As Sunday lunchtime ticked past, relentless, Thomas Christiansen’s brow deepened into furrows that, by the time Kieran Lee accepted his extra helping of dessert from Eunan O’Kane and made the score 3-0, looked like permanent fixtures on his youthful face. Youthful before he came to Leeds United, anyway.
It was fair for Christiansen to look confused. Leeds United fans have seen a lot more Championship football than he has, and many more Leeds games like this one, and we’re confused, too.
Perhaps Thomas will conclude, as Leeds fans did long ago, that life just isn’t fair. For the second time in a week he prepared a side that would counteract its next opponent so its own virtues could blossom, then stood and watched as a goal ripped the finery from United, who spent the rest of the game struggling to recover their poise, restring their corsets, and step daintily back into the fray.
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Christiansen was right that the opening twenty-seven minutes in Cardiff were decent. Mateusz Klich lost the ball after twenty-seven minutes and eight seconds, but rewatching the match up until that point, I saw Leeds United doing much that was necessary against Neil Warnock’s team. Attacks kept breaking down at the point of Pablo Hernandez, and Leeds had barely played a pass left of Sol Bamba, ignoring Stuart Dallas, but United were dominating possession and not too troubled at the back. As opening half hours against league leading sides managed by absolute twats go, it was working very well, until Klich undid it three minutes short of that landmark.
You could say the same about United at Hillsborough, only this time Samuel Saiz was in the team, and so the Pablo pinch point was eradicated. For the first twenty minutes Saiz glided around Sheffield, building a shrine to himself as the first act of a performance that promised to be worth its own place of worship. It wasn’t only the skill, when he dribbled between tacklers and ran towards goal, or the strength, holding off Wednesday players as his influence grew and their tackles grew more desperate. But in the first six minutes Saiz played two passes across the pitch to players who didn’t even know themselves how good their positions were, until Saiz made their situations glorious with one kick of the football. For Kalvin Phillips and Kemar Roofe, the recipients, it was like going to the corner shop for a fizzy snake and being presented with the keys to a sweet factory.
As at Cardiff, all Leeds United had to do was keep doing their thing and let the win come to them, or in this case, let Saiz go and get it. Instead, as at Cardiff, they let Sheffield Wednesday take the lead, and never looked the same again.
There’s more going on here than Felix Wiedwald, although Felix Wiedwald has plenty going on. The main charges against Wiedwald merge vaguely around him not looking convincing, although he made some decent saves at Hillsborough, and not being brave enough, although he was brave enough to leave Pontus Jansson on the floor in Cardiff in midweek, as he took on all comers to punch away a corner. He can make decent saves and he can be brave. The problem is that he isn’t consistently decent or consistently brave, and its in those inconsistencies that doubts become justified, and grow.
Wiedwald isn’t alone back there, though. An organised defence might start with a commanding goalkeeper, but it doesn’t end there. For the opening goal Tom Lees had Luke Ayling, Matthew Pennington and Pontus Jansson in his vicinity on the edge of the penalty area; not one did anything to stop Lees heading across goal to the back post, where Phillips had forgotten all about Gary Hooper behind him. The first ball, being twenty yards away and in the sky, was no business of Wiedwald’s; he should have done better to stop Hooper, but so should Phillips, and with Leeds’ defence stood still watching and Hooper the only player in the box moving, the jig was well and truly up whatever Wiedwald did.
Likewise the second goal. Another deep, looping cross was easily won at the back post, by Fletcher above Ayling, and while Wiedwald didn’t attack the ball, neither did Jansson or Pennington. All four were near enough to the ball and to the Wednesday players to have made a decisive difference, but didn’t; and that’s even before we consider Gaetano Berardi, who for every cross he was stopping at left-back, was letting two get by.
In between times Lasogga had lost van Aken at the back post, but the cross was just too high; Barry Bannan had played a through ball past a static Leeds defence, giving Lee an easy finish that was wrongly called offside; and Pennington had spun beneath a cross in time to see Fletcher arriving behind him to head it wide.
If this lack of conviction in the Leeds defence is due to Wiedwald, then changing the goalkeeper will be like changing a sticking plaster, because it will only mask the lack of leadership in the outfield defenders. If a central defender isn’t sure what his goalkeeper is going to do, that’s not a great situation. If the central defender’s solution is to wait and see, that only makes the situation worse. Yes, there are big question marks over Felix Wiedwald. But he isn’t being helped by United’s constant exposure of his underbelly to the opposition, inviting them to take him on at his weakest points, and leaving him to take the brunt of the fans’ blame. The defence, where this Leeds team finds its captains and its passionate, warfaring animals, was collectively soft, Ayling, Berardi, Jansson, Pennington, Wiedwald, all.
The field ahead of them wasn’t much better. After the match, “Soft” was Christiansen’s word of the day, and O’Kane and Phillips’ failure to get a grip in midfield meant Leeds were soft right through the centre. This, more than the defence, may be where Christiansen directs most of his concern, because he spoke specifically after the game about how they’d planned to stop Barry Bannan. “There were many things we knew were going to happen in this game,” he said, “That we didn’t get close to.”
