THOMAS CHRISTIANSEN was crushed in the stampede as Elland Road voted with its feet on Saturday, abandoned by the masses as Cardiff City beat him and his players into submission.
Leeds United saw no life left in their head coach with public opinion turning against him, but the club refused to accept that he had already taken the season down.
Leeds and the incumbent regime there have tried at every turn to look beyond the immediate term, but Christiansen’s sacking on Sunday night was a throw of the dice, an attempt to stop March and April serving up a round of dead rubbers in the Championship.
That scenario might materialise regardless but the timing of his dismissal was significant: now or most probably never with his squad already seven points short of the play-offs.
Christiansen, with suspensions in every corner of his dressing room and injuries biting hard, had shown no sign of solving the crisis and the next five fixtures awaiting Leeds – Sheffield United, Bristol City, Derby, Brentford and Wolves – felt terminal without a change of tack.
A six-game bounce before Christmas was window dressing for a wider run which shows 27 points taken and 12 defeats suffered in 23 fixtures. That record weighed against Christiansen’s win ratio of 43 per cent. The rot was setting in.
It was setting in despite the fact that the players at Leeds stuck with Christiansen, as far as a dressing room ever sticks with an under-pressure manager.
There were factions at play under Garry Monk in the latter stages of last season but none of the same splits this time. Matthew Pennington’s comment on Saturday, saying the players wanted no “finger-pointing” at Christiansen, are said to have been genuinely supportive and news of his sacking was met with none of the cartwheeling which famously greeted the departure of one of the Dane’s more distant predecessors.
In spite of that, the squad’s discipline was a worry for United’s board: red cards of a needless or repetitive nature which Christiansen was failing to cut out or to tackle with anything more than standard two-week fines. Christiansen, a warm and softly-spoken coach, never cast himself as a disciplinarian and when Gaetano Berardi was sent off for two bookings against Cardiff on Saturday, the Dane was almost out of answers.
“It’s difficult to show them how not to take a red card,” he said. “I cannot be in their minds in the moment that they go to ground.”
The trail of sendings-off – four in five matches, six in total since the last week of September – will handicap Christiansen’s intended replacement, the Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom, but also offer a very obvious point of improvement.
Goals, on the other hand, have been drying up for a while and Leeds have acute problems defensively.
A unit which registered six consecutive clean sheets in the Championship in the first six weeks of the season has deteriorated to the point of confusion and disorganisation, underlined by Cardiff scoring four times from almost unmissable range. Christiansen was hamstrung by absentees and having used Adam Forshaw as part of a three-man defence in the second half on Saturday, he admitted that the midfielder might have to play as a centre-back again at Sheffield United this weekend.
Nonetheless, the concessions were totting up: 37 in the Championship, just 10 short of the tally conceded by Leeds during 46 matches under Monk last season.
Cardiff’s aerial threat told at the weekend and the appointment of set-piece specialist Gianni Vio – still on the staff at Thorp Arch despite Christiansen’s exit – failed to enhance the club’s resistance at the back. Vio, in his defence, built his reputation for innovation on attacking routines.
In a broader sense, the demise of Christiansen shines a light on Leeds’ footballing structure, both in the backroom at Thorp Arch and the offices of Elland Road.
United’s owner, Andrea Radrizzani, stood by Christiansen when results first went awry in the autumn, in part because the club were convinced by the 44-year-old’s ideas but also out of a desire to be seen to be different to previous owners; to not only speak about stability but to deliver it.
Christiansen’s sacking, though, calls into question the decision to appoint a relatively raw coach whose managerial experience had been limited to three seasons in Cyprus. It also raises the subject of the influence of Victor Orta, the club’s director of football and the man driving United’s transfer strategy.
Orta was cast locally as one of the villains of the piece during Middlesbrough’s Premier League collapse, accused of meddling and interfering to an excessive degree in his role as head of recruitment. His eight months at Elland Road have generated none of those complaints but his authority over scouting and recruitment is exceptionally strong.
Christiansen’s sacking on Sunday night was a throw of the dice, an attempt to stop March and April serving up a round of dead rubbers in the Championship.Phil Hay
Christiansen, Orta said at the outset, would have the final say on signings and Christiansen always echoed that sentiment, though questions from the press about transfers or requirements were often met with the answer of: “Ask Victor.” It is not a secret that Orta leads on that front and does so with a clear mandate.
The sacking of a head coach who Leeds genuinely expected to be here next season should prompt some examination of the squad they have built and set-up they are asking their next head coach to join.
It ought not to be beyond Heckingbottom, with more tactical flexibility and a different voice, to find a way to settle Leeds United down and thicken the hide of a team who have lost all but one of the games in which they conceded first this season.
Part of Christiansen’s pitch to Radrizzani involved a dissection of United’s failings under Monk and a promise of more ideas but it took the worst of times against Millwall and Cardiff for him to deviate from 4-2-3-1. There are players at Leeds with form to find and, inevitably, many who would benefit from an injection of confidence.
It does not mean, as it didn’t in 2012 when Leeds jettisoned Simon Grayson for Neil Warnock, that United are about to find fifth gear or surge into the play-offs.
But it was hard not to draw the conclusion on Saturday that they can be better than this.