The questions were all about one player but as Thomas Christiansen dealt with the last of them, a line was drawn under Chris Wood. A 2-0 victory over Sunderland allowed Leeds United’s head coach to draw it. “From now on I prefer not to speak about players who aren’t mine,” he said.
Life moves on and it moves on quickly when a team swagger around a pitch as Leeds did at the Stadium of Light.
Wood was gone, on the road to Burnley for a medical and talks about personal terms, but he might not be taking the club’s season with him. After 24 hours of confusion about the striker’s future, it was Sunderland who looked stumped.
Christiansen had realised on Friday night that after two failed bids and an attempt by Leeds to offer Wood an improved contract, Burnley were about to succeed in talking United into a £15m sale.
Wood was with the squad at their hotel in Sunderland, across the street from the Stadium of Light, and he stuck around for breakfast, lunch and a pre-match stroll but in Christiansen’s mind he was gone bar the shouting and the formalities. Burnley are set to unveil him today.
Wood’s valuation – a small margin away from a transfer record at Elland Road – was a reflection of his form last season, a fee that 27 goals in the Championship generates, but Christiansen did not want Leeds to be seen as a rudderless vessel without him.
His players’ clever manipulation of a Sunderland side who merited that description over 90 minutes was for the benefit of anyone who thought the Jenga tower would collapse quickly.
Injuries are trying hard to bring it down but Wood’s exit did not.
“After what has happened, I can honestly say I’m delighted,” Christiansen said.
“We showed that it’s not a question about one player here. We are a team.
“We worked as a team and we won as a team.
“The thing is, when you don’t have a player to count on, you have to focus on all the rest. I didn’t want to lose one single minute in saying ‘we don’t have Chris’.
“I found a solution. I only count on players who want to fight for the shirt, the badge and their team-mates.”
Leeds will look for more of them in what is left of the transfer window, keenly aware that a win at Sunderland and their strong start under Christiansen would not excuse an ambivalent approach to the necessary task of replacing Wood before this month’s deadline.
Caleb Ekuban, Leeds’ signing from Chievo, covered admirably for Wood as United’s out-and-out centre forward at the Stadium of Light but he suffered what appeared to be a pulled muscle in the second half and is not by his own admission a natural lone striker. Christiansen had already lost Pablo Hernandez before half-time, the victim of an accidental collision with Eunan O’Kane, and the Dane’s success in piecing together a run of five games without defeat has come against the backdrop of an unfortunate list of absentees.
It said much about Christiansen’s managerial wit and the attitude of his squad that the disruption caused by Wood’s withdrawal provoked an exhibition of accomplished football. Sunderland gave an early, 20-minute show and almost scored at the end of it when Liam Cooper appeared on the goalline to deflect Lewis Grabban’s shot on the crossbar with his head but Leeds scored at the end of their next attack and had Sunderland on strings for the rest of the evening.
“If we’d got the first goal I think it would have been a different outcome,” said Sunderland’s Simon Grayson, a former United boss with the distinction of never having beaten his old club.
Leeds were ruthless when Sunderland opened up in the 21st minute, punishing Lamine Kone’s lax failure to cut out a bouncing ball.
Gianni Alioski was onto it quickly, driving into the box and teeing up Samuel Saiz who shot across Jason Steele and into the far corner of the net. Punished once by Leeds’ pace, Sunderland were constrained by a fear of it for the remainder of the game. Brendan Galloway, their on-loan Everton left-back, was booked in the first half and substituted early in the second with Alioski running rings around him.
Lee Cattermole drew a diving save from Felix Wiedwald before the interval but United’s goalkeeper was free to spectate for long stretches. His yellow card for timewasting, shown late in the day, was a waste of effort. Fourteen minutes from the end, and after a brief scare when a low cross flew across Wiedwald’s goal, Leeds struck again. Alioski emerged from a challenge with Galloway’s replacement, Adam Matthews, with the ball and broke over the halfway line. Saiz picked up possession on the edge of the box and rifled a cross towards substitute Stuart Dallas, who took a difficult chance with a deft, hanging header. Steele was stranded and unable to cover the ground.
“It’s the result of a good performance,” a pleased Christiansen said. “We were focused in defence and if you saw the last five or 10 minutes, it was not only a matter of winning the game but a matter of keeping their goals to zero. That gives you a better taste of these three points.”
A change to 4-3-3 at half-time did not help Sunderland, who were unchanged for the fourth game running and seemed worse off for that continuity, and the vibrancy of Christiansen’s team kept them a yard ahead of Grayson’s; Alioski outshining Aiden McGeady, O’Kane and Kalvin Phillips grinding Lee Cattermole into the ground.
Christiansen could not pick fault with a single player and was in the odd position at full-time of wondering if Wood’s inclusion over Ekuban might have upset the equilibrium.
“Caleb had a fantastic performance and helped the team,” Christiansen said.
“This is what we need: players who want to work hard for the team.
“It’s the only way we can achieve what we want to achieve.”
As for Wood, the matter was closed.
“We have to respect Chris’ decision,” Christiansen said. “I personally hope he will do fine.
“I don’t have anything against him, he’s a good guy, a good player and he’s given until now what I expected of him. Now he’s not part of the team so I prefer not to speak about players who aren’t mine.”
The show goes on.