The Square Ball Week: Evolution of Airpunching

In Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Pontus Jansson’s swinging celebratory fists, in three parts. First, at Elland Road against Huddersfield Town last September, when we’d never seen the likes before.

We hadn’t seen much of anything in the season so far. If this game is remembered, it’s for identity crisis, when Garry Monk’s frustration about his new team’s indifferent start to the season was taken out on the BBC’s Adam Pope. You’d imagine something similar might happen soon with the Gazette in Middlesbrough, if they weren’t already banned from speaking to him.

Monk and Leeds United pulled themselves together, but there was another factor. The defeat to Huddersfield was Pontus Jansson’s debut. We didn’t know much about him, other than his dodgy knees, and a fee for a permanent deal that seemed just as unaffordable as Hadi Sacko’s £60m release clause. For the first part of the game, he looked fine; strong in the air, strong in the tackle. Good tattoos and a tough hairdo. Then, he looked godlike.

Listen to this article & get it as a podcast

Click here to sign up

There was nothing special about the tussle Jansson was having with some Town attacker, but when he won not only the ball but a free-kick, something clicked in Pontus. He turned to the Kop he was defending, and roared, half-stumbling as he pumped his fists at the crowd. It was like he’d scored a goal, and this was something very, very new. After Jason Pearce running around with the tags still on his shirt, after Marius Zaliukas trying to play alongside him when he seemed surprised to be out of bed, after Giuseppe Bellusci turned out to be a hard man with a heart of soap, here was a defender celebrating a tackle, not because it was rare, but because it was fun.

It got the crowd going, and not only in that game. As the weeks went by, Leeds United improved, and crowds increased, and things felt better. A lot of the credit went to Garry Monk, for putting a winning team on the pitch, and for talking about togetherness and the group and the support of the fans. But while the winning team was appreciated, the togetherness/group stuff was so bland that it soon became like static, background noise that we tuned out. Nobody came to Elland Road because Garry Monk was bonding with the fans.

Fans did come to Elland Road because they’d heard of this new kind of being called Pontus Jansson, and they wanted to see his brick-heading abilities for themselves. I don’t think it’s too much hyperbole, thinking about the recent history of Leeds United, to draw a line between the times Before Pontus and After Pontus, even if there were other more significant lines being drawn in other places. Leeds United changed, if only in a small way, when Pontus Jansson arrived and, instead of meekly fitting in with the atmosphere of mediocrity that had become the club norm, howled and swore and bellowed and resisted becoming another also ran at a club that he could somehow instantly see, and we had somehow forgotten, deserved better.

The second airpunch is not one of Pontus’s own, but it’s the work of his wife, Asa. After Asa retweeted a video of Pontus pulling off his now familiar, and almost obligatory, post-victory airpunch celebrations, Pontus replied to her with a video. It’s of the Janssons relaxing at home, but the telly is off. Instead the camera is on Asa, in Adidas hoodie, pyjamas and slippers, as she bounces sideways into the room, twists, and throws her fist in the air Pontus style, ending not in a roar, but in gales of laughter. It’s an affectionate tribute, it’s a loving pisstake, and it’s pure relationship goals.

I wonder what other impressions Asa can do of Pontus’s on-pitch behaviour. Does she head a brick? Does she slide tackle him when he comes through the door, leaving him crumpled by the skirting boards? Does she go down the corridor and start fights with people in the other flats for no reason? I hope so. Because her version of the post-match airpunch is delivered with such serious concentration on getting the sideways bounce just right, and such mirth at the end, that it lands right on the line between admiration and mockery. Seriously, this is what Pontus gets paid to do all day? Bounce around and chuck his fist in the air? Well, if so, fantastic. Just don’t forget that, like Thomas Christiansen mentioned at the weekend, football is a hobby. And all this airpunching should be fun.

The third is also plucked from social media. The squad’s flight home from Bristol on Saturday night turned, as Storm Brian took hold, from a mission to get Gaetano Berardi to Josh Warrington’s fight on time, into a mission to get the plane on the ground safely. What didn’t change was Hadi Sacko’s determination to capture Pawel “Baby Zlatan” Cibicki’s fear on video.

