Up for grabs: The battle to be Leeds United's No 1 goalkeeper

A cap was forthcoming when Felix Wiedwald needed it at Oakwell, passed down from the away end as the sun streamed into his eyes, and it would seem that Thomas Christiansen is ready to hang his hat on the German again.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 29th November 2017, 4:39 am
OPTION 1:  Felix Wiedwald. Picture: James Hardisty.
OPTION 1: Felix Wiedwald. Picture: James Hardisty.

A period of reflection in which Christiansen saw Wiedwald “learn from his mistakes” has reversed the ranking of goalkeepers at Leeds United for the second time this season.

It might be that Wiedwald’s work at Thorp Arch had no more impact on Christiansen’s thinking than the evidence of Andy Lonergan’s seven-game stint in his stead, but having dropped Wiedwald at an early opportunity last month, United’s head coach turned back to him with equal haste on Saturday. Chances for both keepers have so far failed to establish a fixed hierarchy but Wiedwald finds himself in possession of the gloves once more.

He was first choice at the start of the season and a trouble-free afternoon at Barnsley over the weekend will keep him in Christiansen’s starting line-up when Aston Villa bring more quality and form to Elland Road on Friday.

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DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Leeds United's head coach Thomas Christiansen. Picture: James Hardisty.

Wiedwald took a clean sheet away from Oakwell, helped by an outfield performance which made Barnsley’s attack look horribly blunt, and his shutouts for Leeds total seven; one from every two league appearances.

Lonergan, who has recorded only one, could argue in his defence that his outings involved five games against teams in the Championship’s top seven and one away to the champions-elect in Wolverhampton Wanderers.

There were errors from him during that run – two in particular which cost Leeds in a 3-1 defeat at Brentford – but Leeds’ defence has done more for Wiedwald, asking the German to face fewer on average of three efforts on target while Lonergan was dealing with closer to five.

The question for Christiansen is whether the superior record under Wiedwald is because of him or in spite of him.

OPTION 2: Andrew Lonergan. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Christiansen’s decision to drop the former Werder Bremen keeper after a 3-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday on October 1 was rapid and forthright. There were evident weaknesses in Wiedwald’s handling and dominance of his box, and a clear trend of teams targeting his distribution, but four games earlier he had been on a run of six consecutive clean sheets.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while,” Christiansen said after promoting Lonergan for a 1-0 defeat to Reading, telling Wiedwald it was “his turn to be on the bench and wait for his opportunity again, like all the players.” That second chance has materialised sooner than even he would have expected.

There are certain marked differences between Wiedwald and Lonergan, one of which points to the tactical style which Christiansen set his mind on implementing when Leeds appointed him. Wiedwald’s pass completion rate stands at almost 65 per cent, compared to Lonergan’s percentage of 35. Leeds’ rationale for replacing Rob Green in the summer – a keeper who played in every minute of the club’s 2016-17 Championship season and did so with distinction – was that Wiedwald’s distribution, and specifically his passing on the floor, would assist the football Christiansen planned to play.

Green’s form at Elland Road was above criticism but his passing had a tendency to go long. In the early part of this season, as Leeds were climbing towards the top of the Championship, the shift in mindset was obvious. When Christiansen’s players routed Burton 5-0 in September, Wiedwald’s 52 passes included just 14 long balls and yielded a completion rate of more than 80 per cent.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Leeds United's head coach Thomas Christiansen. Picture: James Hardisty.

Even against Ipswich Town on September 23, the first club to deliberately target Wiedwald’s attempts to play out from the back, his long passing was limited and more than two thirds of his distribution was accurate.

Christiansen’s intention, at Elland Road especially, was to control possession and work it through the opposition.

A change in that trend was developing prior to his decision to drop Wiedwald and Lonergan’s inclusion hastened it. When Leeds beat Bristol City midway through October, Lonergan made only one short pass in 34. During their recent victory over Middlesbrough he did not make one.

The same approach was seen away at Sheffield United, whose energy and pressing kept Leeds penned in for much of the first half and just 16 per cent of all Lonergan’s distribution is recorded as short passes. Wiedwald’s percentage is higher than 40. On Saturday, at Barnsley, the German himself took few risks, sticking to longer passing and relying on Christiansen’s midfield to win second balls and dispossess Barnsley. Before half-time he was forced to deal with glaring sunshine – a problem solved when a supporter arrived at the front of Oakwell’s away end to offer Wiedwald his cap – and Wiedwald’s pragmatism suited a disciplined Leeds performance. That game alone will not erase the feeling that neither he nor Lonergan have yet shown themselves to be a safe pair of hands or feet for a club with designs on a play-off position, but it has given Wiedwald the assurance of another spell in the team.

OPTION 2: Andrew Lonergan. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“He’s performed well in training and he’s learned from his mistakes,” Christiansen said. “I thought he was ready for this.”

At a basic level, Leeds have conceded a goal a game with Wiedwald behind their defence and close to two a game with Lonergan on the pitch.

That Lonergan’s matches coincided with a sharp rise in the standard of opposition, including a 4-1 loss at Wolves, casts some doubt over the significance of that comparison.

Wiedwald has faced only one top-six side so far this season, in a 3-1 defeat away to Cardiff City, but another is waiting on Friday night. Barnsley was a nice loosener for him. Aston Villa at home should tell Christiansen more.