Phil Hay: So much depends on a strong, settled back four for Leeds United

Gaetano Berardi, right, looks on as Pontus Jansson receives treatment at Hillsborough.
Gaetano Berardi, right, looks on as Pontus Jansson receives treatment at Hillsborough.
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The last Leeds United player to disappear on a stretcher was posted missing for over a month but the injury suffered by Pontus Jansson at Hillsborough was not on the scale of Gaetano Berardi’s dislocated shoulder.

Jansson sustained enough bruising in a collision with Kalvin Phillips for Sweden to strike him off their squad list last week but medical scans carried out after Leeds’ defeat to Sheffield Wednesday caused no concern at Elland Road. The call for the stretcher only proved that Jansson is human like the rest of them.

Vurnon Anita.

Vurnon Anita.

The centre-back has a good chance of playing against Reading on Saturday and with Vurnon Anita training again, Thomas Christiansen could be in the novel position of having a full complement of defenders at his disposal.

Dilemmas come with the job but dilemmas like this only materialise when the absentee count starts to drop off. Even when Leeds were at the height of their early-season form, and free from the doubts which have arisen since then, the club’s head coach was plugging gaps across his back four.

That Leeds, until their capitulation at Hillsborough, held the second-best defensive record in the Championship was contrary to the disruption Christiansen has dealt with. Jansson began the season with a two-game ban, a legacy of 15 yellow cards last season, and Liam Cooper is available this weekend after a one-match suspension.

Berardi missed seven games while his shoulder recovered and Matthew Pennington 10 with ankle ligament damage. Anita, Leeds’ utility left-back, sat out of the last two games.

On the other side of Christiansen’s defence, Luke Ayling represents the only permanent fixture, which Ayling usually does. Never injured and rarely banned, he sat out of three games last season, including one to attend the birth of his daughter while Leeds were drawing 1-1 at Fulham.

Over the course of that term Kyle Bartley was virtually ever-present and Jansson would have gone close to 40 appearances without the handicap of three separate bans. Whatever Leeds were lacking under Garry Monk, they settled nicely at the back, leaving Monk to wrestle with his midfield and the line of three behind Chris Wood.

The scoreline at Sheffield Wednesday notwithstanding, Christiansen can see that he has goals in his side or the capacity to create them. Phillips and Gjanni Alioski might have scored before Wednesday did. Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Samuel Saiz should have scored in the second half.

They were small bones in the corpse of a relative debacle by Christiansen’s standards but Millwall are the only team who have comprehensively stopped Leeds from laying a glove on them. The concern for Christiansen is the sight of other teams laying a heavy glove on his.

The international break has afforded him space to iron the performance at Hillsborough out, even though six of his players travelled abroad for international games and two others – Jansson and Ronaldo Vieira – were injured at the start of it, but it also gave time to a player like Pennington to sharpen himself. A 45-minute warm-up in a 10-man side at Cardiff City was all the preparation Pennington had for United’s derby at Hillsborough.

In comparison to a very accomplished debut at Bolton on the first day of the season, the cobwebs were obvious.

United’s multiple errors away at Wednesday shone a light on the control exerted by Christiansen’s goalkeeper, Felix Wiedwald, but they might also have been indicative of a defence which had been rejigged once too often.

Christiansen can carry the can for the coaching of them but not for the players he is choosing to field. From Sunderland to Birmingham, the run of games which took Leeds to the top of the Championship, his back four was unchanged.

Jansson partnered Cooper, Anita and Ayling sat in on either side of them and 12 points came without the concession of a goal. Either side of that short window, players have taken turns in the treatment room or in the dog house.

Almost every injury or suspension has hit Christiansen’s defence.

For the first time this weekend, provided Jansson puts his hand up to play, United’s head coach will have every option open to him and a free pick of his strongest back four.

It is not an answer to everything that went wrong at Hillsborough but in the circumstances, it’s a good start.

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