooper in central defence due to the latter’s injury. Shaughnessy has been such a curve ball at the start of the season that most fans are still swinging at the whole concept of this curious lanky midfielder with a taste for a raking cross-field pass — beautiful when it works, but all the times it doesn’t work just make it look like luck Conor, so quit while you’re Lothar Matthäus is my advice — being favoured at the back ahead of other options. Of which there are few, but Luke Ayling for example might have been more obvious.
Would Luke Ayling have made the game-saving tackle deep in the second half, that Shaughnessy did? It’s impossible to say, but it was a bloody good job that Shaughnessy made it. And overall Shaughnessy looked calm, composed and competent to an almost ludicrous degree. It’s difficult to know just what we’ve got with this player. When Jonathan Woodgate strolled into the Leeds United defence it wasn’t so fantastic, as he had at least been playing centre-back during his whole youth career. Shaughnessy has more of Gary Kelly about him, who completed the journey from striker to winger to right-back about three weeks before the start of a season, a season he ended as an ever-present on his way to the World Cup.
Swapping Cameron Borthwick-Jackson for Vurnon Anita at left-back was not as successful. This felt like a reluctant nod to defending from TC, acknowledging that with an inexperienced centre-half against a good team he needed as much experience as possible in the back four, rather than an awkward adolescent BJ. The flipside to that is that Christiansen likes his full backs to play as far forward as possible, which meant a tough night for Pontus Jansson as Anita dallied upfield when he should probably have been dealing with Fulham’s attacks down their right. As it was, although Anita’s class was still obvious, Pablo Hernandez proved a more effective left-back than Anita, getting in two strong tackles to stop them in their tracks, as did Felix Wiedwald, racing out of goal like your weak heart knows he’s gonna to beat Fulham’s winger to the ball.
Robert Green returned to the bench in time to see that, and to see Wiedwald in proper action for the first time. At last, we saw Felix diving to save a shot. He didn’t save it; it rattled off the post, during an opening twenty minute spell when it looked like Fulham were going to take Leeds apart. But he showed more of his worth in the second half when he went big with arms and legs to stop Fulham scoring a one on one.
That opening twenty minutes was not what anybody needed after Saturday’s mild disappointment. Fulham were one of the best passing sides of last season’s Championship, and that’s passing as in the fast, effective version, not like Reading. They weren’t quite at that level, and thankfully Tom Cairney was missing, otherwise he would have scored. But in the opening stages they were much too much for Leeds. Kalvin Phillips began by trying to play up near Chris Wood, as he had against Bolton, but soon he and Eunan O’Kane were parked in front of the back four, where they were not effective, standing side by side as Fulham passed around them with verve. When Leeds did get the ball, they couldn’t keep it; O’Kane was playing as if he had all the time in the world with the ball at his feet, except he didn’t, and he kept letting Fulham have it back.
Whether Fulham lost steam, or whether they panicked once Samuel Saiz started getting the ball, once Leeds had a foothold their opponents were never the same. Saiz’s contribution to that was immense. This was the last of Christiansen’s changes, and the most interesting. Leeds relied on Pablo Hernandez for creativity last season, even when he’d run out of energy and ideas, and at his best he was wondrous. But it’s only taken until the third league game for Saiz to steal his place behind Wood, Hernandez shoved out to the left wing.
Hernandez put in a legitimate, admirable and properly creative shift out there, where he played most of his career, helping/replacing Anita at left-back and joining in fully in attack. But it was his replacement in the middle who gave all the joy.
It’s a cop out when I’m supposed to be putting football into words, but all I can say about Saiz is you should go and watch him play. Tiny, tenacious, outrageously skilful, he sees more and does more than any other player we have or have had for years. Nominally he was a no.10, but he played wherever he was needed. O’Kane needs a forward pass? Here’s Saiz. The move breaks down and now Hernandez needs an out ball on the other side of the pitch? No problem, Saiz is there as well. With the ball he takes opponents on and he beats them, and just when you think he’s going to pass in one direction, he builds an attack in another. It’s beautiful stuff, good for the soul, and he shows every sign of getting better.