The space in midfield made Barry Bannan look like Samuel Saiz, and the little bald-headed Scotsman swanned off with the player of the match award that Saiz should have been awarded for his first twenty minutes. I might actually have given it to Saiz anyway, because whenever he had the ball during the ninety minutes, he showed that he at least wasn’t letting his personal standards drop. He just never had the ball, while Bannan always did.
Nominally playing on the left wing, just as Ross Wallace was nominally playing on the right, once Lee and Jones had secured central midfield as Wednesday’s basecamp Bannan was allowed to arrive on the scene, take the ball, and dictate the match from the edge of United’s box. Phillips has deserved his plaudits this season for his increased involvement in attack. O’Kane has deserved his for putting the ticks and the tocks into United’s midfield clockwork. But against Wednesday they either needed helping or replacing, because all they were doing against Wednesday’s midfielders was chasing.
Ronaldo Vieira’s reputation as a dominant defensive midfielder has grown large in the memory, but that he has existed this season mostly as a memory is a case by itself. Perhaps he is the solution; perhaps he could have started at Cardiff instead of Klich; but then, after the Burnley game, when Klich and Vieira played side by side, it was Klich that most people wanted to see more of. We know how that turned out.
Which is high among Thomas Christiansen’s problems. Everyone’s telling him he’s got to change things. “Everyone has the possibility to start in the eleven,” he said after this game. “I have twenty-two players I can choose, and three goalkeepers, so we will see what can happen in the next game.”
But when he changed things at Cardiff, it cost the first goal, that changed and ultimately cost the game. Klich’s mistake, though, was the kind of mistake players make on their debut, and therein lies the complication of Christiansen’s selection problems. He has a squad full of players like Klich, Wiedwald, Pennington, Shaughnessy, Alioski, Saiz, Lasogga, Grot, Ekuban and Cibicki who have no pedigree in this division, and are in a test stage of their careers. Some have been instant hits, some have been great in flashes, some have yet to get going. Some have had one chance and blown it. Some have had several chances, and might never make it. We’re finding out the only way we can: the hard way.
To an extent all Thomas Christiansen can do is prepare the players as best he can and then wait to see which ones have the stuff that will keep them in the team and get Leeds out of this division. “Some [of their] performances are not enough in this league,” he said at Hillsborough, but there are no rehearsals in the Championship: Christiansen can only find that out once the players are on stage, shining in — or hiding from — the footlights and the spotlights.
The hiding is perhaps the bigger issue. Christiansen will cop it for his team selections, but at Cardiff and Wednesday, they’ve looked fine for half an hour, until conceding a goal has caused some sort of mental or moral collapse. With so many inexperienced players around, that can happen; but with players like Jansson, Ayling, Berardi and O’Kane around, it shouldn’t.
Liam Cooper was a big, glaring, foolish example of that in midweek, when instead of holding Leeds together the captain lost it completely; and in retrospect, United looked lost without the best of his leadership against Wednesday. Instead, they had O’Kane, gently popping the ball out of his own penalty area directly to Lee, who hammered it first time into the goal.
Again in stoppage time, after Jansson had gone off injured and the central defence had become a makeshift pair of Pennington and Berardi, Leeds were struggling to keep Wednesday away from the D of their area; Kalvin Phillips, limping on a dead leg, was in the thick of things with the centrebacks, scrambling to prevent a fourth. O’Kane was jogging by, and Wednesday revelled in the space, and you wondered who from Leeds was in charge here, or who wanted to be.
O’Kane’s a good player. They’re all good players. But since the Burton game, the Burton game has begun to feel like it should be capitalised — The Burton Game — and revered as something momentous from history. That match was like having a family heirloom returned, years after it was thought lost forever. Since then the story of its return has become less a car boot sale coincidence, and more like a multi-agency investigation into its theft, amid accusations that it’s probably fake anyway.
Before this trio of games against Ipswich, Cardiff and Wednesday, Thomas Christiansen said, “I believe that these three games will mark a bit the season how it will go.” I still hope that’s true, because I hope these three games provoke a reaction and an improvement. I’m leaning lenient when it comes to the learning process this season; lessons needed to be learned from Cardiff on Tuesday night, but it was expecting too much for revision to be done and exams passed by noon on Sunday. In the Yorkshire Evening Post last week, Phil Hay made the excellent point that while Neil Warnock has managed more than a thousand competitive games in England, Sheffield Wednesday away was Thomas Christiansen’s fourteenth. He’s managing players whose experience can be counted in minutes, up against opponents who have been doing this for years.
Taking that into account, the only concern I have is about the visible fear of failure gripping Leeds when they look like they might lose. The players and staff will lose games this season — ‘as a team’, as they keep insisting — and hopefully will learn from those experiences. But they won’t learn in fear. Midweek on the playing fields, The Championship thwacks you on the knees, it knees you in the groin, it elbows in the face, leaves bruises bigger than dinner plates, as Morrissey once pointed out. To survive, you have to make sure the spineless bastards are them, not you. ◉
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(feature image by Paul Kent)