Wins in Cardiff are apparently like buses. So is Pontus Jansson. There were cries for help from Elland Road last week and the marauding Swede in the heart of Garry Monk’s defence epitomises the speed with which Leeds United have rallied round
The week just gone will be seen as Monk’s triumph rather than that of any individual player with so much talk about his job as head coach, but through two victories in five days his squad fought his corner. Chris Wood scored in both games and some who were hanging back last month – Pablo Hernandez, Stuart Dallas, United’s defence in its entirety – stuck their necks out. It was Cardiff City who felt like hiding as time ticked away on Saturday. Twice in two seasons Leeds have won in the Welsh capital having previously failed to do so since 1984.
Cardiff once reveled in their hostility, proud of the steel and concrete of Ninian Park, but they have slipped into a zone where club sponsor Domino’s deliver half-time pizzas to the seats which aren’t empty. The crowd couldn’t find the energy to give Monk, a stalwart of Swansea City, a song and they murmured quietly when Hernandez, another ex-Swansea player, sealed a 2-0 win with a skilful finish eight minutes from time. “I thought our fans took control of the stadium,” Monk said. And they say that Leeds United are in trouble.
On the pitch, Wood opened the scoring with a second-half penalty and Hernandez finished Cardiff off with a curling shot against the inside of a post, capping the first game in which the Spanish playmaker looked to be in his element. But it is Monk’s defence, the suicidal section of his line-up last month, which underpinned victories over Cardiff and Blackburn Rovers. “We only looked like conceding from set-pieces,” Monk said, and even those caused limited amounts of stress. “We never looked like conceding from open play.”
In no small part he has Jansson to thank for that. Monk did not so much park the bus at the back as park one in the centre of it. Jansson, the tall Sweden international, has slight shades of Giuseppe Bellusci about him with his in-built aggression and an expletive-laden Twitter account – the antithesis of modern, sanitised football – but there is none of the petulance and, as yet, none of the on-field carnage.
In the space of a fortnight his likeability has gone off the scale and as a byproduct, Kyle Bartley is finding the best of his game too. Two years ago, a 3-1 defeat in Cardiff was confirmed when Bellusci and Marco Silvestri ran into each other and Kenwyne Jones tapped into an empty net. On Saturday, City watched cross after cross find Jansson lurking in the middle; reading the game astutely and in the right place at the right time, from Monk’s point of view as well as United’s.
Twice in the first half Cardiff successfully bypassed Jansson directly from corners and twice they hit the frame of the goal. Sean Morrison struck Rob Green’s left-hand post with an early header, an effort which Green then clawed off his line, and an Aron Gunnarsson shot smacked against the opposite upright shortly before the interval. The game was laboured for 45 minutes and as Monk admitted, in that period Leeds were more laboured than Cardiff.
“In the first half we conceded a lot of set-pieces and that was the only way I thought we were going to be undone,” Monk said. “In the main we defended them brilliantly and we’ve done a lot of work on that. We looked comfortable but I still felt we were giving too many away.
“I spoke to the group at half-time and told them to cut that out because it could have been our undoing. But we needed to put more personality into our offensive game too.”
Personality is where Hernandez comes in and the 31-year-old is gradually adjusting to the heat of the Championship. He drew a diving save from Ben Amos in the first half after Cardiff lost the ball near their own box and he was involved in a quick counter led by Hadi Sacko soon after. A clever exchange of passes between them ended with Wood driving a firm strike into Amos’ midriff.
Aside from those moments, City’s goalkeeper spent too much time spectating before the break but from half-time onwards Cardiff’s ideas dried up and their attempts to work Rickie Lambert into the match were as flimsy as the striker’s England career. The away end had the wind in its sails by the time Wood scored, sensing that a goal was on the way.
When it came, it came with no shortage of controversy. Referee Graham Scott, who was permanently on the verge of a savaging from the crowd, penalised Matthew Connolly after Jansson went down with the defender’s arm around him as Hernandez pinged a corner into the box. It looked no different to a challenge on Kyle Bartley which had gone unpunished from another corner 30 seconds earlier.
“I thought it was a definite penalty,” Monk said. “I thought it should have been a penalty before then too.” Paul Trollope, Cardiff’s beleaguered boss, could only reflect on the fact that wrestling inside the box is not an exact science. “I’m not saying it’s not a penalty,” he said, “but if the referee’s giving one there then he could be giving a few at either end. I’m not blaming that but it was a pivotal moment.”
Monk was right, still, in claiming that a goal was on the cards regardless. “I don’t think the penalty decided the game,” he said. Wood made easy work of the spot-kick, sending Amos the wrong way and slotting the ball into the bottom corner. Back in March, Leeds repelled the Alamo before sealing an away win at Cardiff in injury-time but Trollope’s players lacked the stomach for an onslaught and Leeds weren’t tempted to protect their lot. Hernandez began to thrive in increasing amounts of space and he and Sacko had already threatened Amos when, on 82 minutes, Hernandez made Morrison back off and beat Amos with beautiful curl from 12 yards.
Hernandez enjoyed that goal, planting a metaphorical flag in the middle of Cardiff’s pitch, but the Swansea connection was less worrying for City than the predicament they are in. With September creeping on, no Cardiff player has scored in Cardiff this season. Amid the focus on Monk’s job last week, it was Blackburn Rovers’ Owen Coyle who was heard defending himself at Elland Road on Tuesday night. And after Trollope dealt with similar questions, Monk found himself suggesting that Cardiff should think about giving their manager time. A week makes a big difference and Leeds will not regret turning over two of the Championship’s poorest sides.
“It’s difficult,” Monk said. “As a manager you’re one step away from heavy criticism and one step away from being the best thing in the world. That’s how it feels at times and that’s the world we live in. Managers will always bear the brunt of everything.” Some of Monk’s predecessors at Elland Road lost their grip at times like this. From that, and from Saturday’s performance, he can take some genuine satisfaction.