After all, he’s not ‘used to the league yet’, which is a way of saying he’s not used to being kicked all over the park yet. Wait until we play Cardiff, I guess. Except he already looks tough enough, as does Ezgjan Alioski, who isn’t playing as effectively as Saiz but shows no lack of effort. Fulham came out after half-time determined to get the blood of some short blondes on their boots, and within five minutes Alioski had been hauled down off the ball and then kicked in the chest. Saiz, too, got a few whacks. They both moaned like billy-o to the ref, but only enough to make their point, in quite an old school Don Revie’s Leeds way. There was more of that when Ayling and Jansson surrounded the referee to complain about a foul on Saiz, and if you squinted it could have been Bremner and Hunter out there, except that the thought of Billy Bremner with a man bun is horrific.
The game became more end to end in the second half, and both teams visibly tired, possibly not a good sign this early in the season, but also an indication of the enjoyable intensity with which this match was played. Leeds lost some impetus as Christiansen made some curiously conservative changes, although I don’t think he intended them to be. Kemar Roofe simply wasn’t as directly dangerous as Alioski, and Stuart Dallas’s introduction meant the departure of Saiz. Hernandez went back to the ten spot, but he doesn’t have Saiz’s little unpredictability.
Dallas did pull the chance of the game out for Wood in the final minutes, barging his way past the full back and crossing low into the six yard box for Wood to bury. There was a deflection that took the ball away from Wood, but if he’d been trying to finish less precisely and instead got his massive Lee Chapmanesque frame in the way, it might have been a goal. It was Wood’s best chance, but not his only one. He got the ball in the net but was called offside, which is not the same as being offside. Then he had another one on one, a carbon copy of the chance against Preston, with a carbon copy result: a save.
The news before the game was of Burnley submitting another bid for Wood, and of Leeds United rejecting it again; although this might not have been the bid this time, papers are talking about twenty million, an amount very much in the hard to resist zone. Under ordinary circumstances I would encourage the club to resist thirty million, forty, fifty; Chris Wood can score goals, and there’s nothing more valuable in football, and when you’ve got that in your team, you need to keep it.
Then again, for all the attacking intent United have shown in their two home league games, Wood hasn’t scored. Nobody has. Saiz, Hernandez, Alioski, Roofe, Dallas, and still we can’t conjure a goal. Wood was busy, mobile, aggressive, running hard, all the things he wasn’t when we played Fulham this time last season, when he was getting justified early season bird from the Elland Road crowd. But the big chance that came his way was, as it was against Preston, from a through ball that put him one on one with the keeper — not his game, as the two misses showed.
The rest of the time the attacking play seemed to be going on around him, but without him as a focal point; Saiz was looking for a striker that wasn’t there. When Roofe came on, a player much more used to chipping the ball at Wood, he did exactly that, and Leeds’ impetus dissipated.
After last season, we all expected continuity, but Leeds haven’t been shy about replacing players for the new era. Wiedwald in goal, Shaughnessy in defence, Saiz as playmaker. A question is developing in my mind about whether Chris Wood is the right player to be the focal point of the attacking style Thomas Christiansen — not to mention Victor Orta and Ivan Bravo — are putting in place, or whether a striker with different characteristics would get more from Saiz and Alioski. And if that question is developing in my mind, I wonder what’s happening in the minds of the people at Elland Road every time the fax machine rumbles into life with another teen-million bid from the Premier League, followed by another report on a cheap-at-twice-the-price alternative our new scouting network has unearthed in the Estonian league.
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It’s a thought. As is the thought that you don’t let a thirty-goal striker go without being really, really sure, and the thought that Wood had the ball in the net tonight anyway and overall played really, really well. But he didn’t score, and neither did anybody else, and that’s for the second home match in a row, even though United’s game both times was based on attack, attack, attack. So it’s a thought, in a season that, barely started, is already giving us a lot to think about. Happily, most of those thoughts are good. ◉
(Photograph of Thomas Christiansen with Eddie Gray by Lee Brown)