The Square Ball Week: New Details

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

It wasn’t surprising that Thomas Christiansen looked and sounded stunned, angry and bereft while talking to the press after Leeds United’s defeat by Derby County on Tuesday.

It’s autumn now, and Christiansen looked so hollowed out by the match that a squirrel might have used him to store nuts in. “I feel impotent,” he said, suggesting some nuts might actually have helped. At least, with a bag of conkers and a slingshot, he might have been able to gain retribution on the referee.

The wounds that referee Simon Hooper inflicted were so sudden and raw that Christiansen didn’t have time to cover up the bleeding and put on a brave face before meeting the press, and if he seemed to be struggling for answers, it was probably because an hour earlier he’d been expecting an entirely different set of questions. After an hour of the game Leeds were winning, giving the breath of life to Christiansen’s truism about scoring first, and as he said later, Leeds were doing, “Everything in the plan.”

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Leeds had only had one shot on target, but they scored. Added to that were two shots off target, and two shots that were blocked. Derby had only managed three shots, all of them blocked, only one of them in the second half. Expected goals, the fashionable stat of choice that assesses quantity and quality of chances, had Leeds around 0.7 expected goals at sixty minutes, Derby at 0.2. Leeds might have had more in all the columns had Ezgjan Alioski either been allowed to head in Kemar Roofe’s cross unhindered, or if a penalty had been given against Andre Wisdom for knocking him down.

That incident was a blow to a coach who is strong on analysis and preparation. “We put Roofe on the right side, Alioski on the left, to provoke more crosses,” Christiansen said afterwards. “And we got that cross that should have given us the 2-0. We prepare things for this to happen, it happened — and you don’t get the penalty.”

Football. Bloody hell, eh? Christiansen might have taken that blow better had Leeds withstood Derby coming into the game after sixty minutes, but the plans that had worked well fell apart on the hour. In the last half hour, United’s crossing game — they’d made seventeen on the hour mark — was only added to by three. Derby went from three blocked shots to four, plus three on target, one off target, two goals. The most crucial stats of all went in their favour: goals, for and against.

It’s not in Christiansen’s nature to end his analysis at the scoreline, though, which is the source of his dissonant calm about the level of performance in his team’s sixth defeat in seven games. While all around him are gnashing their teeth about how wrong everything is going, Christiansen’s own teeth are grinding for a different reason: because, in his analysis, he can see things going right, just not going as far as the result.

Whether that approach is better or worse than hurling a Steve Evans’ style bag of chips across the changing rooms, or an Alex Ferguson hairdryer, remains to be seen, but it’s the approach Leeds are taking. And although results haven’t matched words lately, Christiansen has let a few flashes of insight through, calm and almost throwaway statements of fact that suggest a detailed, realistic familiarity with where Leeds are going wrong.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the second goal conceded against Sheffield United was “the same goal” as Leeds conceded against Reading, until Christiansen mentioned it in his pre-Derby press conference, as if it was something that everybody had seen and knew about. Watch the two goals back-to-back, and he’s exactly right. Then, amid the hot wailing of his interviews straight after the Derby game, their equalising goal was again quickly summarised: “This is a problem we have had, these crosses in. Also against Leicester we received a goal like that. These things we have to improve. At least, the interior pass that we have received in the last two games didn’t appear. We defended better.”

So, there was no reoccurrence of the Reading or Sheffield United goals — that interior pass — that much went to plan. Now to add stopping crosses like Leicester and Derby’s to the plan. And to keep looking for patterns, repeated behaviours, and to keep working on ways to stop them happening through coaching, until one day your team’s game is perfect and, like the Legend of Zelda, you’ve completed football.

Of course, even if you complete football, the referee or the opposition will still come along to steal your Game Boy and stamp on it. But Christiansen’s ability to intuitively grasp patterns — there hadn’t been time to consult a tape or an analyst before acknowledging the Derby goal as part of an ongoing problem — is an asset, and a big step towards finding solutions — perhaps the part he’s struggling with right now — and a big reason why he got the job at Leeds.

