The question for Leeds United after Saturday’s 3-1 defeat and as the international break begins is where does the buck stop?
Does it rest with Thomas Christiansen and his ability as a coach or is Christiansen’s performance reflecting the talent of the squad given to him?
Are the club failing to catch a break or is their malaise more deep-seated, to the extent that difficult decisions might be needed?
The debate raged after Brentford rolled Leeds further down the Championship hill on Saturday but the outcome of it rests on the gut feeling of United’s chairman, Andrea Radrizzani. There are owners of English clubs, including his own predecessor at Elland Road, who would pull the plug on form so severe but Radrizzani’s handling of his first minor crisis depends on whether he sees this blemish as part of a bigger, brighter picture. Sky’s cameras caught him giving his head a little shake at the end, as bewildered as anyone else.
Brentford’s 3-1 win at Griffin Park was Leeds’ seventh defeat in nine league games and there is no telling where or how this flurry of punches ends; only the hope that time will level the club’s season out.
Middlesbrough and Garry Monk are next, at Elland Road in two weeks’ time, and Christiansen expects to be in situ for a potentially poisonous reunion with Monk.
In the second half we did all that but against individual mistakes, it’s difficult. There’s no system which can support that. I was happy with the second half but I know it’s not good enough.Leeds United manager Thomas Christiansen
Away games at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Barnsley follow, reiterating the fact that Leeds are not in line for any charity. Christiansen will dig himself out of the mire or the mire will threaten to suck him in.
Self-help, sadly, is not his squad’s forte, or not at present. United’s head coach has allowed himself the odd big call – dropping Pontus Jansson then recalling Pontus Jansson and swapping goalkeepers in the expectation that Andy Lonergan would show safer hands than Felix Wiedwald – but changes here and there have left Leeds looking like a team on a worrying run.
Lonergan was culpable for two of Brentford’s goals, mistakes which Christiansen could hardly pre-empt, and Leeds’ ailing confidence let Brentford shape the game before half-time.
When the chance to nick a priceless victory arose in the second half, the ball refused to drop and in that respect, Christiansen deserved some sympathy.
“It was a game we should win,” he said, contrary to the view of Brentford manager Dean Smith. “We had a very good second half and I believe the team deserved more but in these situations, with bad results, it’s difficult. You need more opportunities and you don’t have the luck around your own goal.
“In the second half we dominated but when we were playing best, it went to 2-1. If we’d taken one point everyone would say ‘they fought back well, there were good changes at half-time’.
“But we took zero points and no-one will recognise the effort to change the dynamic of the game.”
There was an undeniable shift at half-time as Christiansen faced up to the reality of a first half which Brentford dictated with ease against a withdrawn Leeds team.
Neal Maupay opened the scoring on 22 minutes when Lonergan inexplicably dropped a cross from Romaine Sawyers underneath his own crossbar, inviting Maupay to nod a header into an empty net.
“Mistakes we can all commit,” Christiansen said, “but today they cost the game.” On that front there was little he could do.
Ollie Watkins did his bit to keep Leeds in touch in the last minute before the interval by lashing a wild penalty over Lonergan’s bar after Pontus Jansson slid through the back of Maupay.
In between, a solitary chance for Pierre-Michel Lasogga was lobbed lamely into the stands as Brentford keeper Daniel Bentley stood stranded off his line.
Lasogga paid for that at half-time and so did Eunan O’Kane, hooked by Christiansen and replaced by Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe. There was fight, suddenly, and impetus too in the lead up to a moment of deja vu in the 67th minute.
Bentley repeated Lonergan’s blunder by dropping a mis-hit cross from Gaetano Berardi as he stared up into the floodlights. Gjanni Alioski was on hand to take advantage as Maupay had earlier in the evening.
It was anyone’s game at 1-1 but Christiansen’s analysis of the second half ignored the fact that Watkins and Nico Yennaris both struck the frame of Lonergan’s goal, the latter shaking the bar after Alioski rolled a loose pass into the centre of the pitch.
Roofe attacked one good chance with a header straight at Bentley and an unmarked Liam Cooper was unable to apply a touch when Hernandez picked him out with a curling free-kick.
A point was in the offing but Christiansen’s decision to replace Alioski with Jay-Roy Grot failed to push Leeds on and with five minutes left, Kalvin Phillips tripped Florian Jozefzoon on the corner of United’s box.
Yoann Barbet stroked the free-kick through a crowded box and inside the far post, catching Lonergan off-guard. Luke Ayling should still have snatched a draw with a header in injury-time, moments before a tenacious Ryan Woods finished Leeds off by placing a 20-yard shot into the corner of the net with almost the last kick of the game.
“In the first half we didn’t want to have the ball,” Christiansen admitted. “Their pressure was good but if you have the confidence to have the ball and ask for the ball, it’s easier to dominate.
“In the second half we did all that but against individual mistakes, it’s difficult. There’s no system which can support that. I was happy with the second half but I know it’s not good enough.”
Smith, the Brentford boss, has no dog in the fight about Christiansen’s problems but he was complimentary about United’s performance.
“I thought they worked very hard for each other and I thought they worked very hard for their head coach,” he said. “If you’re involved in the game, there wasn’t a feeling of ‘this is a comfortable victory’. It was a hard-fought victory.”
Other managers have said likewise during the past nine games but the tally of victories over Leeds is stacking up.
Christiansen’s squad had 20 points on September 23, the afternoon when they beat Ipswich Town at Elland Road.
Six weeks and seven games later, they have 23.
United’s boss was categorical in saying he would be in charge for the visit of Middlesbrough, having admitted last week that the faith of his chairman might only dwindle “if you tell me that we lose eight more games in a row.”
Both he and Radrizzani know the crunch would come long before then.