Three of the four coaches who took their clubs to the Championship play-offs last season had managed in England for fewer than two years. They say that understanding the league is the first step to conquering it but Thomas Christiansen has not lost sleep about his relative lack of familiarity.
Cyprus was an unfamiliar playground for him when he went there to take up his first job as a head coach and Christiansen believed attention closer to home paid off at AEK Larnaca.
“I didn’t know every one of the clubs or every one of the players there,” he said, “but I learned and I educated myself and at the same time, I thought more about building a team in the way I wanted to play. We were set up to be successful, whatever anyone else was doing.”
There was an element of that attitude amongst the Championship’s play-off candidates and certainly at Huddersfield Town and Reading, two clubs with distinctive styles which contrasted with the division as a whole. Reading in particular drew criticism for their tactical approach under Jaap Stam but they reached the play-off final in May and Huddersfield won it. Aston Villa, with a superior budget and the reliable Steve Bruce in their corner, finished 13th. The Championship does that every year: bowing to some, like Newcastle United, with significant spending power but giving less-fancied clubs a taste of the action. Leeds have had too many changes this summer and too many variables to start as anything like favourites for promotion but their new head coach knows enough about the division to disregard the odds.
“Some clubs are spending a lot of money,” Christiansen said, “so some clubs will be expected to do very well but I think in this division it’s easy to say at the start of the season ‘this club will win the league’ or this club will finish here.’ When the games start, sometimes it’s different to what you think.
“We’re happy with our recruitment, we feel our recruitment has been very good, and we have players with ability here. That gives us a chance.”
Some clubs are spending a lot of money so some clubs will be expected to do very well but I think in this division it’s easy to say at the start of the season ‘this club will win the league’ or this club will finish here.’ When the games start, sometimes it’s different to what you think.Thomas Christiansen
Twelve months ago, Garry Monk made similar noises, predicting that the final Championship table would not match up exactly to the 24 clubs’ expenditure. Leeds entered last season with a mid-table wage bill but finished seventh and were painfully wasteful in allowing a play-off position to slip away after four months in the top six.
Monk was quietly satisfied with seventh, convinced that it represented progress after several years in which Leeds were drawn like a magnet to 15th place or thereabouts. Christiansen, whose squad begin the new term at Bolton Wanderers in a televised game on Sunday, said seventh would not represent a worthwhile target for the year ahead.
Speaking to the YEP last month, Christiansen admitted that “if I could be satisfied with seventh place, or eighth or ninth I would not be the coach of Leeds. That is the truth.” His comments set the play-offs as a minimum target at Elland Road. To finish seventh and be happy, that’s not how we can think,” he said. “I want to be ambitious as a coach here, I want to reach something and do something that is properly remembered.
“The clubs I was at in Cyprus, we made history while I was there and I went to Cyprus with the same thoughts – to achieve and be successful. I want people to be proud of me but more than that, to be proud of the team, not just for a few months but for a long time. If we achieve what I want us to then they will be proud.”
Prior to his interview for the head coach’s job at Elland Road, Christiansen analysed some of United’s performances last season, particularly those games in which results went critically wrong. His observations formed part of the presentation he gave to owner Andrea Radrizzani and director of football Victor Orta during the interview process in Madrid. Radrizzani was so impressed that he offered Christiansen a two-year contract immediately.
Monk took a similar tack last summer, watching every minute of the season which had gone before in order to identify strengths and weaknesses and decide where Leeds were most in need of improvement.
United were defensively sound under Monk but wholly reliant on Chris Wood for goals and short on creativity. It has been apparent in this transfer market that much of Leeds’ cash is being thrown at the front of their team.
“I have a lot of information about the Championship already,” Christiansen said. “There are people here – Victor, our scouts – who know the league and have analysed it and I have seen a lot myself from watching through the games Leeds had last season.
“There are a lot of things I have to learn, that is clear, and there is more that I need to understand. There will be things that surprise me but I don’t think there will be big surprises. Again, in Cyprus, it was not a country I was familiar with. I made sure I knew what I needed to know before the season started and I made sure my players understood what I wanted from them, the way we were going to play.
“I don’t think the pressure will be more here. There was pressure in Cyprus and when you’re in it, when the pressure’s on you, you feel it in the same way. Of course this is a bigger club with more attention but it all depends on results. It always depends on results. If you win a lot of games you are a good team.
“That will never change.”