The Square Ball Week: Step Forward

In Free, Leeds United, Leeds United Match Reports 2017/18 by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

A couple of weeks ago, as Championship pressure exerted its inevitable force on Felix Wiedwald’s pigeon chest and began to squeeze him from the team, I suggested in an idle moment that, with him being as much sweeper as keeper, a creature more feet than hands, Thomas Christiansen might be tempted to play him in midfield.

This week, as Jaap Stam smugly knit himself a new wig from all the hair being torn out since his visit to Leeds, Wiedwald in midfield is just about the only permutation I haven’t seen distributed around social media as Leeds fans passionately bicker about what Christiansen should do to save our season, if not our very souls.

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There was barely this much passion after Burton were beaten. Whatever enthusiasm there was during the early weeks of the season — seven wins and two draws, remember — has been eclipsed by the frustration of four defeats, one win and a draw (that we won on penalties) since. Leeds fans have been quick to praise this season, but quicker to bury.

The crowd that convened at Elland Road to watch Leeds play Reading arrived with ghoulish shovels, ready to chuck earth upon the wooden box carrying our optimism’s remains as it descended, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Defender to defender, a patient passing tactic that barely warranted a murmur earlier in the season, wrought howls from the gallery before the game was ten minutes old.

The spectres roused Gaetano Berardi, a man in tune with voices from the underworld. Also, he plays full-back, so he can hear them.

“It’s nice to see the stadium full, we can see the stadium like this all the season, we need to take some good results to them,” he told Rich and Emma after the game, the three of them creepily uplit as if Hallowe’en had come early to the LUTV studio. Breathing deeply, brushing his fringe back from his face, choosing his next words carefully, Tano got ready to puncture the breezy Phil ‘n’ Fern atmos. “I will… I will… I will, er…,” he began. “I would like to say a message to them. We would like to hear them more positive. Because I could hear some bad things during the game. It’s normal, it’s football. [I’m just saying] that everyone has to be positive. The players, the staff, and everyone in the crowd.”

You have to wonder what Berardi heard, and how much of it, for him to take the obviously awkward step of putting his head above the parapet and asking the fans to give the players a break. No doubt he heard worse during the Steve Evans era, when every dismayed mutter echoed around the half-empty stadium like a shriek of despair. The difference back then, though, is that the team pretty much deserved it. Which might be why Berardi decided to say something now, not then.

To watch Leeds being booed off, then checking a league table and seeing the team are sixth, is dissonance entirely in keeping with the upside-down ways of Leeds United, and is the response we should have expected to actually being good at football again. Back when Leeds finished fifteenth every season, while Massimo Cellino kept his managers running atop his rolodex until they fell into the bin, fans would supinely encourage something like the sale of Sam Byram, satisfied that Scott Wootton would be a more than adequate replacement; Steve Evans was hailed for his passionate fist-bumping responses to scoreless draws. Looking back, we were pretty complacent about being shit.

Now, somehow, there are mutterings aloud about Thomas Christiansen’s future, for the crime of not sustaining a run of only one defeat any further than twelve games. It’s not so long ago that a run of twelve games would only bring one or two wins, and it felt normal; the abnormal — winning more than we lose — seems to have confused a lot of people, who are upset that their Christmas puppy isn’t as cute as the ones on Instagram, forgetting how desperate they once were for any puppy at all. And that puppies are for life, you vicious scoundrels.

That’s not to say that puppies shouldn’t be trained, and it’s totally fair right now to keep pointing Thomas Christiansen’s nose towards his litter tray. There can’t be a Leeds fan around who doesn’t agree that he needs to make changes. What’s remarkable is the number who expect that either 1) he won’t, 2) he’ll make the wrong ones, or 3) he should have made them already.

In reverse order: like with a puppy, you have to be patient with a new coach. Not with an Evans or a Warnock, who claim they have all the answers in a big book of English football’s dark arts. But a foreign coach who freely admits he is learning on the job, in charge of a squad that shares his inexperience, needs time to get things wrong before he can get things right. Leeds and Christiansen are now at twelve league games together, many of the players have even less — barely time for patterns to develop, let alone to decide on reactions to them.

