Rotherham United v Leeds United: Antonsson’s in the frame for a return

Marcus Antonsson.
Marcus Antonsson.
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After netting a hat-trick for the Under-23s on Monday, Marcus Antonsson is in contention for selection against Rotherham along with the likes of Hadi Sacko and Marco Silvestri. Phil Hay reports.

A development-squad game or not, Marcus Antonsson put his hand up with a perfect hat-trick at Huddersfield Town on Monday. The weather was foul and the stands were almost empty but three pin-point goals from the striker gave Leeds United’s head coach something to think about.

Hadi Sacko.

Hadi Sacko.

Antonsson ticked the boxes of a traditional hat-trick – an effort with either foot and a header to complete it in the last minute – but the precision of his goals, the best a curling shot from 16 yards into the far corner of the net, caught the attention. Antonsson acknowledged the quality of the finishing himself by saying he would “hope for start” on the back of his performance.

Goalscoring was his forte at Kalmar, the Swedish club who sold him to United in June, but Garry Monk has never quite been able to tap into Antonsson fully. The forward broke into Leeds’ line-up in August, at a time when he was posing more of a threat than Chris Wood, but the system used to accommodate him proved counter-productive and Monk was under heavy pressure by the time he drew a line in the sand and abandoned a formation with Wood and Antonsson up front.

Since then, Wood has scored eight goals to Antonsson’s none. Monk started with the Swede as a lone forward in a crucial 2-1 win over Blackburn on September 18, the starting point of Leeds’ concerted revival in the Championship, but it was Wood who came off the bench that night to replace Antonsson and find the net with one of his first touches. Leeds’ recent form has allowed Monk’s team to pick itself and appreciation of Antonsson’s ability does not change the fact that United’s current tactics have squeezed him to the fringes.

On Saturday, though, Leeds visit Rotherham United, the Championship’s bottom club by a margin of eight points. In the space of six days Monk is moving from a meeting with the division’s champions-elect, Newcastle United, to a game against a side who have put themselves at grave risk of relegation to League One. Forty one concessions and repetitive, unflattering defeats should be all the encouragement Monk needs to turn his firepower on them.

Marco Silvestri.

Marco Silvestri.

It is inconceivable that he would readily drop Wood, United’s leading scorer by a streak. Monk will generally be wary of changing too much after Sunday’s loss to Newcastle, mindful of better results before that match and of the calibre of team Newcastle are. But there are possible vacancies asking to be filled ahead of the trip to the New York Stadium.

Kalvin Phillips took the Football League’s young player-of-the-month award this week but by his own admission his shift to the number 10 role against Newcastle did not work as Monk hoped it would. Leeds are likely to be without Pablo Hernandez, their specialist playmaker, again this weekend, leaving Monk to decide which card to play.

Antonsson played more often than not as a centre forward at Kalmar but in the early stages of pre-season he expressed a willingness to occupy a deeper role. “Usually in Sweden I played as the number nine, that was my position, but I can make my runs from the number 10 position too,” he told the YEP. “So it’s not a problem for me.”

A more straightforward decision for Monk this weekend would be to recall Hadi Sacko, releasing his pace and trickery against a Rotherham team who are susceptible to headed goals and finishes from inside their box. Sacko lost his place to Souleymane Doukara after Doukara imposed himself impressively in a League Cup win over Norwich City and a home victory against Burton Albion last month but Sacko’s performance was telling in the Championship visit to Norwich on November 5. His introduction against Newcastle, with Leeds 2-0 down and less than half-an-hour to play, did not have the same effect.

Sacko is, by some distance, the most persistent winger in Monk’s squad, unrivalled for speed and more inclined to go head-to-head with opposition defenders than anyone else. Only Wood and Hernandez produce more shots a game than him and Lee Camp, Rotherham’s beleaguered goalkeeper, is facing around 20 in every appearance.

Leeds, like most of the Championship, have been much tighter than that at the back and since the start of September only Newcastle and Norwich have put two goals past Monk’s defence. Sunday’s defeat, nonetheless, was invited by an error from goalkeeper Rob Green which gave Dwight Gayle the easiest of tap-ins with 23 minutes played. Green attempted to catch a lob from Jack Colback under his crossbar but patted the ball down in attempt to stop him carrying it over his goalline. Gayle was waiting a yard out and stabbed a shot into the net.

Green apologised on Twitter afterwards and Monk was philosophical what he called an “honest mistake” by his number one. The error was a potential opening for Marco Silvestri, who performed brilliantly in last month’s EFL Cup win over Norwich and admitted afterwards that his future might lie elsewhere if opportunities remained scarce, but Monk has been rigid in his support of Green and gave no hint on Sunday of a loss of confidence in him.

Scott Minto, the former Rotherham United defender who worked as a pundit for Sky during Leeds’ defeat to Newcastle, said he expected Monk to keep faith with Green this weekend. “The first goal was a killer but if someone makes a mistake I’m a great believer in the view that pulling them out of it is the worst thing you can do,” Minto said.

“I actually thought he reacted pretty well to the mistake and he’s experienced enough to deal with it. If this happens four or five times in a short period than obviously that’s different but it’s one defeat to a very good team in Newcastle and Garry Monk will be realistic about that. If Rob Green is his best goalkeeper before that game then he’s his best goalkeeper after it too. That’s the way I see it.”

Chris Wood controls a high ball against Fulham at Elland Road on Tuesday night. PIC: Bruce Rollinson

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