Phil Hay: ‘Cracks’ begin to show in Leeds United’s midfield

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Three cracked ribs solve the riddle of why Eunan O’Kane looked so out of sorts at Hillsborough. An apology followed his unintentional assist for the last goal in Leeds United’s defeat to Sheffield Wednesday but he was playing behind the curve of an end-to-end derby for a while before his 81st-minute error.

The illness which Leeds cited for his absence against Cardiff City earlier last week now sounds like a euphemism, though there is evidently a view that O’Kane’s injury is superficial enough to patch up.

Ronaldo Vieira.

Ronaldo Vieira.

He received painkillers before Sunday’s game in Sheffield and reported for international duty with the Republic of Ireland as planned. Martin O’Neill has not discounted him from tomorrow’s World Cup qualifier against Moldova or Monday’s tie in Wales.

That Thomas Christiansen, according to O’Neill, passed O’Kane fit at Hillsborough with the aid of an injection makes the pecking order at Elland Road abundantly clear. O’Kane has integrated himself again this season, to the extent that Christiansen felt cracked ribs were a surmountable handicap and a lesser evil than losing him again. That decision was doubtless helped by Mateusz Klich playing himself out of contention in O’Kane’s stead at Cardiff but in reserve on Sunday was Ronaldo Vieira, as patient as ever and waiting for his season to light up.

O’Kane and Vieira are not identical footballers but there were times in past 12 months where Vieira would have automatically bypassed anyone with questionable fitness. The level of Vieira’s own fitness is a moot point after his withdrawal from the England Under-20 squad with a knee tendon injury – something Leeds expect to clear up quickly with a short rest – but it was minor enough for Vieira to take a seat on the bench at Hillsborough.

Two months in, he is the one asset inherited from Garry Monk which Christiansen is yet to seriously tap into. Shut out of United’s team by O’Kane and Kalvin Phillips, the 19-year-old has had no way of arguing the toss. Christiansen is arriving at the point where squad rotation in the centre of his midfield looks necessary but the faith in O’Kane and Phillips as his holding pair has been bulletproof: 10 games together, 20 points accrued.

Preferred partners Kalvin Phillips, left, and Eunan O'Kane in action against Sheffield Wednesday. PIC: Tony Johnson

Preferred partners Kalvin Phillips, left, and Eunan O'Kane in action against Sheffield Wednesday. PIC: Tony Johnson

Phillips scoring four goals and O’Kane registering three assists. Both looked fitter than last season and more industrious too until the Championship began catching up on Christiansen’s squad and tactics two weeks ago.

Vieira’s bit-part involvement is in some ways an ironic result of his steep climb in his first year as a professional at Leeds. Monk limited him to 24 league starts and avoided severe burn-out but Vieira attracted attention internationally and was abroad with England’s Under-20s within a few weeks of the end of last season, called up for the Toulon Tournament in France. The trip was worth the effort. England came home with winners’ medals after Vieira settled a decisive penalty shoot-out against Ivory Coast.

The final in Aubagne was staged less than three weeks before Christiansen took his first training session at Thorp Arch. Vieira had the option of an extended summer break but chose to be back at Thorp Arch on day one. At 19, his was a natural reaction. Monk rated Vieira but Monk had gone, leaving Leeds with a new head coach, a clean slate and midfielders climbing over each other to play. Even Toumani Diagouraga reported in with a genuine, if unrealistic, intention of salvaging his career at Leeds.

By the end of a busy summer, Christiansen was minded to avoid asking too much of Vieira too soon.

Vieira, for all his precocious talent, is a specific type of midfielder; a defensive, combative footballer who has more natural strength than a teenager of his size should.

With an average of 33 passes a game and seven key passes over the entirety of last season, he is not showing the traits of a playmaker, or not at this stage anyway.

Tom Cairney, the player who set the standard for midfielders in the Championship during Vieira’s maiden year, was knocking on the door of 90 passes a game.

Cairney, Aaron Mooy and Jonjo Shelvey were each in the region of 100 key passes during the course of the term. Cairney hit the front again with 122. Leeds do not possess that brand of midfielder, a livewire with that scale of unrelenting influence.

But they have options still and Vieira at his best had a quiet knack of allowing others to play.

He looks capable of helping a team who are running most of their football through the Spanish pair of Pablo Hernandez and Samuel Saiz.

Vieira stands out as one player at Leeds who could give Christiansen a leg-up after the Dane’s first taste of bad results.

Injury is keeping him in Leeds for these two weeks, at a time when Christiansen has plenty to work on, and being closer to home in this particular fortnight when others are getting the chance to play might not be a bad thing.

For the first time this season, the door looks open.

United's Pontus Jansson on the bench at Bristol City.

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