Millwall, and then the one-two punch of Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday, were enough of a reversal from the wins at Sunderland and Nottingham Forest for Christiansen to decide changes are needed away — although we shouldn’t ignore the good result at Burnley in the midst of that. They had to happen before he could learn, though; he had no reason beforehand not to stay with the team that was winning away, and keep testing it against the next opponents.

That’s away. Coming home after the Wednesday defeat, Christiansen could look at the two home games following Burton’s mauling, hard fought wins over Birmingham City and Ipswich Town, and conclude that at Elland Road his team was showing the backbone necessary to grind out a win over Reading. And despite the anguish of the result, an unpretty Leeds performance could have won the game; had Hernandez not been beset by flashbacks in front of the pressure flash of the Kop, it should have been a draw. There might have been more had Jansson buried a chance in the box, or if the improved attacking of the last twenty minutes had begun earlier.

A win would have masked United’s deficiencies, but the point is that Christiansen has got to go through it to get to it. He would have been insane to make dramatic changes after the two very different wins over Burton and Birmingham, but the games since have prompted questions about whether team system or individual form were the problem, and to what extent, without yet giving Christiansen a chance to answer. Pontus Jansson has made his mind up: “I personally have been shit” he wrote on Instagram this week. But only once the Reading game was played — our first home defeat of the season — could Christiansen truly be said to have all the information he needed about whether this was an unlucky series of off-days or an emerging pattern that has to be disrupted.

Another point about time: when to change tactics is as important as whether to change, and the Championship is not a league that encourages thorough preparation. There are twenty-four teams, and that means forty-six games, and that means game after game after game after game. Reading Howard Wilkinson’s recommendations for football for last week’s article, I was reminded of his vehement protests about the Premier League when it was formed in 1992.

Wilko’s argument was not about the league itself, but about the self-defeating calendar it was imposing on a top-flight that managers had been saying, for years, needed to be reduced. Instead it was beginning with twenty-two teams, and bringing in Monday Night Football, meaning that with cups on top some teams would end up playing — as we have seen over the years — Sunday or Monday-Wednesday-Saturday.

The Premier League was to be all about spectacle, hence the live games on Mondays and Sundays (and now every night of the week). When, though, asked Wilkinson, were teams to be allowed to practice, so that when they took to the pitch in front of the cameras, the game they played would be worth paying to watch? Football training, he predicted, would become a physical routine, of patching up players from injury and fatigue sustained yesterday, ready for the game tomorrow, with no time whatsoever for thoughtful practice with an actual football. If the television companies really wanted to broadcast a top quality product, he argued, they would ensure a schedule that allowed teams to spend a week preparing for each game, ready to take to the field and wow the supporters at the weekend.

The Premier League has now reduced to twenty teams, still too many, by the arguments of 1992. The Championship, its ultra-competitive sibling, is at twenty-four, its ultra-competitiveness down to a gruelling schedule of increasingly knackered teams hacking at each other, with no time between games for anyone to practise or improve.

Somehow, between playing in Cardiff on a Tuesday night and in Sheffield on a Sunday lunchtime, Christiansen was expected to implement all the changes necessary for refinement of our playing style away from home; given a break between Sheffield and Reading, he wasn’t given his players, as crucial members of the first team squad were either injured from the grind or away on international duty. Would Ezgjan Alioski have made a difference against Reading, if he hadn’t been playing Friday and Monday on the far side of Europe? Could the midfield have been altered, if Eunan O’Kane hadn’t been away with Ireland, if Ronaldo Vieira hadn’t been sitting out training with a knee injury?

This week, with no midweek match, has been the first and best chance Christiansen has had to take everything he’s accumulated from his first twelve games in the Championship, and work on it with a fully fit squad, Ekuban excepted. Whether that work will result in the right changes will only be known on Saturday evening, but the variety of the suggestions and views from fans demonstrates two things. First, that nobody can actually agree on what has been going wrong, making it even harder for Christiansen to decide what to change. Second, that he has a lot of options at his disposal.

Those two things distil into a fairly clear solution. When Christiansen was unveiled, he was asked whether he would be bringing the style of football that had taken APOEL into the quarter-finals of the Europa League, and given both the teams he coached in Cyprus formidable defensive records, with him to Leeds. Not necessarily, he said; that style was right for APOEL, but he would look at Leeds, and decide what style is right for them.

