It was Kenny Dalglish who first sold Andrea Radrizzani the idea of investing in Leeds United but the head coach installed by Radrizzani in June has more of the Kevin Keegans about him.
New to the Championship and new to England, there was no attempt by Thomas Christiansen to feel his way into the job as Leeds outscored Bolton Wanderers in a theatrical start to the season yesterday. Five goals were shared and Leeds scored three of them, a scenario which at first glance might become a trend under Christiansen’s management. The message already is that this tenure, however it goes and however long it lasts, will not be dull or at all conservative.
Christiansen starts out with Leeds third in the Championship and the meaningless nature of the league table does not detract from the realisation that it was only 12 short months ago that United were looking up from the lowest reaches of the division, wondering if they were about to die in the water. On that occasion they left Queens Park Rangers with a 3-0 hiding and no shots on target behind them. Yesterday Leeds had Bolton on toast after 45 minutes, a start which few of the club’s head coaches have bettered or replicated.
At Bolton it went precisely as the balance of United’s squad said it would be: flowing and full of goals in attack but vulnerable to a shortage of numbers at the back, particularly once injuries to Gaetano Berardi and Matthew Pennington stripped Leeds down to their bare bones. Trailing 3-1, Bolton put Leeds on edge with a penalty midway through the second half but United wound down an exhausting last half-hour and carried Christiansen to his first competitive win.
It mattered not to Garry Monk that the first weekend of last season ended with Leeds at the foot of the Championship, and that result was not indicative of the year ahead, but his replacement was able to crack a wide smile at full-time. Christiansen’s side were clinical going forward and at 3-1 could not resist the temptation to try and turn a healthy scoreline into a rout. Without the loss Matthew Pennington, whose replacement Conor Shaughnessy conceded a cheap penalty, the second half might not have been the scramble it became.
There was no sense of unfamiliarity and no sign of the withering confidence which dragged Leeds out of the play-offs in the final month of last term. “If you win a lot of games you are a good team,” Christiansen said in the build-up to yesterday’s fixture, implying a firm interest in substance over style. Leeds made themselves look like a good team at Bolton and the club can expect no shortage of victories playing like this. The fact remains, however, that Christiansen’s defensive resources are not as deep as they need to be.
Leeds will play better teams than Bolton Wanderers too but an early opening goal – one of two scored by Kalvin Phillips, the young midfielder who Leeds tied to a new contract on Friday – derailed their hosts, and a string of clinical attacks put them away. “To start the first game, and away, with a win had big importance for us,” Christiansen said. “We started in a good way. I want us to create and score but I don’t like to (concede) the goals that we did today.”
Christiansen had his first goal in the bag after only six minutes, through a source of invention which Monk often relied on, and his first win on a plate by half-time. Pablo Hernandez, Leeds’ set-piece specialist, picked out Phillips with the game’s first corner, sliding it low into Bolton’s box as the concentration of the home defence drifted.
Phillips, with markers unaware of him, struck the ball first time and looped a shot into the far corner of Mark Howard’s net, piercing a crowded goalline with a deflection off Jem Karacan. When the dust settled in the away end, the Macron Stadium was treated to a chant of “f*** Garry Monk”; gone but not forgotten.
Bolton’s plan to press, hassle and bully Leeds was dismantled in an instant but they slogged through the set-back of the early concession and some grumbling from the crowd to pin Leeds back. Pennington’s debut in the centre of defence was a proper and impressive introduction to the Championship but when he conceded a corner on 23 minutes, Chris Wood came up with a clearing header to stop Mark Beevers’ bouncing finish sneaking inside the near post. It was a rare occasion before the break when goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald – preferred to Rob Green – looked like conceding.
Bolton, in contrast, were wobbly whenever Leeds nibbled at their defence and a second goal came with a rare attack on the half-hour. Kemar Roofe teased enough space out of Andrew Taylor on the right and crossed to the back post where Gianni Alioski leapt to plant his head on the ball. Wood anticipated the knockback and headed it instinctively off the underside of the crossbar, beating Howard.
If Christiansen thought the day was done then the loss of Berardi to a dislocated shoulder and the sight of Gary Madine heading a hanging corner past Wiedwald on 39 minutes kept him in check but Bolton had barely snatched a goal they desperately needed when Phillips struck for a second time.
In the next passage of play, Bolton froze and looked for an offside flag as Hernandez slipped the ball through to Wood. The officials allowed play to flow, spotting Stephen Darby playing Wood onside, and the striker’s pass took out Howard, allowing Phillips to bundle the ball into an empty net. After two goals in 52 previous appearances for Leeds, the midfielder had doubled his tally in the space of 36 minutes.
Bolton’s attempt to recover in the second half was tempered by Leeds’ threat on the counter and Howard denied Alioski with his legs when the winger met Roofe’s cut-back with a low shot but the game threatened to turn on an ankle suffered by Pennington on 63 minutes.
The on-loan Everton defender limped off and, in the absence of any central defenders on the bench, was replaced by the tall frame of midfielder Shaughnessy. From a corner three minutes later, Shaughnessy pulled on Madine’s shirt and convinced referee Simon Hooper to award a penalty.
Leeds protested mildly but Adam Le Fondre kept his head and smashed the ball straight down the middle as Wiedwald dived right. It left United with 23 minutes to see out and a back four of Luke Ayling, Shaughnessy, Liam Cooper and Vurnon Anita in front for their keeper.
Hernandez almost killed the fightback within seconds but saw a shot from long range smash against the bar, leaving Bolton to hang in for a single clear chance which never materialised. Their afternoon ended with Josh Vela sent to hospital with a leg injury suffered as the players threw everything at each other in injury-time. At the end of a game of last-man-standing, Christiansen walked out with a grin on his face.