Pontus Jansson’s 20th appearance gives Leeds United the right to sign him forthwith but he is not the only centre-back with a growing fan club at Elland Road. As Leeds ground three points out of their first game of 2017, the chants of ‘sign him up’ were reserved for Kyle Bartley.
Bartley, in Garry Monk’s estimation, has never played as he is playing this season and Leeds are no more enamoured by the thought of a future without him than they are with the idea of Jansson moving on. It was Bartley again who struck gold when Monk needed him to yesterday, breaking a Rotherham United side who did not indulge an attempt to smash them to bits but could not resist it in the end.
Monk’s line-up and unfamiliar formation was, at face value, an attempt to blitz the Championship’s bottom club and a side whose goals-conceded column has already passed 50 but Leeds were flat and confused in the first half and lucky to reach half-time with parity. Monk heeded the warning, changed tack after the interval and Bartley came up with the game’s crucial goal on 48 minutes, like Brentford and Blackburn Rovers revisited.
The finish was like every one Bartley has produced since coming north on loan from Swansea City: a close-range strike from a delivery out wide, stuck away at a time when points were on the line. Leeds have made hard work of Rotherham this season, scraping through a meeting at the New York Stadium in November and gathering pace slowly yesterday, but wins from those fixtures were essential in a league so tight. Bartley’s strike saw Rotherham descend into a familiar pit of demoralisation and Chris Wood put the win beyond doubt with two sharp goals in the final 25 minutes, his 15th and 16th of the term.
Wood is Leeds’ player already, signed up for another two years, and United can make Jansson theirs any time they like now the option to take him permanently from Torino is live. Bartley, whose loan runs until May, is not subject to any such clause but the defender has the guise of a lynchpin in Monk’s side; a player Leeds should throw money at if the chance arises. Monk’s players found themselves quickly once his header nestled in Rotherham’s net. Before long they had become unplayable.
Prior to all that, Rotherham had struck a post and produced the better chances in a half which did little to engage a crowd of more than 33,000. Previous years would have seen some militant outbursts after 45 minutes but there was an expectation that the troubles before the break would give way to energy and menace when Leeds returned to the pitch. Monk sacrificed Hadi Sacko, just as Sacko’s performance demanded, and the rest came easily. He and his players are not often guilty of failing to find a way.
Jansson’s call before kick off was for Leeds to “go out and kill” Rotherham; the right idea if not the way the game went for 45 minutes. Monk took him up on that invitation by going nuclear with the front end of his team, recalling Pablo Hernandez and Wood at the expense of Stuart Dallas and a more defensive asset in Kalvin Phillips. Bartley was fit enough to return to the centre of defence, replacing Liam Cooper whose late handball cost Leeds heavily at Aston Villa last Thursday. After so many line-ups dictated by injury and absences, it was nice for Monk to be tweaking his side with some of his bigger hitters.
Elland Road wanted fireworks and the uptake of tickets was so intense that measures were taken to prevent United’s supporters paying their way into a very sparse away section in the West Stand. Rotherham, with so much carnage behind them already this season, did not turn out in numbers but expectations of a rout were tempered by Leeds clawing their way into the match in ponderous fashion.
It was seven minutes old when Rob Green relied on his left-hand post to keep Rotherham out after he met Anthony Forde’s free-kick with a parry at full stretch. Liam Bridcutt had conceded the set-piece, giving possession away before fouling Isaiah Brown, and though Green was equal to Forde’s strike, Tom Adeyemi met the rebound first and smashed it against the base of Green’s upright. It was not the only occasion when Leeds looked tentative in the earliest exchanges.
Monk’s choice of players necessitated a change of formation, leaving Bridcutt as his only sitting midfielder and creating a system which might only be prudent against the Championship’s most vulnerable clubs. It goes without saying that Leeds’ next game, at home to Derby County, will offer less scope for experimentation. A team who looked set up to score 10 created nothing of note before half-time and nothing more for 20 minutes than a long-range shot from Hernandez which Lewis Price waved wide.
Leeds gradually monopolised possession and Monk was at least able to watch a tame first half pass without further threat of his side conceding. A hanging cross from Souleymane Doukara narrowly failed to find Wood eight yards out as Aymen Belaid got a crucial touch to the ball and there was more promise from Doukara than his compatriot Sacko on the other side of the pitch. Sacko’s quick throw-in on 29 minutes gave Hernandez a rare chance to waltz into Rotherham’s area but in keeping with Leeds’ soft tone, his cut-back was weak and Kirk Broadfoot sent it into the stands.
Too often, Bridcutt’s role as a lone defensive midfielder gave Rotherham the benefit of bodies and space when the ball fell them in United’s half. Brown whipped a rash finish over Green’s crossbar in the 35th minute after Darnell Fisher made room for himself and delivered a cross from the right and Bartley came up with fine sliding tackle as Joe Newell shaped to shoot at Green from the edge of United’s box. Doukara’s loose effort which disappeared into the South Stand concourse just before the interval continued the trend of a contest in which Price, Rotherham’s goalkeeper, had not had a save to make.
Monk and his assistant, Pep Clotet, spoke at length in the technical area as the interval neared and the introduction of Ronaldo Vieira for Sacko at the start of the second half suggested that they could see what the rest of the stadium could see. It was all Leeds required. Within three minutes, Bartley had scored, Rotherham’s bubble had burst and United went to town with their conviction restored.
Bartley likes a header from close range and yesterday’s was as deadly as the rest, smashed into Price’s net after the centre-back anticipated a deep corner from Hernandez to the far post. Rotherham’s self-doubt quickly crept in. Hernandez began to showboat with a glorious reverse pass to Kemar Roofe, leading to a cross which a sliding Wood narrowly failed to touch in, but Wood did not have to wait much longer for his goal. Picked out on 67 minutes by Bridcutt’s hanging cross, the forward controlled it perfectly under pressure and rifled a volley under Price’s bar.
There were more in the offing as Gaetano Berardi – appearing through the mist from left-back – struck the base of a post seconds before Wood arrived to sweep home a low cross from Roofe on 80 minutes. As the final whistle neared, a free-kick from Hernandez rebounded off the opposite upright, the post which earlier had stopped Adeyemi from giving the afternoon a different feel. Rotherham’s inward collapse explained why they are as good as relegated, just as the sight of Leeds turning the screw explained why they are fifth in the Championship and starting 2017 with undisguised optimism. Happy new year.