The Square Ball Week: No White Flags

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

The despair, if there was any, will have been on the journey back to Leeds after the Brentford game; the tension, if there was any, will have been on the Sunday and Monday that followed.

Angus Kinnear told Radio Leeds this week that Thomas Christiansen has his own time to debrief the players and staff after a game, before Kinnear, Victor Orta or Andrea Radrizzani have any detailed discussion with him. That’s as it should be; Peter Ridsdale once told how, as the naive new chairman of Leeds United (before he became simply the naive chairman of Leeds United) he phoned George Graham the day after a defeat to offer him support in the transfer market. His call was met with a volley of abuse. On Monday morning Graham quietly told Ridsdale never to call a manager at home within twenty-four hours of a game.

Uncertainty can creep into a vacuum, though, and perhaps Christiansen wondered if that Sunday was going to be the exceptional sort of day when his boss calls him, invites him for lunch, says they have a few things to talk about. Better to spend the day Skyping the family back in Barcelona and screening his calls. Then comes Monday, and the drive in to Thorp Arch, checking the car park for Radrizzani’s car, trying not to read anything into Victor’s cheerful — over-cheerful? not cheerful enough? — morning greeting.

The public line has been clear throughout: the club backs Thomas Christiansen. Even Thomas, though, knows that can’t last forever. He was the one who called Brentford a ‘must win’ game; he said himself that, even if they believe in him, the board would have to act if he lost eight games in a row. Brentford took him to four; only the win at Bristol meant it wasn’t an eighth already.

If they were going to act, though, straight after Brentford was the time to act. And as Monday morning wore on, and the staff worked cheerfully, and Radrizzani sent a message to the group Whatsapp confirming the usual meeting for the usual time, perhaps Christiansen relaxed a little, realising the club didn’t want him to go, but wanted him to work. Well, work. That he can do.

It made sense for the club to give the international break to whoever it felt best qualified to correct the recent dreadful form and get the best from the club for the rest of the season. That could have meant someone other than Thomas Christiansen. But it didn’t. Whatever has been said in the press and on radio (and in the new issue of The Square Ball, which has its own entry in the Angus Kinnear publicity drive) about backing Christiansen, the most meaningful backing will be when the teams come out of the tunnel on Sunday afternoon. No, not the choreographed crowd mosaic and flag waving, but the continued presence of Thomas Christiansen as manager.

The flag waving, though — a “visual spectacle”, they’re calling it — feels like it might be Radrizzani’s alternative to sacking Christiansen. “I think this is about creating a display of unity, to show the club, the team, the board, the fans, are all together in our objective,” Kinnear told Radio Leeds. “And we absolutely understand that some of these things are not always to everybody’s taste,” he added, sensibly. It fits Radrizzani’s M.O.; he brought the women’s team back to the Leeds United family, he bought back Elland Road to give the Leeds United family a home, he’s promoted the Foundation as a vital part of the Leeds United family, and he retweets a lot of babies. And a lot of this is very, very good, especially the true difference made by offering help to young Toby Nye.

But Radrizzani sure does love the Leeds United family, and what more characteristic response to calls to sack a manager than to clutch him even more closely to his bosom? The design of the mosaic fans will create on Sunday hasn’t been fully disclosed; perhaps, behind the word ‘Together’, will be a huge portrait of Thomas Christiansen, just in time for us to go 2-0 down in the first fifteen minutes and start calling for his head.

That turn of events just might make Radrizzani wonder if Christiansen might be a burden the family can no longer support, but it feels like only a spectacularly disastrous combination of performances and results could separate Andrea and Thomas now. What would be the point in denying a new manager two weeks to work with the squad, putting on a great public show of togetherness, then sacking Christiansen on Monday and giving someone — who? — a matter of hours to sort things out for the trips to Wolves and Barnsley?

For better or worse, Andrea is owning this. And so he should. Thomas Christiansen didn’t hire himself, and he has won half of his games; he deserves better than being Milanic’d out of here on the first flight out. We all know how this used to work: if Massimo Cellino’s pan of pasta boiled over, his solution was usually to throw petrol at it then get someone to buy him a new kitchen. Cellino always claimed that owning up to his mistakes was one of his strongest virtues, but one of his worst failings was that he never tried to fix them. He just scrapped whatever it was, then made another.

There’s a definite desire within United’s management not to get sucked into the bad old ways and, with a keen eye for PR, they know what the headlines would be if Leeds United sack a manager before Christmas. “Having been at the club for five months now,” Angus Kinnear told the YEP this week, “I can honestly say that the lack of stability has been a problem at every single level, from employees not knowing what the future holds for them to managerial changes all the time and budgetary cuts.” The club is trying to change an ingrained culture of quick failure, and sticking with Christiansen sends a strong message about seeing things through. In all Kinnear’s media appearances this week, he said ‘medium term’ and ‘long term’ a lot. I don’t think I heard him say ‘short term’ once.