Rumours of his summer presentation to Andrea Radrizzani, Victor Orta and Ivan Bravo have been increasingly exaggerated, inversely to results. The worse Leeds have got, the more ludicrous his demonstration of how he would improve upon Garry Monk has become, until it gained the most dreaded of qualifiers: PowerPoint. Nobody who was part of the interview process has ever said what particular software Christiansen used to get his ideas across, whether it was PowerPoint, KeyNote (he seems like an Apple Mac guy), one of the suites of analytical software offered by Opta, Prozone and others, or a load of sheets of A1 paper and some felt tips. But the disdain for the whole process is summed up the way ‘PowerPoint’ is now spat at Christiansen, as if he got Clippy the talking paperclip to do his homework for him. “Hi, I see you’re planning to coach Leeds United. Let me help you choose a goalkeeper.”

[Edit: Turns out I’m wrong, it was PowerPoint all along! The point stands, however: the content is more important than the form. Unless he used Comic Sans.]

Christiansen was asked about his presentation, at his press conference before the Millwall game, and about whether he could give an example of the problems he’d identified in Monk’s team.

“I didn’t see a team in that moment who had the confidence in themselves to have an offensive [style of] play,” said Christiansen, whose new boss Radrizzani has said he was seeking a more attacking style. “It was a little bit more direct play to Chris Wood, and I found him a little bit alone upfront. That means when you make the direct play you have to have players close to take probably the second ball, and they were too far away. An example was that Pablo came too short down [the pitch], to receive the ball, and if he is the second striker he has to be close to the striker, and that makes them lose one player upfront. That’s just an example, but there are many of them, many situations that I have analysed and I have brought a little bit to my players, some things I want to change, some things I want to put in. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it don’t, you never know.”

There doesn’t seem much wrong with that, as one example from a presentation that apparently lasted for several hours, and it feels weird that this approach should be criticised, even if its results have begun to sway towards ‘sometimes it don’t’ in recent weeks. It is, after all, the same approach Howard Wilkinson took to getting the Leeds job in 1988, stunning Leslie Silver by arriving at his office for an interview and embarking on a monologue that analysed every player, every staff member, every board member, the whole club from top to bottom, long into the October evening, while Silver took notes. Perhaps, if Wilko had had a laptop, he could have just emailed him the pptx file.

That was the pretext for Wilkinson getting the job and embarking on a ten game unbeaten run that took the side into the play-off positions and got the whole city buzzing about the rejuvenation of Leeds United under its nerdish new manager. That soon died down when just six wins in the season’s last sixteen matches shoved United back down to 10th, prompting another session of analysis for Wilkinson: out went John Sheridan, the player Leeds United had been building around since 1983 and who Wilko had given every chance to impress, and in came Vinnie Jones.

The rest is history, but that it is history is the only reason PowerPoint or Prozone aren’t mentioned. Two seasons later, when the Football League title was slipping from their grasp, Wilkinson and his assistant Mick Henningan spent a Sunday afternoon in Wilko’s house, poring over the paper-and-pencil records he paid a sports scientist to keep, crunching the numbers on metrics Wilkinson had devised — how had player X performed in games when his instruction was Y and the team formation was Z and the quality of opponent was A? — to find the group of players that would win the league. They could have done it in half the time with an office and some laptops, and even found time to post a photo of it on Instagram, but somehow there’s more romance about the idea of them sweating over clunky digital calculators, running their graphite stained fingers down columns of numbers that explain the contribution of Steve Hodge.

It’s a difference of tool, not of degree or intention, and it’s not hard to imagine Wilkinson responding with glee should a coach like Gianni Vio turn up, as he did at Thorp Arch in the last couple of weeks, claiming to be the best set-piece coach in the game. Catania, Fiorentina, AC Milan — what a CV! Although Wilko might inevitably have been most impressed by his work at Brentford, proving he can do something in this league. What he did at Brentford was to get their ratio of goals from set-pieces up from the worst in the division to among the best, an improvement that would have had Wilkinson salivating.

Wilkinson drilled his players for hour after hour, attacking and defending set-pieces, exploding with rage when rehearsed routines weren’t translated successfully to the pitch. In an era with a more relaxed attitude to training, Wilkinson realised that time spent practising something other teams didn’t bother with could give Leeds a crucial advantage. With a small squad that cost half as much as the team over the Pennines, any advantage they could get was worth working for.

