A year on from Aston Villa’s last visit to Elland Road, Leeds United’s results show a certain amount of symmetry: the same total of points, near identical tallies of wins, draws and defeats and a relatively similar league position.
This fixture last December gave the club the taste of play-off qualification and tomorrow’s game at Elland Road could serve the same purpose.
Leeds, with Garry Monk as head coach, sat on 29 points after 18 games when they hosted Villa 12 months ago; fifth in the table with nine victories, two draws and seven losses. Thomas Christiansen’s side have one more fixture behind them after a 2-0 win at Barnsley last weekend and the contrast in impetus under Monk and Christiansen leaves no more than a cigarette paper between their records.
United’s column of goals scored is where Christiansen sits prettier, helped by an eye-catching spread across midfield. Leeds beat Villa 2-0 this time last year in the first meeting between two former European Cup finalists since 2004 and the effect on Monk’s side was profound.
They climbed to fourth place at full-time and five wins from seven league matches followed, broken up by a defeat at Brighton and a pulsating 1-1 draw at Villa Park. The quiet hope that United had the legs to qualify for the play-offs became outright expectation by the start of 2017.
Christiansen’s players are in a grey area at present – eighth in the table, three points from sixth and still to convincingly draw the venom from the losses which bit from mid-September onwards – but United’s boss was pleased to emerge from Oakwell last Saturday with a win which perked his players up for the arrival of Villa at Elland Road.
“It’s something we can bring into the game,” he said. “It was important to take a good result.”
Leeds against Villa was an attractive fixture in 2016, an overdue encounter between two clubs with rich histories and sober realities, but Villa were trailing in the bottom half of the Championship having already sacked Roberto Di Matteo. Acclimatising to relegation from the Premier League took the Birmingham club the best part of 12 months but they are finally ticking over as Steve Bruce intended: on a run of three successive wins and beginning to threaten the Championship’s automatic promotion positions.
Kemar Roofe’s first Leeds goal broke the dam of a tight game last December, a glancing header converted on 68 minutes. Prior to it, Albert Adomah had missed a one-on-one and Monk felt United’s performance was “giving Villa the smell that we could be hurt”. With Roofe’s effort to feed on, Chris Wood wrapped up the victory with a tap-in in injury-time. By then the striker was carrying Leeds’ attack, already up to 13 goals and on his way to 30 for the season.
The balance of finishing last season was heavily weighted towards the front of Monk’s team. Behind Wood and Souleymane Doukara, only Kyle Bartley and Pablo Hernandez reached five goals and neither player was close to double figures. Saturday’s win at Barnsley demonstrated the extent to which that responsibility is now being shared.
Wood accounted for half of United’s league goals throughout the 2016-17 term. In the aftermath of his £15m sale to Burnley this August, Christiansen’s midfield are doing likewise. Five goals have come from German striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga, a player who missed three games through injury last week and is still a doubt for the clash with Villa, but the central core of Christiansen’s line-up are driving Leeds on.
Samuel Saiz and Gjanni Alioski struck at Oakwell, taking their personal tallies in the Championship to five. Kalvin Phillips has the same number, and Pablo Hernandez and Stuart Dallas sit on two apiece.
The combined midfield contribution amounts to 19 league goals and, with Eunan O’Kane factored in, no fewer than 13 assists. Against a Villa defence which is stripped of John Terry but has still averaged less than a concession a game, it is that wealth of potency which can make Bruce’s side vulnerable tomorrow night. Terry – the Championship’s most high-profile signing – is not expected to play this side of Christmas after breaking a metatarsal in a recent defeat to Sheffield Wednesday. Villa are also without Jonathan Kodjia following ankle surgery. Kodjia weighed in with 22 goals in his first year at Villa Park and Bruce missed him during a prior absence in the early stages of this season but assistance has come in some style from Adomah.
Five goals in Adomah’s past three appearances took him to 11 for the term, from a position on the left wing. “There’s no reason now why he can’t get another 10,” Bruce said after Villa’s win over Ipswich Town at the weekend. Villa have spent freely since Tony Xia, their Chinese owner, bought out Randy Lerner – Terry, Robert Snodgrass and Glenn Whelan were among their summer recruits – but promotion is becoming an increasingly urgent aim.
Xia said this week that Villa would be restrained by Financial Fair Play (FFP) in January but planned to “very possibly bring in a couple of loans to strengthen our squad”. Leeds are unlikely to go big in the winter window but the temptation to invest will increase if Christiansen keeps his existing squad in touch with the top six.
Tomorrow’s game is a chance for Leeds to put a mark in the sand. Christiansen’s side have played five of the current top six and taken only three points from them, away at Bristol City.
“There are not too many teams better than us,” said Caleb Ekuban, Leeds’ Ghanaian striker, as he reflected on a clear gap between United and Barnsley. Villa’s return is an invitation to prove it.