As the plane descends towards Yeadon, Sacko keeps his phone camera trained on Cibicki’s tense face, perhaps hiding the tension of the others around him. The tension is released when the plane’s wheels safely meet the runway: there are cheers, there are chants, and then, down the aisle, there’s Pontus. He hasn’t got room for any bouncing, but he can bend and airpunch as if he just cleaned out a defender, or as if Leeds just got three points, or as if a plane just landed safely, or for whatever reason he wants.

Jansson hadn’t played at Bristol City, and Thomas Christiansen made no attempt to disguise that he’d been dropped, that he’d been a candidate to be dropped for a while. But he was involved, particularly in Berardi’s sending off; the Bristol bench had a lot to say to Tano as he walked down the tunnel, and once Tano was out the way, Jansson went over to find out if they had anything to say to him. On one hand, this was a situation that threatened to get out of control, perhaps unwise. On the other, it proved that Jansson, despite being benched, was not detached from what was going on. It’s a squad game when one of your players is being targeted by a chump, and it’s a squad game when your plane hits turbulence, and it’s a squad game that is enhanced when Pontus is your co-pilot.

Jansson has not always seemed so reliable when he’s been relegated from the pilot’s seat to anything less, and as his popularity has soared with the fans, so too has the scepticism about his character and motivation. He hasn’t always helped himself. Last season, dropped by Monk amid much mysterious managerial talk about “the group” and its “principles”, he warmed down on the pitch after playing no part in the win over Brighton, and refused the pleas from the crowd for a celebratory airpunch. Leeds had won, so why wouldn’t he play along?

The lack of a non-Monkbotified explanation for leaving Jansson out refuelled rumours from earlier in the season about bust ups, and Jansson’s apparent sulkiness fuelled a perception that what Pontus did was more important, to him, than what Leeds United did. No Pontus, no party, at least not in his mind.

There are two views of Jansson now: the fully committed, blood and thunder defender who, for the sake of Leeds United, will break himself in two. And the intolerable prima donna, a show-off who thinks Leeds United is just another episode in the Pontus Jansson show, and doesn’t take kindly to being anything other than the centre of attention.

‘Footballer Has Ego’ is not going to have anyone holding the back page. Except, maybe, at Leeds United. ‘Side Before Self’ is now written in enormous letters above the main entrance to the stadium, and the club is doing its best, for example with its support this Friday for the campaign to raise funds to treat Toby Nye, to put that motto into action. The all-white kit is meant to be a leveller, an equaliser. Personalities are nice, but if you come off the pitch gleaming, you’ll stand out from the mud stained shirts of your teammates. And that’s one way you don’t want to stand out.

To be fair to Jansson, he’s unlikely ever to be found wanting in that department. And while the club’s collective support for Toby Nye is impressive, it’s impressive too that Jansson was visiting the children’s ward at Leeds General Infirmary individually over the summer, paying for them to have two season tickets to be used by patients, parents or staff as they see fit. I’ve not seen any video to know if this is how goes around or not, but surely no kid could resist a smile when a tall, boisterous, instantly recognisable footballer comes bouncing, smiling and airpunching around the ward. Even if Pontus keeps it on the downlow and just spends some time talking, signing autographs and posing for photos, it’s a righteous use of the fame he so quickly acquired in the city. He can have all the fame he wants if he uses it like that.

But being Leeds United’s Mr Popular brings responsibilities that extend into everything he does, and perhaps Pontus hasn’t always realised that, or understood how to deal with it. With great power comes great responsibility, but if it was that easy, Spider-Man would have lasted for about one comic book and never been a film. “Oh, okay Uncle Ben, I get it. No sooner said than done!”

Jansson isn’t the first to have the power but be unprepared for the responsibility. The expectations upon him are off the scale of any Championship defender, even those who are valued for transfer at amounts way above what he would fetch, purely because he plays for Leeds United. He’s supposed to be the best defender at Leeds. There might be better defenders at other clubs, but none of them are expected to perform as well as him.

His experiences this season, now his honeymoon with Leeds United is over, show both his limits and his growth. On the pitch, United’s backline has been a weird, successful disaster from the start: a goalkeeper who can’t catch didn’t concede a goal for hours; a young midfielder thrown into defence gave away an incompetent penalty, then transformed immediately into the next Paul Madeley; a young prospect from the Premier League has been injured, the new captain improved dramatically then erred spectacularly, and the whole area has cried and pleaded and begged for Kyle Bartley. Instead, it got Andy Lonergan — and got better.