“Vio is like having a 15 or 20-goal striker in the team,” Walter Zenga has said, about working with him at Catania. “There are set-pieces in every game. Always. And he knows how to exploit them best. He’s very skilled at it. He manages to get players scoring who otherwise wouldn’t score.”

“They [the club] told me there was a possibility to get him,” Thomas Christiansen said, “And of course I want the best with me. He is one of the best in his job.” He then launched into a detailed description of what Vio can add to defensive set-piece situations, by turning them into opportunities to score: “You can defend, thinking of attacking. That means you can have positioning that gives you more possibilities to go in transition. Instead of [only] thinking it’s better not to receive a goal, but thinking offensive.”

This was in the same interview when Christiansen had sounded so bereft of vigour in the hour after losing to Derby, but suddenly, talking about new ideas the coaching staff are working on with the squad in order to find marginal performance gains, he came alive again. We’ve all been waiting for the Earth to shift from its axis when Berardi scores; when Leeds break from defending a corner and Lasogga sticks the ball into the net, or when Phillips doesn’t slip and a zany looking three-wall rhumba ends with a goal, watch Christiansen and Vio’s laptops go flying.

Because they don’t seem like they’re going anywhere. Whatever the result at Brentford, the unity of technocracy at Leeds, from Ivan Bravo down through Victor Orta to Thomas Christiansen and beyond, suggests that there are other metrics in play than just the final score. With Leeds United struggling in recent weeks, Andrea Radrizzani came not to bury Thomas Christiansen, but to give him reputedly the best set-piece coach in the world — a tool to help him.

Other tools may be added. Some might say we’ve added one already in Jay-Roy Grot. But the scouting network Leeds have been putting in place in the five months since Radrizzani took full control, is not there to not find better players. Victor Orta has said he prefers not to do business in January, because it suggests the work done in summer wasn’t good enough; he’s brought many more scouts and video analysts on-stream since the summer, though, who I imagine — I hope — are being kept thoroughly appraised of Leeds United’s shortcomings, and needs that may not have been obvious at first.

The downside to the analytical, stat-oriented ‘moneyball’ approach is that its major proponents in England are this weekend’s opponents, Brentford, and while we’d swap them for their form — two defeats in thirteen games, three wins in the last four — they’re 15th. And nobody wants to be Brentford. Since promotion from League One, though, they’ve finished 5th, 9th and 10th, surviving substantial player turnover to be consistently competitive. In the same period, Leeds have been through Hockaday, Milanic, Redfearn, Rosler, Evans and Monk; in other words, they’ve tried everything, and stuck with nothing, except Monk, who we couldn’t keep stuck. Perhaps, despite current results, there’s still a good argument for giving longer to the new way at Leeds, instead of pushing everything into the bin yet again.

The other potential downside is whether the stats and analysis can help to deliver the one aspect where Leeds seem to be truly struggling. Crosses are good, defending is improving, the team is doing everything in the plan. But there isn’t anybody on the pitch who will grab the ten players around him by the scruffs of their wimpish fringes and keep them concentrated on winning. Saiz has stood out in recent weeks as a leader by example, but he takes football to such other worldly places that nobody else in the team can follow. Behind him, there isn’t a leader, a player as committed to the pre-game plan as Thomas Christiansen, willing to give blood and bruises to making it a success.

Those players aren’t easy to find. In the last five years at Leeds, Kyle Bartley stands out a mile, because although the armband technically belonged to Liam Bridcutt last season, it was Bartley’s biceps that were swollen with responsibility. Perhaps, in January, after recovering from injury, Swansea will decide they can cope without him for another few months. Theirs is one of the stronger defences in the Premier League’s bottom half so far, and long may it stay that way if it means we’re reunited.

If not him, though — and until then, though — well, analysts love an experiment. For all his complaining about the misfortune against Derby, Thomas Christiansen knows that you coach your own luck, or rather, you coach well enough so that when luck turns against you, your other advantages mean it doesn’t matter. But, can you coach a backbone? He’s gonna have to try. ◉

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(feature image by Jim Ogden)