Lee Johnson tempted fate last week by reminding the Championship that Bristol City were yet to suffer a bloody nose. Gaetano Berardi took the metaphor too far by planting a headbutt on Matty Taylor but Leeds United’s victory at Ashton Gate on Saturday was the footballing equivalent.
Berardi will pay his penance for a flare-up which earned him and Taylor straight red cards but with 80 minutes gone and Leeds protected by three unanswered goals, it was a misdemeanour with no immediate consequences. Fighting threatened to break out in the tunnel as Berardi left the pitch. Standing a safe distance away from it all, Thomas Christiansen was only interested in punching the air.
Leeds took baggage with them to Bristol, all of it filled with accusations that Christiansen’s team and tactics had hit the wall and bent out of shape, and it was typical of the Championship that his players should pick the most tense point of their season to dismantle one of the few remaining clubs with an unbeaten home record. Leeds lost their own to Reading seven days earlier, in a way which left Christiansen open to criticism but a masterclass at Ashton Gate was taken with good grace by Johnson, even as he berated Berardi for breaking Taylor’s nose.
“I can’t sit here and lie,” the Bristol City manager said. “As much as I’d like to say we deserved to win, we didn’t right from the off.” It was appropriate analysis of a game in which Leeds caught Bristol City cold, rediscovered their own imagination and scored twice inside the first 15 minutes. The side who reached the top of the Championship last month reappeared after three straight losses, as Christiansen promised on Friday that they would.
“It was very important, more than for me, for the players to get the confidence back,” said United’s head coach. “I like the pressure but after three defeats the players can now recognise that they are still the same. What they did before now, they’ve proved they can do it once again.
“When you see the reaction of the players, it’s because they believe. This is the same team who brought us to where we were before our defeats, and the same team will bring us back again.”
That in itself was not strictly true. Christiansen stood by his system, as he indicated beforehand, but made crucial changes to it, injecting Ronaldo Vieira’s muscle and energy into his midfield and sending Kalvin Phillips forward into the number 10 role. Phillips looked enthused by his release from the bowels of the engine room. Vieira, on his first league start of the season, looked delighted to be back inside the tent. “I thought Vieira ran the show,” said Johnson and the 19-year-old’s fly-like energy explained why the clamour for Christiansen to utilise him reached a peak last week.
To Christiansen’s credit, he has not been sidestepping awkward decisions. Felix Wiedwald’s demotion to the bench against Reading was a significant call, much as a change of goalkeeper failed to influence the outcome, but dropping Pontus Jansson at Ashton Gate was a more politically-sensitive move. Jansson had cleared the way by describing his own form as “s***” on Instagram but in fielding Matthew Pennington, Christiansen sidelined the best centre-back on his books. Minus Jansson, his defence could not have looked better.
“If he recognises that he (Jansson) has not been good, that’s very positive,” Christiansen said, “but you don’t need to go out to the media to expose yourself. The thing to do is work hard for the team and come back. And for sure he will.
“But I change when I think I have to change, not because somebody tells me I have to do it. If the reasons are good and I see the situation clearly about what we want and what could be good for us in different situations, from there I take decisions.
“Now it’s easy to say ‘you took the right decisions’ but in the other games if we’d won instead of losing, they would also have been good decisions. That’s football.”
That remark followed on from previous comments made last week about the chances wasted by Leeds in defeats to Sheffield Wednesday and Reading. Twice Leeds had the chance to open the scoring at Hillsborough but failed to do so in the early minutes and promptly imploded in a 3-0 defeat. On Saturday, Samuel Saiz scored with the first opportunity on four minutes, a deflected shot which struck the inside of a post after Aden Flint made a mess of a clearance and Pierre-Michel Lasogga chased down the loose ball.
Prior to Saturday, City’s defensive record at home showed three concessions.
Johnson’s side were fourth in the league, unbeaten in 12 games and largely unscathed.
Leeds had them on the run in an opening spell which caught them half asleep. Phillips thrived in a more attacking guise and Saiz scored again on 15 minutes when Eunan O’Kane’s pass forced another error which sent the ball spinning off goalkeeper Frank Fielding and into the path of the unmarked Spaniard.
“I’m happy with the early goals but with the two opportunities we had, we scored,” Christiansen said. “So we had a comfortable game.
“The game against Reading we could also have been up but we lost. Against Sheffield Wednesday we had 20 or 25 very good minutes with two opportunities that we didn’t put in and we also lost the game.
“The difference today was the intensity of the game. We were much more aggressive and we knew we faced a very strong team. Perhaps that helped us to be more awake and more brave. That was one of the things we had to do – believe in ourselves because sometimes we have thought too much about the opponent.”
A third goal was always coming and Saiz failed by inches to claim it on the hour when Vieira set him up for a hat-trick from close range on the hour, again helped by Lasogga hustling City out of possession. The German striker was a passenger against Reading, touching the ball 12 times in total, but he put Saturday’s game beyond reach with a glancing header in the 67th minute, a simple finish from Phillips’ corner. City’s only serious chances before then were headers from Bobby Reid and Jens Hegeler, the second of which Lonergan held on his line.
So far into the comfort zone, Berardi’s bout of red mist came as a shock. The full-back dived in on Taylor in the 80th minute and appeared to headbutt him after City’s substitute jumped up to confront him.
Referee Oliver Langford dismissed them both. It was an appropriate warm up for Berardi’s planned ringwalk with Josh Warrington before the featherweight’s fight in Leeds on Saturday evening but the most needless of three-game bans will follow. Johnson said City would appeal Taylor’s dismissal. “We’d talked about taking our punch on the nose,” he said. “We took one literally – just a headbutt instead of a punch.”