That gives the commercial team a chance to let their divining rods lead them to the streams of income that have been diverted away from Elland Road for the last ten years. Old sponsors are coming back, says Kinnear; but those deals will take time to become money in the bank — 32Red won’t be replaced on the club’s shirts until summer 2019, but whoever follows them ought to be paying more. That money is needed to address the imbalance of Radrizzani and Kinnear’s bête noire, parachute payments.

Relegated clubs have a free £40m to spend, which is around £10m more than Leeds United’s entire turnover, and no owner, no matter how wealthy, is going to invest 133% of turnover into a loss making business to bridge that gap, or expect financial fair play rules to let them get away with it. The club has to generate that money itself, or as much of it as possible, to give Victor Orta more buck in the transfer market, where he’ll have more bang, with a scouting network that we can assume wasn’t yet fully operational when Jay-Roy Grot slipped through the stats. That’ll mean a higher standard of player coming through the doors at the club’s new training complex, due to open sometime in 2020.

Despite what Cellino used to say, football clubs aren’t “fixed” overnight, and what Leeds United have done in the last five months is begin doing all the right things — things that will themselves take months or years to show results. It’s in that atmosphere that Thomas Christiansen is working, not expecting a job for life — he chuckled when asked at a press conference about 2020 and the training ground: “I have signed a two year contract, but football, and in this position as manager, goes very fast” — but worth the courtesy of patience being extended to the other aspects of the club. Christiansen arguably has had the hardest job of all, because at least when Angus Kinnear is midway through negotiations with a commercial partner, or Victor Orta is analysing another six foot seven teenager from the Maldives, their work isn’t going to be ruined by an incompetent referee, or an incompetent goalkeeper (or two), or a shot that hits the woodwork rather the net. Of all the management at Leeds United, only Thomas Christiansen is in a state of constant war with the three norse goddesses of fate, the Norns, giantesses who weave the faith of every mortal, and every football game, into a web of destiny. I hope that gets taken into account during the post-match debriefs.

I hope, too, that Andrea Radrizzini is aware of his own omnipotent influence. Victor Orta’s relationship with Christiansen has been much discussed, with the suspicion due following his failures at Middlesbrough, and the suspicion not due but given anyway to anyone with the job title Director of Football. A top-six finish is Radrizzani’s target, though, and he has been clear that he wants to see Leeds United play a certain way.

“What is important to me, what I care about and what I think I have found with the manager is to have the ambition to win every game,” Radrizzani [told the Guardian in August](https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/aug/04/leeds-united-andrea-radrizzani-championship). “This particular league is very long and it’s important to try and win the game. Eventually sometimes you might lose it, but you try to win the game. You try to have an offensive approach to the game.

“It wasn’t easy to find a local English manager that could give me the comfort to play for a win with good football. I couldn’t identify many options, unfortunately. It’s something that everyone in the English environment should work on, to improve the number of coaches.”

If you’re still mystified why, with an away draw almost wrapped up at Brentford, Christiansen decided to make an attacking substitution — okay, I know it was Grot, but still — rather than engage the grind and play for the point, perhaps this is a clue. Christiansen built his reputation in Cyprus on solid defences, but at Leeds, his tactical focus, whether before a game or during it, has almost always been attacking. What position will bring the best from Samu Saiz? How can Kalvin Phillips score more goals? Should we try fresh wingers for the last half an hour?

At Millwall, where Leeds somehow made it to halftime at nil-nil despite both full-backs being dragged up and down Cold Blow Lane for three quarters of an hour, Christiansen’s half-time gambit was to change the wingers and go for a win; midway through the second half he brought on Grot to add more power to the attack, and within a minute, Millwall had scored. Well, Radrizzani wants an offensive approach to the game. Christiansen and Grot have become repeat offenders.

Perhaps it’s Radrizzani, rather than Christiansen, that needs a reality check. Playing to win every game is fine for Barcelona, but even the glory of their last two decades had to start somewhere, and it started from a considerably stronger position than Leeds United in summer 2017. If one of the club’s Key Performance Indicators for Thomas Christiansen is whether he’s trying to win every match, then they should judge that he is doing very well. But the club ought to acknowledge that he might actually win more matches if that particular KPI was replaced by something better suited to Division Two.

On every other performance related measure, if the club are to believed about their focus on the medium and long term, then Christiansen ought to be secure, because the only thing he’s not getting right is the most short term thing of all: winning football matches. That’s also the thing that hurts most of all, in concentrated, agonising bursts. What we’ll find out over the next few weeks, as we play Middlesbrough, Wolves, Barnsley and Aston Villa, is how much short term pain Radrizzani and co are willing to take, if they’re confident that no harm is coming to their long term plan. It’s a test of Andrea Radrizzani’s resolve more than a test of Thomas Christiansen’s coaching, and of what Sunday’s free flags — blue, yellow or white — really represent. ◉

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(feature image by Paul Kent)