Jansson has been shifted in out of the side and from side to side of defence from game to game. And he hasn’t been booked, presumably on instruction. He has been brilliant in some games, poor in others, which is probably the worst crime a defender can commit: inconsistency. He hasn’t been as “shit” as he claimed of himself on Instagram, but he has been below his own high standards too often to be trusted.

So much, so unsurprising; Bartley and Rob Green have been missed, injuries have disproportionately affected defenders, and a new coach has been trying to get new players to play a new way. Form, once firm, will waver. More surprising, for Jansson, might be the double smackdown he got from Christiansen: not only out of the team, but rebuked for talking himself down in public. Jansson might have thought that his withering assessment and apology to the fans was leadership, paying a debt to the people who watch him play, but Christiansen’s preferred style is clear from his own conversations with the press. He won’t tell the public what he says to the players. Any comment on performances is in the context of improvement: for example, Christiansen wanted more from Pierre-Michel Lasogga, but only said so publicly once he’d got it. What he said to Lasogga to get that improvement isn’t anybody else’s business.

Better, though, has been Jansson’s reaction. At Bristol he wasn’t the dropped and drooping Jansson we saw glooming around after not playing against Brighton. Perhaps you can read too much into being up for a scrap and an airpunch on a plane, but then again, perhaps we read too much into the lack of an airpunch when he was refusing to take requests after the Brighton game.

I suspect the truth about Jansson is simple. His emotions aren’t far enough below the surface, whether it’s the ups of cheering a tackle, or the downs of feeling uninvolved, for him to hide them. He can’t pretend to be feeling other than he is. Plenty of defenders love a crunching tackle, but most of them internalise that feeling; with Jansson it spills over everywhere. The same will happen with the lows.

He’s not inflexible, though. This sort of temperament is acknowledged, if not expected, from a flamboyant playmaker, but frowned upon in defenders. We might just have to deal with it: Pontus gonna Pontus. But Pontus is also gonna learn; he can’t fail to. How daft must he feel, after withholding an airpunch after a game he didn’t play in because he was in a bad mood, when he watches bae clowning around with it, showing him how it should be: a silly and fun salute. How egotistical would he have to be, to declare a diplomatic incident every time he’s left out? Instead of doing what he seems to have done this time: kept good-Pontus involved, backed up Berardi, and put himself at the heart of the squad on the journey home after a great result for them all.

And how fragile would his self-confidence have to be to think that, with a new five-year contract and a coach who isn’t afraid to change things, he’ll never be back in central defence and the centre of attention again? Dropping Jansson has been seen as a brave move by Christiansen, but it’s part of an emerging theme: he dropped Green, he’s dropped all the forwards at least once, he hasn’t kept anybody around the club who wasn’t involved, and he’s made it clear that nobody’s place is assured. He’ll take anybody out. But, also, he’ll put anybody in. Christiansen is already hinting at a three man defence against Sheffield United — would that mean Jansson comes straight back? Might Luke Ayling be left out? Or will Ayling play the role Jansson might expect to be his?

Jansson and Ayling both have fresh long-term contracts. They’re both popular with the fans and viewed as leaders. They both have an equal chance to impress Christiansen in training and claim their selection. They both should be backing themselves. And they both have to understand that their job doesn’t change whether they’re playing or not. We’ve never had to test that with Ayling. Jansson has been tested and, previously, found wanting.

Previously isn’t forever. We might think we’ve seen the best of Pontus Jansson the defender, but the guy arrived last season after injury affected his time in Italy, and has World Cup qualification as a target with Sweden. He could get even better. We might think we’ve seen the best of Pontus Jansson the person, too, because we’ve seen some great, atmosphere-shifting stuff from him, but those human frailties he can’t hide demonstrate that he has room to grow off the pitch.

People grow with time; he’s got a five-year contract now. And they improve when set targets: playing in the World Cup, playing in the Premier League. And they improve when they’ve got the right people around them, not putting up with any crap: like Thomas Christiansen at work, and Asa when he gets home. And some just function best when they’re adored, and appreciated, and feel positive feedback from the people they work for: an airpunch given, and thirty-thousand airpunches received.

That’ll be a fun moment at the promotion party, when it happens. Which it will — if we remember that football is fun, and Pontus is Pontus; entertainment, moods, humanity and all. ◉

If you enjoyed reading this

Support Moscowhite from 50p a week, and get more to read

Click here to sign up

(feature image by Paul Kent)