Phil Hay: How Leeds United came to put their faith in Thomas Christiansen

Thomas Christiansen. Picture: Getty Images.
Thomas Christiansen. Picture: Getty Images.
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Former Spain international striker Thomas Christiansen has had some success managing in Cyprus and United owner Andrea Radrizzani is hoping he can continue it at Leeds. Phil Hay reports.

Born in Denmark but the roots of Thomas Christiansen’s ideas as a coach are firmly planted in Spain. As a young striker he found a second home there, taken on by Barcelona and given an education by Johan Cruyff’s singular mind. “With him the football was something different,” Christiansen said in an interview given last year.

A teenager at the time, he was said to have chosen Barcelona after first undergoing trials with Real Madrid. The Catalan club were awash with household names. “Every day you learned something new, and also from the players you had in that squad,” he told UEFA.com. “Guardiola, Laudrup, Koeman, Stoichkov, Romario.” For Christiansen there were appearances for Barcelona’s reserve team and one in the UEFA Super Cup – enough to win him two caps with Spain by virtue of his Spanish mother – but no breakthrough at the top level. At the top level, he tried to observe.

Leeds United liked his background and when Andrea Radrizzani, the club’s owner, came to interview him about the head coach’s job at Elland Road he was surprised and impressed with the 44-year-old’s performance.

There is no denying that Radrizzani gave consideration to other candidates – Huddersfield Town’s David Wagner and Reading’s Jaap Stam – but Leeds say Christiansen was on the list from the start; available after becoming a free agent on the same day that United accepted with some reluctance the resignation of Garry Monk.

Christiansen left APOEL, the team based in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, on May 25 at the end of a 12-month contract despite a season which ticked many boxes.

Andrea Radrizzani

Andrea Radrizzani

APOEL won Cyprus’ first division by four points, their fifth title in a row. The club – by some distance the biggest and most expectant in Cyprus – lost to Copenhagen in the preliminary stages of the Champions League but won their Europa League group ahead of Olympiacos and advanced to the last 16 for the first time in their history, eliminating Athletic Bilbao in the process. Anderlecht eventually ended APOEL’s run over two legs in March.

They were beaten in the Cypriot cup final by Apollon Limassol last month but according to the local media, the decision to part company with Christiansen had been reached prior to that game. Some reports cited a disagreement over his contract while others said APOEL’s board had been unhappy with performances as his team flagged in the latter stages of the term. On May 25, as Leeds were dealing with Monk’s sudden exit, Christiansen and APOEL went their separate ways.

The job was Christiansen’s second as a manager, following on from two years in charge of AEK Larnaca, another club in Cyprus. Larnaca finished fourth in his first regular season, qualifying for the initial stages of the Europa League for only the third time, and were runners-up in his second, finishing a point behind APOEL. APOEL thought enough of Larnaca’s progress to recruit him last summer.

Radrizzani was as convinced by him when the pair met in Madrid for discussions earlier this week, a fortnight into Leeds’ search for a head coach. Having seriously considered Wagner and Stam – the two managers whose clubs contested the Championship play-off final last month – the little-known Christiansen came as an obscure choice by Radrizzani but Radrizzani was sold on his philosophy and confident that he would fit into a changed hierarchy at Elland Road.

Christiansen’s appointment yesterday automatically revived memories of little-known predecessors who came and went in the blink of an eye. Leeds and Radrizzani hope he will come to be seen as something closer to Marco Silva at Hull.

Phil Hay

Christiansen is understood to have run the Italian through a lengthy presentation, analysing the individual players at Elland Road and identifying areas of their squad which required improvement. He also dissected a number of United’s fixtures under Monk and outlined the changes he planned to make to the club’s style of play. At the end of their conversation, and on the strength of Christiansen’s homework, Radrizzani began the process of appointing him immediately.

Since lining up his takeover of Leeds, United’s owner has brought a continental – and specifically Spanish – feel to Elland Road, adding advisor Ivan Bravo to the board and recruiting Victor Orta as director of football after Orta left his role as head of recruitment at Middlesbrough. Monk, who spent just 12 months in charge and narrowly failed to reach the play-offs this season, admitted last week that the structure under Radrizzani “wasn’t right for me”. Leeds expect Monk’s replacement to fit into it without complaint; an adaptable and possession-based coach.

The questions about Christiansen, whose playing career took him to Villarreal, Hannover and Vfl Bochum where he ranked as the Bundesliga’s joint top scorer in 2003, will not be dissimilar to those asked of Darko Milanic after Leeds and Massimo Cellino appointed Milanic in 2014. Milanic had titles and European football on his record after several years coaching Maribor in Slovenia’s top league. He was largely unheard of in England when he left Sturm Graz to take up a two-year contract at Elland Road, a contract which was terminated after just 32 days.

Milanic was unfamiliar with English football and unfamiliar with the Championship. Christiansen has a month-and-a-half to immerse himself in it before the league gets going, arriving in time for the start of pre-season and a foreign tour next month.

Garry Monk

Garry Monk

In that respect he has a head start on Milanic, who was thrown into the fray after Cellino’s short and failed experiment with David Hockaday. He has the additional advantage of a better squad than either Hockaday or Milanic possessed and the promise that Leeds will begin making new signings shortly.

Christiansen’s appointment yesterday automatically revived memories of little-known predecessors who came and went in the blink of an eye. Leeds and Radrizzani hope he will come to be seen as something closer to Marco Silva, the Portuguese coach who enhanced his reputation amid Hull City’s relegation from the Premier League.

The lesson, meanwhile, from Wagner’s success at Huddersfield was in the way in which Town committed financially and implicitly to his ethos and tactics. Tim White, a European football commentator who once worked for Radio Aire, said Christiansen was taking a sizeable step up by moving from Cyprus to England.

“He did pretty well at Larnaca and he won the title at APOEL but APOEL are like Bayern Munich in Germany,” he said. “They expect to win everything and success is measured on whether they qualify for the Champions League.

“Obviously that didn’t happen this season but there was a feeling that he might save his job with the results in the Europa League. In the end they scored fewer goals than they had the season before and there were some complaints about the style of play.

“He’s coming from a little-regarded league where he’s been for three years but he was schooled well as a kid at Barcelona. It’s a leftfield appointment.”

Christiansen said his approach at APOEL had been pragmatic; that the squad available to him did not allow him to maintain the approach he had taken at Larnaca. “I wanted to continue that at APOEL but because of the players we had in the squad I had to find other systems, other solutions,” he said in the first half of this season. “Right now we’re playing a little bit different but with the same mentality.”

There were alternative coaches with track records in England, notably Aitor Karanka who took Middlesbrough to the Premier League last year and is closely associated with Orta. Leeds ruled Karanka out in the earliest stages of their search and those who know Karanka say he did not want to drop back into the Championship. Wagner slipped beyond reach after Huddersfield’s promotion and recruiting Stam from Reading was far from straightforward. Stam is currently discussing an extension to his contract at the Madejski Stadium. Radrizzani let other options go after meeting Christiansen in Madrid.

Christiansen will be unveiled at a press conference on Monday and will meet United’s players when they come back to Thorp Arch for routine medical tests next Friday, six weeks on from the end of the Championship season. One football writer in Denmark told the YEP yesterday that Christiansen was the “biggest Danish (coaching) talent in my eyes.” United managing director Angus Kinnear said: “Thomas was on our radar from the very early stages and quickly established himself as the outstanding candidate.”

The wait begins to discover if Radrizzani has unearthed a gem in the Cypriot rough.

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