I was at the Cardiff game on Tuesday and the first point that needs to be made is that Cardiff City played better on the night. You can get sidetracked by talking about or moaning about the Neil Warnock way but Cardiff were better man-for-man, making fewer mistakes and playing at a higher level.
The real question is why and in the cold light of day I don’t think Thomas Christiansen should find himself stumped. Cardiff had a tactical ploy which cut Felix Wiedwald’s passing options from the start and gave Leeds United a hard time playing out from the back. Long balls to a front four who, to a man, are under six-feet tall allowed Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba to send possession back upfield and let Cardiff get in behind at pace. Cardiff took the initiative and the errors made by Leeds did plenty of their work for them.
Christiansen’s substitutions interested me because it took a long time for Jay-Roy Grot to appear, even though Leeds were crying out for more presence up front. That Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Samuel Saiz didn’t play at all suggested to me that Christiansen could see the writing on the wall and chose to save them for Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday. If that’s the case, then I actually think it’s good management. Cut your losses and plan ahead, rather than throw the kitchen sink at an unrealistic fightback.
It’s wrong to say that Cardiff did what Millwall had done to Leeds a couple of weeks earlier because the clubs play in different ways but the reality of both games, to my mind anyway, is that the intensity of them got to Christiansen’s side. It was overwhelming at Millwall and on Tuesday it forced blunders: Mateusz Klich slipping, the defence not clearing out Craig Bryson and then backing off before Junior Hoilett score plus Liam Cooper diving in for his second yellow card. Your judgement goes when you don’t feel in control and I sensed that at Cardiff.
I’m sure the away end sensed it, too, but in fairness to them, they took the defeat in a good way. Afterwards, I thought back to that horrible game in Brighton a couple of seasons back, where Leeds were 4-0 down at half-time and the supporters absolutely slaughtered them. The comparison is a good example of how things have changed. Yes, you want your team to show up for what was, at an early stage, a top-of-the-table clash but there’s clearly some deeper faith in what Christiansen is doing. There wasn’t that same feeling of panic or disillusionment which I’ve seen many times before.
Disillusionment, in contrast, is what I’m feeling from Sheffield Wednesday at the moment. You can hardly call their start terrible or disastrous but they’re not in form and they are giving the impression of a club who are losing their way.
The defeat to Sheffield United was terrible, and not only because of the opposition they lost to. In the grand scheme, assuming Carlos Carvalhal gets it together again, it might turn out to be a small dent in another good season but, in the first derby for five years ,Sheffield United looked like they wanted it more. It looked like it mattered more. They were energetic and creative. Wednesday’s defending was staggeringly bad, even from a player like Tom Lees, who is usually good for a seven or eight out of 10 each week.
What followed on Tuesday was the strangest press conference I’ve seen in a long time. I think of Carlos as a fairly in-control bloke but his comments and the episode with the £20 note – if you don’t know what I’m talking about, have a look online – came across like a manager who was losing it. On one hand, you’re telling people that everything is under control. On the other hand, you’re talking in a way which implies that it isn’t. I don’t know, maybe he was just angry. Maybe he didn’t like the questions. But the questions are there to be asked. If a pretty established squad are starting to go a bit stale, what does he do to change it? Is he able to change it in a way which throws a curveball at Leeds? I’m not so sure. From the players’ point of view, you look at a press conference like his and you almost feel the vice-like grip which managers like to have on a club slipping a bit. It creates a bit of uncertainty and I can’t say it surprised me to see Wednesday follow up the derby with a defeat at Birmingham.
Christiansen should be looking at Wednesday as a team who are there to be beaten. Wednesday, if they’re doing their homework, will be looking at Leeds’ last two away games and thinking the trick of beating them is out in the open. I’d like to see Christiansen solidify his midfield; not abandon his philosophy or dispense with all flair but perhaps ask whether a third midfielder like the physically-strong Ronaldo Vieira might be a better call than Pablo Hernandez. I’d like to see Samuel Saiz back and certainly Pierre-Michel Lasogga up front. It’s too early to call Lasogga indispensable but he looks like a vital cog to me.
Cardiff needs a response but I honestly think Leeds are going to Hillsborough with the pressure off. It’s Wednesday who need to win this game and it’s Wednesday who are facing the scrutiny. Lose on Sunday and where does that leave the club or Carvalhal? Can he comes back from the worst of weeks? Whatever the reality of Tuesday’s loss, Leeds are a million miles away from a moment of reckoning like that. As odd as it sounds for what is always a very feisty derby, this could be a good game for Leeds at a good time.
Christiansen should be looking at Wednesday as a team who are there to be beaten. Wednesday, if they’re doing their homework, will be looking at Leeds’ last two away games and thinking the trick of beating them is out in the open.David Prutton