Of all the stylistic options Christiansen had at the start of the season, he chose the best available, and it took us to the top of the table. The squad Victor Orta prepared for him was heavy on precocious attacking talent, but light in defensive numbers, while the only defensive midfielders were a new player injured in preseason, Mateusz Klich, and a young player risking burn out after a long season and summer, Ronaldo Vieira. After adjusting slightly for the impact of Samu Saiz, the team was quickly built around flair going forward and whichever defenders were fit and not suspended. And by god it was brilliant.

Since then, Pierre-Michel Lasogga has replaced Chris Wood, something the team still looks like it’s coming to terms with. And fluid flair has shown its fickle felicity, by fucking off. With attacking play breaking down so much, the midfield has buckled under the pressure, unable to restore possession to Saiz or protect the defence from its opponents. Simple answers are often the best answers, and now that Vieira and Klich are both, we believe, fit, Christiansen has an option he didn’t have at the start of the season. By hook or by crook, he needs three midfielders on the pitch, and among them he needs Vieira or Klich, preferably the first, possibly both. It seems so obvious, especially given, as we’ll see, he’s used three midfielders to good effect before, that as with dropping Wiedwald, I can’t imagine Christiansen making any other call.

But will he make the call, or stick inflexibly to the guns he’s shown so far? When Christiansen said he wouldn’t be importing his tactics from APOEL, I groaned, remembering the time I’d spent tracking down videos of their matches, hoping I could learn something about our mysterious new coach. I didn’t delete them, though, and this week I took a quick look. At home to Olympiacos in the final match of the group stage, with qualification for APOEL assured but a point needed to clinch first place, Christiansen set up a 4-3-2-1 formation, three central midfielders dominating the middle of the pitch, hunting in packs to protect the back four but also pressing forward to allow the two behind the striker to go wide. Controlled, efficient and bright, APOEL won 2-0.

Swinging above their station in the knockout rounds, APOEL travelled to Athletic Bilbao in a flat 4-4-2, conceded possession — 77% of it in the first fifteen minutes — then took the lead. Bilbao equalised straight away, and after two goals in ten second half minutes, then a late reply, Bilbao won 3-2. Back in Cyprus it was a different story; I don’t have the match video, but according to WhoScored.com it was 4-4-2 again, and APOEL won 2-0, 4-3 on aggregate.

This was already further than any Cypriot team had been in the Europa League, but Anderlecht in the next round was too far. APOEL switched formation again in the first leg, playing 4-4-1-1 in a tight game they lost 1-0; in Belgium they were back to 4-4-2, but beaten 1-0 again.

There was no fear of flexibility here, but then these games were spread across a season — Christiansen’s third in Cypriot football — rather than across three months and twelve matches in a new league. Even then, there’s evidence of quick learning between the first and second legs against Athletic Bilbao, an opponent and a stage of European football APOEL hadn’t faced before. If Thomas Christiansen can work out how to overcome Bilbao in two matches, there’s no reason to think he can’t do the same about Millwall.

There’s no reason to think Christiansen can’t do any of the things being asked of him, which makes the lack of confidence in the stadium and on social media in the past week alarming, when really it’s alarmist. Based on what he’s said, based on what he’s done at Leeds already — moving Hernandez to the wing and dropping Wiedwald were both bold decisions — based on what he’s done in the past, and based on the impact of transfers and injuries on his squad so far, the only elements that seem to be in short supply for Thomas Christiansen are time and confidence.

Which is absurd, given that Leeds fans have appealed for patience in the past when our situation has been much worse than sixth place, and given that more confidence has been placed in more suspect characters at Leeds than at many other clubs — Massimo Cellino and Steve Evans each came to Leeds with fraud convictions, as a two-for-one example. This is not a case of wondering if the good times of 1974, 1992 or 2001 will ever reappear. This is about rediscovering the form of one month ago, and remembering that the search for the grail that will eventually reunite us with ’74, ’92 or ’01 will take much longer than that, with many more setbacks along the way.

Leeds have lost four of fifteen this season, just one at home, and had us swooning at times; swoons that have somehow turned into swears strong enough to make Berardi blush. Now, from a relatively lofty sixth, it’s the right time for adjustments, and to breathe for a few moments, and see what happens next. If we can’t be confident about the next step now, starting from here, how will we ever have the confidence to step forward again? ◉

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(feature image by Jim Ogden)