The most concerning statistic for Leeds United at the end of last month was a tally of five goals conceded from corners.
Garry Monk could see a problem, his players could see a problem and in the international break that followed Pep Clotet came up with a solution to it.
That solution involved Pontus Jansson, the towering centre-back who has taken Leeds’ defending by the scruff of the neck, but it was not so simple as merely promoting him from the bench. Clotet, Monk’s assistant, suggested using Jansson as a free man at set-pieces, leaving him without any other job than to follow the ball and attack it.
The tactic worked and worked impressively. At Cardiff City last weekend, an imperious Jansson alone cleared more deliveries into the box than Cardiff as a team cleared all game. Analysis of his performance in previous games against Huddersfield Town and Blackburn Rovers showed similar results. Leeds were no longer a soft touch, and not merely because of the presence of a 6’5” centre-back in their line-up.
Kyle Bartley, who was paired with Jansson at centre-back ahead of the derby with Huddersfield, said Clotet’s system of tackling corners and free-kicks had flicked a switch with Monk’s players.
“I think you’ve got to give the credit to Pep,” Bartley said. “He had a look at things, watched some videos and he changed our set-up slightly to give us a free man.
“With Pontus, he’s not marking anyone so his job is to go and attack the ball. He’s done that very well and he’s made us look a lot more solid. With the new laws coming in and defenders literally not able to touch the attacker, with the penalties that we’ve seen given, it’s a lot more dangerous from set pieces. Having a free man makes our jobs a lot easier. It creates some room for them to attack the ball.”
The strict attention paid by referees to jostling in the box – the result of a directive given to officials by the Premier League at the start of the season – was evident in Leeds’ 2-0 victory at Cardiff, a match which turned on a penalty award to United in the second half.
Cardiff’s Matthew Connolly was penalised for dragging down Jansson as City defended a corner and referee Graham Scott pointed to the spot. Monk described it as a “definite penalty” and Paul Trollope, the Cardiff manager, could only complain about a lack of consistency in those decisions.
“It’s something you need to get your head around and get your head around quickly,” Bartley said. “The Cardiff game was very tight before that decision and inevitably it ended up costing them. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen to us.”
Jansson was ill in midweek and missed Leeds’ League Cup win over Blackburn but Bartley and Liam Cooper kept a clean sheet regardless, helped by a string of saves from stand-in goalkeeper Marco Silvestri. The improvement in form and confidence at United is underlined by the fact that the club will attempt to record a fourth straight win at home to Ipswich Town tomorrow for the first time since January 2010 and the club’s famous FA Cup victory at Manchester United. It is, in all, a far cry from the first day of the season when Leeds lost 3-0 at Queens Park Rangers and Bartley found himself apologising to the supporters and talking about a “kick up the backside”.
“We said on that day that we needed to keep positive,” Bartley said. “We had a few more downs but we picked ourselves up and we’ve kept going. After three wins on the bounce things are looking up.
“We believed in the manager, the team and the strength of us but three points breeds confidence. You’ve seen that in the last couple of games. We’re going out there now thinking we’re going to win and not just hoping we’re going to win.
“The manager’s fantastic. I said when I first signed that he was one of the main reasons why I came to this club. I said in an interview last week that we’ve got one of, if not the best, managers in the Championship. He’s remained calm through all the ups and downs.”
A calm environment has doubtless helped Bartley who, more than two months after joining Leeds on loan from Swansea City, is still to move out of his hotel. “That’s been a bit of a nightmare,” he said, “but it’s been fantastic here so far.” The improved results are bringing more cordial contact with the club’s supporters. “When we were losing they left me alone a little bit,” he said. “But since the results have turned the fans have been a lot more welcoming.”
Results are king in the Championship, as even Monk admits in amongst talk of a long-term vision as head coach, and Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich have traditionally been good at getting them.
Ipswich are 11th in the league with 12 points but are as economical as ever – eight goals scored, seven conceded and few soft defeats in sight.
“The manager said it’ll be the toughest challenge of the season for us and I completely agree,” Bartley said.
“Under Mick McCarthy they’ve always been very strong and they have a game plan. They’ll come here believing in their game plan so it’s on us to implement our style.”